The Panthers find themselves in a somewhat precarious position this offseason. A little more than a month removed from their first playoff game in nearly five years, this 12 win team has more questions than answers. The offensive line is in a state of flux with the retirement of Jordan Gross and with Gettleman’s now infamous quip about Steve Smith’s playing days it would appear the fan favorites of this team are starting to be phased out. Is there a point where the hard decision must be made to cut your aging vets, no matter who they are to make room for new blood in the organization? Are the Panthers themselves now at this precipice?
The NFL is a business, and choices must be made to help the team succeed in the long term. Planning for the short term is what gets a business and a team in trouble. I want to look at players under Gettleman now and players that former GM Marty Hurney made various decisions on.
Unquestionably one of the most prolific Panthers in team history, Steve Smith is now at the point in his career where his numbers, and possibly his health, are starting to slip. It has been discussed ad nauseam that we should put Smith in slot and reduce his role a bit. That requires a new #1 WR, something for another discussion. It would appear however, that Smith is now on Gettleman’s watch list for possible cuts:
Steve’s had a great career, he really has. None of us are here forever.
He’s part of the evaluation process. That’s just the way it is.
There is no doubt this team is more potent offensively when Cam Newton has Smith on the field to throw to. The time may come however when Gettleman has to make the cost cutting decision for the future of this team. It may not be this year, but it is something we should definitely prepare ourselves for if it does indeed happen.
The biggest free agent the Panthers have this offseason will be the hardest to retain. Both Gettleman and Ron Rivera have said publically that they wish to resign the talented 25 year old pass rusher. A 15 sack season and a Pro Bowl appearance have driven his price up immensely however, and the reluctance to sign a deal last year paid off for "The Kraken". This paints the Panthers in a precarious corner though. Roughly $29 million in cap space might simply not be enough to both re-sign Hardy and fill the numerous holes we have all over the roster; most notably the offensive line in lieu of Jordan Gross’ retirement.
Dave Gettleman will have to weigh the needs of the team now against the needs of the team in the future. If resigning the fan favorite puts the team in jeopardy down the road, Gettleman may find the option to pass on him appealing. He must keep in mind the fact that we will have Newton's contract to worry about within a year, as well as Luke Keuchly's in two years. We will at least have some insight soon enough, as the deadline to franchise Hardy is on Monday, March 3rd, as to whether or not the former Ole Miss standout shows up on Sunday's next season in a Panthers uniform.
Now we will review some of the decisions made by Marty Hurney during his tenure as GM.
Known lovingly by fans as "Moose", Muhsin Muhammad is perhaps the best WR to put on a uniform besides Steve Smith for the Panthers. In the ‘04-‘05 season, his last in his first stint with the team, Muhammed was made the unquestioned #1 WR on the squad after Smith suffered a broken leg in the first game of the year. The then 31 year old WR would go on to have the best season of his pro career, notching 93 receptions and career highs in yards with 1,405 and touchdowns with 16. When the offseason came around, Muhammad was due a $10 million bonus and Hurney was not able to come to terms and would eventually let him walk, where he would sign with the Chicago Bears days later.
Hurney made the decision to let the fan favorite go after failing to reach a suitable contract extension for both sides. It would prove to be one of the rare times Hurney would forgo a large contract for an aging vet. The move to release him would end up saving the team nearly $12.5 million.
We all remember the Julius Peppers saga, and it either brings up feelings of disgust, betrayal, or a mixed concoction of the two. Prior to the '08-'09 season, Hurney would franchise the All-Pro DE after having arguably his best season as a pro, with a career high 14.5 sacks. In return, Peppers would asked to be traded, however the Panthers would elect to keep the talented pass rusher for another year in the hopes of reaching a long term deal with him. He would then go on to have yet another good year with 10.5 sacks in the '09-'10 season.
Hurney, faced with either giving Peppers the then largest contract ever for a DE or letting him walk, opted for the latter. Failing to secure a deal with the Panthers, the former Tar Heel standout would sign with the Chicago Bears, where he still anchors the line today. The only compensation the Panthers would get for Peppers, would be a compensatory 3rd round pick that would eventually turn into DT Sione Fua. Safe to say the Panthers were on the losing side of this deal.
So what now?
Dave Gettleman would be wise to look at how similar situations were handled in the past. For Smith, the tough choice might eventually come to release him to spare the team future financial heartache. For Hardy, franchising him this season can be an option. One of the key differences on the surface is that Hardy has at least expressed interest in staying here in Carolina, something Peppers did not do throughout his contract negotiations. This is for certain: no matter what happens, tough choices will be made for this team. We must simply trust that Gettleman and the rest of the front office knows what is best for the team now and for the future.