Reflecting on his first season with the Panthers organization, 63 year-old General Manager Dave Gettleman stated that he was pleased the team overcame his rookie mistakes. When asked directly what mistakes he had made during the season, Gettleman smiled and responded, "let's just say I didn't make any big ones."
Well, Dave, you certainly have now.
Until this offseason, Gettleman had endeared himself to Carolina fans with his apparent financial acumen and restraint, successfully restructuring the contracts of several veterans to alleviate the salary cap morass left in former GM Marty Hurney's wake. He managed to navigate the difficult cap situation in 2013 and sign several high-impact free agents to short-term deals, including reclamation projects like safety Mike Mitchell and receiver Ted Ginn. And his first draft looks like a success so far. True, Gettleman can't be given a huge amount of credit for the no-brainer of nabbing Star Lotulelei after a mini-slide in the first round, but his selections of second-rounder Kawann Short and fifth-rounder A.J. Klein already look like smart acquisitions.
In a way, Gettleman has stepped into a role as the anti-Hurney -- a GM unafraid to approach beloved veterans and badger them into taking a pay cut, a man in no way wed to the idealistic concept of retaining a homegrown "core," no matter the cost. But his serial detachment is beginning to show its ugly side. At his retirement press conference last week, left tackle Jordan Gross stated that he believed Gettleman was doing a "great job," before looking downward and mentioning that Gross "didn't like" Gettleman very much last offseason, when Gross was asked to restructure. It was a comment meant to draw laughs, but one has to wonder how much genuine frustration was underneath. If nothing else, it shattered the narrative that Gross had approached the team about "helping out" with the salary cap, and instead revealed the true scenario: that Gettleman had somehow cajoled the team's Pro Bowl left tackle into accepting both a pay cut and a contract void. One has to wonder if those negotiations accelerated Gross's retirement.
Still, Gettleman compelling Gross to restructure made some level of sense. But his comments about Steve Smith's future, and his refusal to commit to the simple question of whether Smith will be a Panther in 2014, make no sense even from the most coldly clinical of perspectives. The only way to attempt to understand why Gettleman is handling the situation as he has is to contemplate what the GM wants to accomplish. But there simply is not any scenario that justifies the GM's behavior.
The first potential goal would be the most benign -- to have Smith return to the Panthers in 2014, but as something other than a no. 1 receiver. If that's the case, this subterfuge is unnecessary: Smith reportedly lobbied the Panthers to sign Anquan Boldin in 2013, and has expressed a desire to move permanently to the slot for nearly four years. There's simply nothing to imply that Smith would have any resistance, at age 34, to stepping into a no. 2 or no. 3 receiver role.
Well then, what if Gettleman wants Smith to do exactly that, but take a pay cut? After all, Smith's potential $7 million cap hit this season seems excessive for a slot receiver. If that's the case, and Gettleman's comments about Smith are a negotiating tactic, then Gettleman must be a pretty awful poker player. That kind of public stonewalling might be effective on some players who are nervy about their ability to continue to hold a roster spot, but Smith has never shown himself to wilt from criticism. If anything, Smith has displayed an incredible sensitivity to slights real and imagined, and comments like Gettleman's will only serve to ignite Smith's temper.
If Gettleman had approached Smith quietly and attempted to convince Smith to restructure, it might well have worked; after all, Smith has shown an intense loyalty to the Panthers over the years, even during the lean years, and is well aware that the team has stuck with him despite his outbursts. Now a 34 year-old veteran with nothing left to accomplish but win a championship, who's to say that Smith wouldn't restructure and return to help a 12-4 team? Instead, Gettleman would now have to sit across the table from a veteran player he's tacitly insulted and convince that player that he should be making less money. It's a backfire from any perspective, and shows a strange lack of tact on Gettleman's part. One thing that professional negotiators learn is to never underestimate your opponent. One of the reasons that the "good cop / bad cop" interrogation technique has fallen out of favor with police investigators is because the tactic is so basic and well-known that a subject will recognize it, and immediately become hostile when he believes that the interrogators have insulted his intelligence. We know through his interactions with the press that Gettleman is not lacking for self-confidence, but if he's under the impression that he's going to outfox a sometimes volatile but always deeply introspective veteran, he might have a difficult road going forward.
What about the dreaded third scenario: that Gettleman wants to move on from Smith entirely? In that case, Gettleman has fumbled badly from every conceivable perspective. First, and probably the least important to Gettleman, is the public relations fallout. Once again, Gettleman could be displaying the unintended downside of lacking Hurney's emotional attachment to his players, in that the new GM's aloofness would also extend to the fanbase. To a lot of fans that have followed the Panthers since their inception in 1993, Smith is somewhat beyond the franchise. By any measure, Smith is the best player in franchise history to have spent his entire career with the team. His game-winning touchdown in double-overtime to defeat St. Louis in the 2003 playoffs -- often referenced with the shorthand "X-Clown," for the playcall -- immediately seared Smith into Charlotte's collective consciousness. And since then, Smith has often been the personality of a team that has muddled through several bland, businesslike rosters and more than a few nigh-unwatchable years. Yes, Smith has had his embarrassments, but for a stretch in the mid-2000's Smith was also the best receiver in the NFL. And even during the bad years, Smith has "played with his heart," as Gross described it, and at 34 there's still a shiver of excitement through the stadium once Smith has the ball in his hands. Smith is the only viable member of the Panthers franchise with a legitimate claim to enter the Hall of Fame as a Panther (compare his numbers to those of second-balloter Michael Irvin, who enjoyed 11 seasons of Troy Aikman and never found struggling trying to track down the underthrown heaves of Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore, or Brian St. Pierre).
The hope for the fanbase would be that Smith would play one or two more seasons and perhaps rack up the numbers to make the Hall, a potentially defining moment for the franchise. If anything, Smith has earned the right -- much like Gross -- to leave the game on his own terms. He deserves the teary-eyed press conference for himself just as much as the fanbase deserves it -- not only for Smith, but because that press conference will officially mark a tectonic identity shift for the entire franchise. For Gettleman to unceremoniously cut Smith, weeks after publicly questioning his role on the team would, by any account, just plain look bad. And if Gettleman was hoping that his comments, particularly that "Steve has had a great career," would somehow compel Smith to elect retirement, well...good luck with that.
But those criticisms are all about emotion, about perceived legacy, about loyalty, about all the goopy, intangible concepts that Gettleman has eschewed since he took the helm. So let's get clinical: does cutting Smith make sense as a football decision?
No. Not at all.
First, there's the contractual side: cutting Smith means about $2 million in cap relief. The more room, the better, sure, but cutting Smith would have the effect of the Carolina Panthers having exactly one wide receiver left on the roster: Marvin McNutt, now on his third team and still in search of his first NFL reception. Unless Gettleman has extreme faith in McNutt, and the Panthers also happen to possess cloning technology that would allow the team to field five McNutts next season, the Panthers are going to need receivers. And not just "receivers." They're going to need four of them, including a no. 1, a no. 2, a no. 3, and a rotational no. 4. Finding a true no. 2 receiver is difficult enough, but to expect the team to completely replenish its entire receiver corps with seven draft selections and an extra $2 million in cap room is to expect the impossible. Even if the extra cash allows the Panthers to sign Hakeem Nicks, how will the rest of the roster take shape? It's worth mentioning that while Smith only caught four touchdowns last year, that's one more than Nicks has caught since 2011. And who else is out there now that Maclin has signed? Eric Decker, who should be in line for a preposterous overpay somewhere? Why would the Panthers take this approach, particularly when it means releasing the receiver with which Cam Newton has shown the most chemistry? How does the team sell Newton on signing a long-term extension when it takes away his best target and asks him to spend next training camp building a rapport with five new faces? How long after signing that extension before Newton wakes up one offseason morning to hear his GM talking about how he's "had a great career, but he's part of the evaluation?"
Keep in mind, all of this presented a bizarre nightmare scenario even before Gross decided to retire. No matter what happens with Smith, the Panthers must come out of this offseason with two starting tackles, one to two starting safeties, two starting cornerbacks, a starting right guard, and at least three receivers. That's a lot of holes for a 12-4 team to fill, so why punch another one in the roster? It's an easy shortcut to dismiss some of the NFL's more indigestible transactions as "it's a business," but in this case, it's bad business.
And finally, there's the fallout of Gettleman's behavior on other players. If Gettleman believes that publicly toying with the team's franchise player will somehow make Carolina an attractive destination for free agents, he's employing a revolutionary form of reverse psychology. Already top tight end prospect Eric Ebron has expressed puzzlement at why his home-state team would consider dropping Smith. How many other players are taking notice, and how will this affect a team that still needs to negotiate with 19 unrestricted free agents?
Whatever Gettleman's endgame might be, it's impossible to understand why he would make this clumsy an opening move. There's still time to mend the rift, and in the end, I do believe that Smith returns for the 2014 season either under his current contract or a new one. But this entire ugly situation could have been avoided.
One of Gettleman's favorite tropes about roster evaluation is "shame on us if we don't know our team." It's a sound philosophy, but it does beg the question: does Dave Gettleman know anything about Steve Smith?