Two weeks ago, the Carolina Panthers were 11-4 and one win away from taking the NFC South title and home field advantage for the first game of the playoffs.
Then the team stank it up against the Falcons to finish the season, and the hangover from that one seemed to extend over much of the first half of the wild card game.
Now, after losing to the Saints, the Panthers face an uncertain future.
Consider this, as of Tuesday, the Panthers had fired their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The defensive coordinator is a hot commodity and might be stolen away. The general manager is working on an interim basis. And the owner of the team has vowed to sell the franchise.
Then there is the matter of the players themselves.
There’s age. It was 30 years ago that Doug Williams became the first black QB to start in the Super Bowl. There were 15 players on the roster this season who were alive when that happened. That’s a lot of players aged 30+ for the NFL.
I’m not saying players can’t have success in their 30s (Julius Peppers had a great season), but they are either limited (like Peppers was on snaps) or can’t do the things they used to or they are at an increased risk of their bodies breaking down.
I wish we had Dave Gettleman back.
It’s true, I didn’t warm up to this general manager with the strong accent right away. However, I watched how Gettleman handled the financial disaster left by Marty Hurney in 2012.
Gettleman got the team out of the red and found enough cap space to start signing key pieces to contracts to keep them in Charlotte.
But he did that by being a bit hard, possibly ruthless in negotiating. Yes, Steve Smith and Deangelo Williams still had something left in the tank when they left town, but Gettleman believed it was better to watch them have one or two good seasons somewhere else than risk getting tied to a multiple-year contract with a has-been.
Case in point, I truly enjoy watching Greg Olsen and Thomas Davis play. I actually wrote seven years ago that the Panthers needed to get a young TE like Olsen to fill the long-time void left when Wesley Walls was washed up in 2002.
Olsen wanted more money after finishing a record stretch of three-straight 1,000-yard seasons by a TE. Davis wanted a contract extension after making the Pro Bowl in back-to-back years.
Both men had valid points about their contributions. Still, you don’t base a contract on what someone has done in the past, but rather on how much you expect going forward.
Olsen had played every game for five straight seasons, so at 32, he just seemed overdue for an injury. He broke his foot and wound up with only 191 yards receiving.
Davis, who is the vocal leader of the defense, still seems to move pretty well, but he just wasn’t as effective this year. In 2016, he had 106 tackles, three interceptions, four passes batted down, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. This year, the team has credited him with 76 tackles, zero INTs, zero passes broken up, zero forced fumbles and just one fumble recovery.
According to www.spotrac.com, next season Davis (who will be 35) is going to take up $9.95 million of the salary cap space, and Olsen (at 33) $9.75 million.
Ryan Kalil, who like Olsen turns 33 in March, missed most of the season with a lingering neck injury. His cap number for next season is $9.65 million.
The entire team gets a salary cap of $178 million, and the Panthers have $29.4 million tied up in just three guys who will all be 33 or older on opening day.
Rumor has it that Gettleman was fired because of the hard stand he was taking with Olsen and Davis on contracts. Hurney was re-hired and promptly gave the guys what they wanted, only to get less in return.
Then there’s Jonathan Stewart, who turns 31 in March and has a cap hit of $5.2 million, and Charles Johnson, 32 in July with a $3.2 million hit. Hurney gave Stewart a 5-year/$36.5 million deal in 2012. Hurney gave Johnson a 6-year/$72 million deal in 2011. Both were well above market value by most league analysts.
Another bad decision by Hurney was cutting rookie kicker Harrison Butker after Gettleman had used a draft pick to get the talented young man. Hurney tried to hide Butker on the practice squad, but the Chiefs stole him away.
For some weird reason, the Panthers have always overpaid for kickers. Olindo Mare was getting $3 million a year, and now Graham Gano just finished up a 4-year/$12.4 million contract that had him second only to Sebastian Janikowski in salary. Now Gano is a free agent, and Butker is gone, so the Panthers likely will overpay to re-sign Gano.
The Panthers — unless they start gutting some players — currently only have $14.4 million in cap space, which must go toward signing draft picks, a backup QB and maybe re-signing a player.
The team has three key free agents in DT Star Lotulelei, LG Andrew Norwell (just named an All-Pro) and OL Amini Silatolu, who was the starter at LG until a knee injury when he was Wally Pipp-ed by Norwell.
Carolina already signed DT Kawann Short to an $80 million deal, and RG Trai Turner to $45 million deal, so the team must decide how much more it wants to spend on “hog mollies,” as Gettleman called the big guys.
The team faces a lot of adversity right now, and I’d feel fairly confident Gettleman would have a plan to keep the team competitive. Without him, I worry for the future of the team.
Whoever is calling the shots this spring, I hope somebody drafts a decent safety, speed receiver and a left tackle. And a young backup QB would be nice as the overrated Derek Anderson hasn’t looked good in three years.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.