The Panther Whisperer
When it comes to the Panthers’ success this season, there’s been a ton said and written about coach "Riverboat" Ron Rivera. Certainly players like Cam Newton, Steve Smith, Greg Hardy, Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis have had well-earned bouquets thrown their way.
One name that hasn’t been uttered much—and he loves it that way—is general manager Dave Gettleman. He refuses interviews during the season because that’s the time for coaches and players. And he’s a low-key guy to begin with. But make no mistake, the job Gettleman has done this season set the stage for the Panthers to capture the NFC South for the first time since 2008, and to enter the postseason as the NFC’s No. 2 seed at 12-4.
Panthers fans were probably underwhelmed when Gettleman was hired. Far from a hot-shot candidate, he was 61 at the time of his hiring and had spent nearly 30 years, mostly with the Giants, toiling in anonymity. Even he admitted before getting the Panthers’ job that his shot to run his own ship had probably passed.
And it wasn’t exactly a plum gig. Rivera had already been told by owner Jerry Richardson that he would return. The team, 7-9 the previous season, was $16 million over the salary cap. The boat was still out on whether Newton, 13-19 at that point, was truly a franchise quarterback.
But Gettleman, as he had throughout his career, did what he did best: put his nose down and figured out how to put the best team possible on the field. He convinced several players, including center Ryan Kalil, tight end Greg Olsen, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and left tackle Jordan Gross, to take less money or restructure their contracts. He released cornerback Chris Gamble and defensive tackle Ron Edwards, but found a way to keep defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
In free agency, he went bargain-basement shopping and found safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell, linebacker Chase Blackburn, defensive tackle Colin Cole, cornerback Drayton Florence and receiver Ted Ginn. In the draft, Gettleman jumped on vital rookie starters in defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who have played at an extremely high level and keyed the No. 2-ranked defense in yards and points. And undrafted free agent cornerbacks Melvin White (starter) and Robert Lester have been important contributors.
And, as shown by the Panthers’ performance this season, basically everything Gettleman touched turned to gold.
"Dave's been very instrumental, obviously," Rivera said. "I think a lot of the things that we've gone through this season, some things that he's helped direct and put it into play for us, has been very beneficial and worked out very well. Based on the free agency we've done, the things that we've done as far as getting the salary cap in hand, the draft picks, all that stuff has really come into play. And quite honestly, the relationship that he and I have developed, the ones that he's developed with our coaches and our players, have been tremendous."
Why? Because Gettleman didn’t change with a bigger job. He stayed true to himself by burying his nose in film work. He’s a grinder, and he worked his way out of the hole the Panthers had previously dug for themselves.
Sitting in his office at Bank of America Stadium before his first exhibition game as general manager of the Panthers in August, Gettleman was unusually relaxed before he got his first glimpse at his team. He had barely unpacked, there were boxes all over the place and nothing of substance on his walls. But he seemed like a man who knew exactly where he was, and what he was doing.
Gettleman had determined that the Panthers’ 5-1 close to ’12 was no fluke. He believed that Newton had shown the needed maturity down the stretch of that season, and liked where his head was at entering ’13.
"I thought it was absolutely a legitimate ascension by the team, and maturation (for Newton), absolutely," Gettleman said at the time. "No doubt in my mind."
What about the team he was about to put on the field for the first time?
"We’ve been very open about this whole thing," Gettleman said. "Ron knows, we all know, we have to win. You haven’t been to the playoffs in five years and have a football owner who gives you everything you need, and knows the game. It’s time for us to win."
He might have been one of the few to think that was possible in August, but Gettleman was proven right once again.
Five takes on recent NFL news.
1. The Dolphins, by retaining coach Joe Philbin but parting with general manager Jeff Ireland, are attempting to follow in similar footprints to those of the Panthers. There are a few key differences. In Carolina, Gettleman doesn’t have an executive vice president like Dawn Aponte looking over his shoulder, and Gettleman would have a lot of input on the firing/hiring of a coach. That could turn off the best and brightest candidates who want to run their own ship, and limit the pool to those that are young hotshots eager for power, retreads that want back in but can no longer dictate their own terms, and long-timers who thought their shot passed them by. That’s not necessarily a no-win position. Gettleman is an example of the latter. The feeling here, because the Dolphins are much closer than most think, is the promotion of assistant general manager Brian Gaine, who knows the roster and Philbin but is his own man, is the best option. Failing that, Packers executives Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith have known Philbin for years and know how to work with the vision of coach without ego.
2. Is there any player under more pressure this weekend than Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning? He’ll likely win his record fifth MVP trophy after a record-breaking regular season, but another one-and-done for his team and his legacy for many, fair or unfair, will be the failures when it counts the most.
3. Will be interesting to see how the Patriots’ passing game fares during the postseason with less flags being thrown. They need to be a power running team first, which at times they show, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can get pass-happy. The Patriots have trouble against aggressive defensive backs because their receivers are so small. But McDaniels and Tom Brady are adept at using motion to give them some space.
4. It’s ridiculous that two players who violated the league’s concussion protocol, Green Bay’s David Bakhtiaria and New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis, weren’t fined in a league that cracks down on uniform violations. We don’t want to be upsetting those shoe sponsors.
5. The Redskins’ hiring of Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden doesn’t seem to be very popular after Cincinnati lost three-straight playoff games as his hand-picked quarterback, Andy Dalton, bombed out. But success or failure as an assistant isn’t a huge indicator. Packers coach Mike McCarthy coordinated the league’s 30th- (points) and 32nd-ranked (yards) offense in San Francisco before going to in San Francisco before going to Green Bay.
Divisional Purple-Chip Report
Saints at Seahawks
New Orleans (7): QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham, DE Cameron Jordan, OT Zach Strief, third-down back Darren Sproles, RG Jahri Evans, CB Keenan Lewis.
Seattle (7): QB Russell Wilson, RB Marshawn Lynch, DT Brandon Mebane, DE Michael Bennett, CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas, DL Clinton McDonald.
How it’s trending: At a neutral site, this game would figure to be very close. The teams are that even. The Saints can’t get away with another performance like Brees had against the Eagles and expect to win this game. Brees has to feed Graham and Sproles much more, and the defense has to play at the same level in a hostile environment. If that happens, New Orleans can pull off the upset. For the Seahawks, Wilson hasn’t played like a purple-chip player for sometime. If he doesn’t play to that level, Seattle could struggle unless Lynch goes off.
Colts at Patriots
Indianapolis (5): QB Andrew Luck, OLB Robert Mathis, CB Vontae Davis, DT Cory Redding, WR T.Y. Hilton.
New England (7): QB Tom Brady, LT Nate Solder, RB combo LeGarrette Blount/Shane Vereen, LG Logan Mankins, DE Rob Ninkovich, S Devon McCourty, CB Aqib Talib.
How it’s trending: Simply put, the Colts have to play their best game of the season to knock off the Patriots, who are more talented (even with the injuries), rested and comfortable playing in the expected elements (rain). Really debated about whether WR Julian Edelman and LG Logan Mankins qualify, deciding Mankins gets the spot and Edelman needs to prove it a little bit more. Mankins, who was a bit overrated this season, has been known to come up short in the postseason. Candidates most likely to underperform in a Colts upset: Brady, Mankins and Talib.
49ers at Panthers
San Francisco (10): LT Joe Staley, OLB Aldon Smith, ILB NaVorro Bowman, ILB Patrick Willis, DE Justin Smith, RB Frank Gore, WR Michael Crabtree, WR Anquan Boldin, S Eric Reid, TE Vernon Davis.
Carolina (8): DE Greg Hardy, LB Luke Kuechly, LT Jordan Gross, LG Travelle Wharton, WR Steve Smith, QB Cam Newton, DE Charles Johnson, LB Thomas Davis.
How it’s trending: With the re-emergence of Crabtree and the ability of Boldin to flourish in the postseason as defenses are allowed to play more physically, the 49ers are the most talented team left. That doesn’t mean they’ll win. They have players—both Smiths, Willis and Davis—who can disappear in a game depending on how the opponent handles them. If the Panthers can neutralize those players (in their 10-9 victory, both Crabtree and Davis weren’t available), the home underdog can definitely emerge victorious.
Chargers at Broncos
Chargers (5): QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates, S Eric Weddle, OT King Dunlap, third-down RB Danny Woodhead.
Broncos (9): QB Peyton Manning, RG Louis Vazquez, WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Eric Decker, WR Wes Welker, TE Julius Thomas, DT Terrance Knighton, DT Malik Jackson, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
How it’s trending: There’s little doubt the Broncos are the more talented team, but almost all of the talent is on offense (OLB Shaun Phillips was close to being on the list). That means if the Chargers can pull off what they did in Week 15 at Denver—hold Manning to a pedestrian 7.0 yards per attempt by making him dump off to the likes of Andre Caldwell, Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno (Denver’s top three pass catchers in that game) while Welker was injured—it'll give Rivers a chance to exploit the Broncos’ defense. An upset is certainly not out of the question if the Broncos’ top players underperform.
Wild Card Purple-Chip Report
Last week we detailed how, in my opinion, postseason games come down to how many top players each team has and whether or not they perform to that level (as opposed to the regular season, which is more about offense and depth). As we saw last weekend, performance can be affected by injury, the opponent taking a player out of the game, or just poor performance by the player. Let’s see how each team’s purple chips, a combination of players that are blue (elite), and red (very good), fared last week.
Colts 45, Chiefs 44
Chiefs that met expectations (3): NT Dontari Poe, OLB Justin Houston, OLB Tamba Hali.
Chiefs that didn’t (3): RB Jamaal Charles, ILB Derrick Johnson, S Eric Berry.
Colts that met expectations (4): QB Andrew Luck, WR T.Y. Hilton, OLB Robert Mathis, DT Cory Redding.
Colts that didn’t (1): CB Vontae Davis.
With three interceptions and being outplayed by Alex Smith through three quarters, Luck was on his way to tipping this matchup in Kansas City’s favor. But then he caught fire down the stretch and played up to his usual level. That, combined with Charles’ injury—which was crucial, especially when the Chiefs played with the lead and needed a chain mover—gave the Colts the edge.
Saints 26, Eagles 10
Saints that met expectations (4): TE Jimmy Graham, DE Cameron Jordan, OT Zach Strief, third-down back Darren Sproles.
Saints that should have been on the list (2): CB Keenan Lewis and G Jahri Evans. Thought both were a little overrated and didn’t make the initial cut. I was wrong on both, and they were terrific in this game (Lewis until his concussion).
Saints that didn’t (1): QB Drew Brees.
Eagles that met expectations (3): LG Evan Mathis, WR DeSean Jackson, OLB Trent Cole.
Eagles that didn’t (3): RB LeSean McCoy, LT Jason Peters, C Jason Kelce.
The Saints won this game because they dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage. They did a terrific job taking McCoy out of the game, which makes it really tough for the Eagles to move the ball. Offensively, Brees had an off game but his offensive line had its way with a young Eagles defensive line that will see better days ahead.
Chargers 27, Bengals 10
Chargers that met expectations (4): QB Philip Rivers, S Eric Weddle, OT King Dunlap, third-down RB Danny Woodhead.
Chargers that didn’t (1): TE Antonio Gates.
Bengals that met expectations (2): OT Andrew Whitworth, LB Vontaze Burfict
Bengals that didn’t (4): WR A.J. Green, DE Michael Johnson, OT Andre Smith, third-down back Giovanni Bernard.
Say what you want about Andy Dalton’s subpar performance, but the Bengals are used to it and have overcome them in the past (beating the Patriots, for example) with a great team effort thanks to their talented roster. They just didn’t get it this time. Green and Johnson, their two best athletes on either side of the ball, were completely taken out the game. Bernard was headed for his usual good game—and this matchup looked headed toward the wire at least—if he didn’t fumble at the 4-yard line after the two-minute warning.
49ers 23, Packers 20
49ers that met expectations (4): LT Joe Staley, OLB Aldon Smith, RB Frank Gore, S Eric Reid.
49ers that should have been on the list (2): WR Michael Crabtree, TE Vernon Davis. While he certainly helped the offense upon his return (just about any viable WR would have), Crabtree hadn’t shown he was a difference maker. That’s over. He is now. As for Davis, I overrated that he tends to disappear.
49ers that didn’t meet expectations (4): WR Anquan Boldin, ILB NaVorro Bowman, DE Justin Smith, ILB Patrick Willis.
Packers that met expectations (4): LG Josh Sitton, WR Jordy Nelson, RB Eddie Lacy, DE Mike Daniels.
Packers that didn’t (2): QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Randall Cobb.
As the score indicated, this game could have gone the other way if the Packers found a way to make one more play on either side of the ball. Rodgers was far from poor in this game, he just admittedly didn’t perform up to his "great" expectations. That was probably equal parts 49ers defense, and the elements. Cobb was fine, but the Packers need him to be more explosive in these types of games. The Packers’ defense simply lacks enough playmakers at this point, especially without OLB Clay Matthews.