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.