There's really so many ways I can start this piece off on. I want to talk the Carolina Panthers, and their incredible journey to this point that started five years ago when they drafted Cam Newton and hired Ron Rivera. It was five years before they hit their peak, now at 17-1 and on the doorstep of history. The Panthers have been many things over those five years. At first they were an offensive force well before their time. Then they became a defensive force good enough to go 12-4. Then they became a punchline, the second team to make the playoffs with a losing record. Now they are a juggernaut, trying to be the fourth team to go 18-1, and the third of which that was happy to do it. But in reality all of those teams are the Panthers, a franchise that has turned into the most model organization in sports and an example of what mistakes to make, and what mistakes not to make on the way.
Ron Rivera was in a Super Bowl way back when. He played in one too. He also coached the Bears defense in Super Bowl XLI. That one didn't go too well, neither did that offseason. Rivera interviewed for a few jobs, word seemingly got back to the Bears that Rivera planned to take a few coaches with him if he went to another gig, and the Bears didn't like it. Rivera found himself standing up at the end of coaching musical chairs and found a temp gig coaching linebackers in San Diego. Ted Cotrell was the coordinator, and got himself fired midway through the 2008 season and Rivera got himself another coordinator gig. That weird resconce in San Diego may have been painful for Rivera, but it may have turned him into the coach he is now.
In Chicago, Ron Rivera coordinated a Tampa-2 defense under Lovie Smith. The Bears blitzed more than most Tampa-2 outfits, but they were very much a Tampa-2 defense. With San Diego, Rivera had to change up. He inherited a 3-4 team (one famously coordinated by the mind he'll match defensive wits with - Wade Phillips) and kept them in a 3-4, and opened up his aggresiveness to a new level. Rivera is one of the few coordinators to run both a 4-3 and 3-4, and both to good success. He took a little bit from both to create one of more dynamic defenses in the NFL.
Rivera is being lauded for many things right now. For his ability to lead a team, to inspire confidence in his players, to galvanize a group of men to achieve more than they should be able. But Rivera should also be equally lauded for the more basic part of a coaches job in the NFL: coaching. He's scheme agnostic, fitting his scheme, his defense, to his personnel. Rivera brought that flexibility and variablity to Carolina, creating a defense that is as well coached as any team in the NFL.
Ron Rivera got the job in February, 2011, it was an unsurprising hire - Rivera was a coach in waiting for many years. His team went 2-14 the year before, and had the #1 pick. The choich made that April in the draft was far less obvious. It is humorous to remember now what the pre-draft talk was about nearly five years ago. Cam Newton had just won the Heisman Trophy and National Championship, but he had a came out of nowhere story that led, understandably, to question marks. Those questions were answered with even more, as people realized that he came out of nowhere because of a few missteps a few years earlier. Cam Newton is a black QB, that much is obvious. He also had the bad luck to come along four years after another black QB, Jamarcus Russell was taken #1 overall. By 2011, Russell was out of the league, a punching bag and pitiable bust.
Cam Newton was no Jamarcus Russell, and he is no Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker or Christian Ponder, the other three QBs picked in the Top-12. Cam Newton was seen as arrogant, he was seen as aloof. He was seen as having an 'insincere' smile, but no one seemed to really care at the time that what he was was a football player, and more than that, a QB and a leader. Cam Newton has been called many things in his career, but he's never been called not a hard worker, or not dedicated.
Cam Newton started his career throwing for 400 yards. He followed that up by throwing for another 350. He broke all the rookie records in 2011. He never reached those heights again in his next three and a half years. Personnel changes were the primary reason, losing his best o-lineman, best receivers, top running back, It took him till October 2015 to become the player he was in Week 1 in 2011, but in reality he was that guy all along.
Marty Hurney drafted Cam Newton. He also drafted Luke Kuechly, Not many GMs have drafted two guys that good in back to back years. Then again, not many QBs spent capital, both in the draft and in actual money, like Marty Hurney either. The same guy who drafted Kuechly and Cam (and Josh Norman), is the same guy who gave huge extensions to both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and gave out silly money to Everette Brown and Charles Johnson, and traded two first round picks in future years for second round picks in current years - that turned into Jeff Otah and the aforementioned Everette Brown. Marty Hurney started the rebuild. He was the decision maker for the two biggest parts of the rebuild, hiring Ron Rivera and drafting Cam Newton. He also got replaced.
Dave Gettleman became the GM in 2013. He inherited a cap hell. The Panthers are just crawling out of it. For the first time in his reign, they'll be able to actually spend money on real free agents. Then again, given the success he's had shopping in the bargain bin, he may want to avoid Bloomingdale's this March.
In Gettleman's first year, the Panthers went 12-4, they had a great defense, the second best in the league behind a historicaly good Seattle unit. They had a decent offense. That offseason, the team lost their top three receivers (Smith, Lafell, Ginn), top two lineman (Gross, Vincent), and three quarters of their secondary (Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn). They replaced them by going even cheaper and older, bringing in scrap-heap guys. They won the division again. In the next offseason, they lost even more guys, lost more from their secondary, lost another receiver in training camp. And they went 15-1.
The Panthers started the 2013 season 1-3. They first started 0-2, losing the second game to the Bills in Buffalo after passing up a 4th and 1 that could have won the game to kick a field goal to go up 6. They gave up a TD as time expired. After a win, they lost the next game 22-6 to Arizona to drop to 1-3. In 2011, the Panthers went 6-10, which was good considering they were 2-14 the year before. They went 7-9 in 2012 with more a defensive focus, including a 3-1 finish. But now they were 1-3. Ron Rivera was 14-22 as a head coach. He also wasn't Dave Gettleman's head coach. GMs are notorious for clearing house. Three years later, not only did Gettleman not clean house, he didn't fire one person. He definitely didn;t fire Ron Rivera, and they've gone 33-10-1 since.
Dave Gettleman did the opposite of all GMs, he didn't go out and get his guys. He analyzed what was already there in Carolina, looked at the coaching staff he had, including Rivera, Sean McDermott and Mike Shula, and decided to keep them all. Gettleman was close to 60 when he got the job. It would be hard to blame him if he saw the Panthers as his one chance to run a team and put in all of 'his guys', but Gettleman is a rare bird, the one that realizes that the 'right' guys are more important than 'his' guys.
The Coach learned as well. Ron Rivera was at 1-3 and not 2-2 because he passed up a 4th and 1 with the best short-yardage QB in the NFL. His team lost because of it. He promised the Carolina fans that day that his passiveness wouldn't cost them a game again, and it hasn't. One of the biggest complaints many fanbases have of their coaches is that the coach is too conservative: the coach punts too much, kicks too many field goals, does not throw to win games. It's a legitimate criticism many times, but it is as legitimate to point out that in-game clock management and game decisions are not as meaningful as what the coach does during the week: the game-planning, leadership, etc. Rivera was already good in the latter, but he decided that he didn't want to suffer on the former. He changed, he did the one thing so many coaches never do, admit that they were wrong.
Both Rivera and Gettleman made a forced marriage work. They say that arranged marriages have lower divorce rates than 'love' matches. There are obviously many external factors that influence those statistics, but it seems even in the coaching world there is evidence that adapting and learning to live with your forced partner may just work.
The QB and Linebacker
Cam Newton was the first brick of the foundation. Luke Kuechly was the second. The captain on offense and the captain on defense. Leadership comes in many forms, but in football, where defense and offense are fully separate parts of a whole, it helps to have a main leader on each side. As Cam Newton grew into a great player to match his great bravado and charisma, Luke Kuechly came pre-packaged.
Luke Kuechly was drafted as the 'most NFL-ready' linebacker. It says a lot about the NFL draft process that usually those guys don't end up being good, like Aaron Curry or Keith Rivers. Luke Kuechly, though, is the exception, brilliance since Week 1 of his rookie season. He had 160 tackles as a rookie, but more than that exhibited incredible instincts. He was fast in coverage, fast to blitz, and fast to roam side to side, joining a finally healthy Thomas Davis to create a foundation of what was to come.
In 2013, Luke Kuechly was the named the best defensive player in the NFL. In 2013, Cam Newton had his first breakout season that combined wining with good production, and started to shine on a national stage. The 2013 Panthers were a really good team. After the 1-3 start, they went 11-1 to close out the season, ripping the NFC South from the Saints. The Panthers grew up in a three game stretch near the end of that season. They had won 8 straight games, going from 1-3 to 9-3, and went to the Superdome to play the 9-3 saints on Sunday Night Football. The Saints were at home, where they were still at the point where that was an automatic win. The Panthers started with two quick field goals, and the Saints answered 31 straight points. The Saints humbled the Panthers. Two weeks later, Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton humbled them back and finished their ascendancy.
Two weeks later the Saints went to soggy Carolina, both at 10-4 (the Saints lost to the Rams the week in-between), and Caroline flexed their muscles in teh opposite way. They sacked Drew Brees 6 times. They harrassed him all day. The defense swallowed up the short passes that are normally so explosive in the dome. They picked off Brees twice, once was Thomas Davis and the other was Kuechly. Tackle statistics are always skeptical, but Kuechly is listed with 9 tackes and a ridiculous 15 more assisted.
But still, the yin of Kuechly's defense needed the Yang of Newton. Despite the defensive brilliance the Panthers found themselves down by 3 with a minute to go. Cam Newton and the Panthers were 65 yards away. Then Cam did as he does: 37 yards to Ginn, 14 to Olsen and 14 more to Domenik Hixon. The Panthers took the lead at 17-13, took the division a year later, and haven't given it back since.
The Panthers know what they are about. They know how they were created, by an odd coaching hire, a controversial top pick at QB, a 'safe' choice for a defensive leader, and a bunch of spare parts that have rotated in and out because of cap issues. How they've turned that into what they've become is legendary. The 2013 Panthers were led by their defense. They were the second best unit in the league, a strong #2 behind a historically good Seahawks unit. They had 59 sacks. 26 of those were by their top two DEs, Greg Hardy (15) and Charles Johnson (11). Those two players combined for 1 sack for the 2015 Panthers. What's more amazing about the 59 sacks is that the other 33 that were not from Hardy and Johnson came from 14 players, 10 of whom had at least 2. They came from everyone. Tied for third in the team was Thomas Davis and Mike Mitchell, tied for fourth were Captain Munnerlyn and Quinten Mikell, two secondary players. They blitzed and blitzed and blitzed.
Two years later, despite losing Hardy, having an injured Johnson, and not only losing all three of those secondary players, the Panthers had 44 sacks and again the 2nd best defense (and again behind a historically good unit). They switched up, blitzed less, but are still as effective. These types of rapid changes in perssonel and scheme have been normal in Carolina.
On the offensive end, they moved from a read-option based aerial attack with tons of designed runs in 2011. They were explosive, with a young Cam launching bombs to Steve Smith. Over time under Mike Shula they've molded into a strange brew of conventional deep passing game - much like the Arizona team that they dominated - and a complex rushing attack that is more varied and organized than any in the league. The Panthers have become a malleable mix of a few flashy talents and spare parts that have recycled in an out of the lineup for three or four years. The Panthers have a discernable style but are sprearheaded by the unique talents of their footholds, the dual-threat of Cam Newton who has turned himself into a dominant pocket-passer, and the range and instincts of Luke Kuechly.
While the Panthers can culminate a five year process today, the future is even brighter. With Cam, Luke and Coach Ron, they have the cornerstones. With Dave Gettleman, they have GM with a steady hand, patient philosophy and a man who has turned into the best bargain hunter in the NFL. That is the nucleus, and the electrons flying around is a set of players with varying talent but incredible commitment to team, to scheme and to an organization that has turned into one of the NFL's best.
The Panthers have as bright a future as they do a present. Cam and Luke are young; they draft well uncovering gems in late rounds, none better than Josh Norman. They have schemes that can plug and play players. They have a coach who is on the forefront of being aggressive and inspires a tremendous amount of confidence from his players. For the first time in Dave Gettleman's era they even have money to spend. Something special is building in Carolina. We've been able to say that a lot recently, like with Green Bay in 2011, or San Francisco in 2013, or even Seattle in 2013. The Packers and Seahaws have lasted, but the Panthers are younger, they're hungrier, and they may just be better.