How the Carolina Panthers Built a Super Bowl Contender
Super Bowl 50 is just days away, and the Carolina Panthers are one win from completing one of the most impressive seasons in NFL history. The 17-1 Panthers are 5.5-point favorites to win their first championship in franchise history, per Odds Shark.
While the outcome of the game will determine whether this team becomes historical, how it was built to be a Super Bowl contender is also important. The process of fielding the right front office, coaching staff and roster takes years to execute. Carolina got it right, even if its formula is unique.
From the top to the bottom of the roster, we’re going to break down how the Panthers were built. The resources and decisions that went into building this team led to the right mix.
Since there’s no blueprint for building a championship contender, it’s important to study how winners found productive players and the right personalities. Football is complex because it takes a 53-man roster, strong coaching staff and a little bit of luck.
How have the Panthers cracked the Rubik's Cube to earn their spot in Super Bowl 50? We have you covered on the next few slides.
Front Office Personnel
The general manager is in charge of making key roster decisions to ensure the coaching staff has what it needs to be successful. Although all success shouldn’t be attributed to one person, the general manager must have a great sense of judgment, evaluation skill and communication ability. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has shown those abilities in his three seasons with the team.
Gettleman has been involved in football since 1986, including serving 14 years with the New York Giants. He learned from one of the best franchises in football. After serving as the Giants' pro personnel director for 12 seasons, he moved to the Panthers in 2013 to become general manager.
He walked into a tough situation despite the talent on the roster. Carolina was $15 million over the cap entering the offseason, per The Charlotte Observer (h/t NFL.com's Kareem Copeland) and had to make several cuts to comply with the NFL rules. He was able to keep a large majority of the team's key players despite dealing with $89 million tied up in the running back position. Restructures for tackle Jordan Gross and linebacker Jon Beason were pivotal.
Gettleman cleaned up the cap situation over the next two years to reach this point. This coming offseason, the Panthers will have $19 million to work with and can create significantly more by executing two easy decisions. They should lower defensive end Charles Johnson’s $11 million cap number with an extension and cut Jared Allen to open up $8.5 million.
Free agents like cornerback Josh Norman and tackle Mike Remmers need to be re-signed, but Gettleman has this team in a healthy cap situation now.
The Right Coaches
The Carolina Panthers’ coaching staff has proved to be one of the best in the NFL this season. Led by head coach Ron Rivera, this staff has grown exponentially since his hiring in 2011. To the franchise’s credit, it didn't fire Rivera after his rocky first two seasons when the team went 13-19.
Rivera changed his coaching style after seeing that he was too cautious in his first two years. His “Riverboat Ron” nickname reflects the more aggressive decisions Carolina has made in the game. They have paid off, and now Carolina imposes its will on opponents instead of being conservative.
The coordinators in place have also done tremendous jobs.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was promoted from quarterbacks coach in 2013 to his current position, and he’s created an efficient but balanced offense that highlights players' strengths. His ability to get the most out of a limited playmaker corps is what is most notable. Carolina is difficult to defend against because it uses the power running game to open up downfield passing, and the team has the perfect quarterback to execute this offense.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has been brilliant as well. The Jim Johnson disciple spent 11 years in Philadelphia, learning from many great coaches and players. He’s known as one of the best at his craft in creating a suffocating and dominant defensive unit.
Cam Newton's Development
When Cam Newton was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft, many skeptics were critical of his long-term talent as a quarterback. Newton wasn’t refined as a passer and had just one (albeit terrific) season at Auburn. Rivera and the Panthers’ franchise took the ultimate risk on the insanely gifted athlete.
It turns out, they were right.
Newton isn’t just good; he was arguably the best quarterback in the NFL this year. Working with a receiving unit that featured Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess, Newton posted a career-high 35 touchdowns and career-low 10 interceptions. Even more important was his ability to create big plays when the team needed them most.
Newton is not a traditional quarterback thanks to his physical gifts. At 6’5” and 240 pounds, he runs with power and grace to advance the ball downfield. Defenses must treat him as a dangerous running threat in addition to fearing his pocket passing. This forces the defense to commit a defender just to Newton, and that helps the spacing of the passing game.
Newton has his detractors because of poor decisions he made as a teenager and the way he shows his love for the game on the field. But his leadership and elite play matter more than any of that. Newton is the key as to why the Carolina offense led the NFL in points per game with 31.3 during the regular season.
Building the Offensive Line
Building a quality offensive line is no easy task. Some teams have dump-trucked money and resources into the unit, just to see their investment bear poor results. Teams such as the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked near the top of spending along the offensive line this year but are still horrible there.
Carolina ranked 13th in spending at the position, but $10.3 million of its $17.75 million investment in 2015 went to center Ryan Kalil. The other four starters combined to make just $6.44 million.
Where the talent came from is even more impressive.
Instead of building from the tackles inward like most teams do, the Panthers invested most on the interior line. Kalil is one of the highest-paid centers in the NFL. Right guard Trai Turner is already one of the best in the NFL, and he was a third-round steal in 2014. Left guard Andrew Norwell somehow went undrafted in 2014, and he’s among the best run-blocking guards in the league.
At tackle, the Panthers have a pair of unexpected starters. Carolina poached right tackle Mike Remmers from the then-St. Louis Rams practice squad in the middle of 2014. Carolina was his sixth team in just three seasons at the time, but now he is a solid starter who fits the run-centric offense.
Left tackle Michael Oher was one of the worst linemen in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans in 2014, and his career seemed to be spirally. Although he’s been the weakest link of the Panthers line, he has been an adequate starter, which is more than what was expected when he signed with the Panthers.
Success has come as the Panthers have adjusted to their available talent. Carolina found market inefficiencies with these players and put them in a position to maximize their strengths. This is the mark of a terrific team.
The Panthers’ defensive front seven is littered with high draft picks who the franchise developed. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy were Day 2 picks in 2007 and 2014, respectively. The dynamic tackle duo of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short was taken in back-to-back rounds in 2013 to start that class.
The investment was well worth it, leading the Panthers to build one of the most dynamic linebacker units in NFL history.
Carolina features three first-round picks in its starting linebacker crew, and each offers tremendous versatility for Sean McDermott to work with. 2012 first-round pick Luke Kuechly is among the top defensive players in the NFL, and he sets the tone for the unit. His ability to stop the run but also drop back into coverage is a rare skill that few other middle linebackers can replicate.
The veteran of the group is weak-side linebacker Thomas Davis. He is one of the best athletes in the NFL, as he proved when he returned to play from his third torn ACL in his right knee in 2011. Since then, he’s averaged 112.5 tackles, three sacks and almost two interceptions per year. He is a very good, well-rounded player even at 32 years old.
Rookie Shaq Thompson was the other first-round pick for the unit. He is an excellent coverage linebacker and eats space quickly when he drops back. This defense became even more difficult to scheme against when Thompson returned from injury and replaced backup A.J. Klein in the lineup.
The benefit of having such an athletic linebacker corps that can also play the run shows in the passing game. Carolina cripples offenses because it swallows short and intermediate passing lanes because of the underneath coverage. The opposing quarterback has little margin for error, as he’s essentially facing seven defenders in coverage on most passing plays.
Supporting the Secondary
The one area that the Panthers did not build largely through the draft is the secondary. With an average age of 29.4, the top five defensive backs on the roster are experienced. Safety Roman Harper and cornerback Cortland Finnegan are 33 years old and 32 years old, respectfully.
The other three major contributors in the secondary are in their physical prime.
2012 fifth-rounder Josh Norman needed two years to hone his craft and is now one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He gets most of the publicity, and rightfully so. He’s been as dominant during the last year-and-a-half as any other cornerback.
Free safety Kurt Coleman was signed for just $1.5 million and has fit perfectly into the Cover 2 defense. He is responsible for one deep half of the field, and this is the right role for him. Coleman had struggled earlier in his career when he was asked to be somebody he’s not.
Again, it is an example of putting a player in a position to utilize his strengths without assigning too much responsibility.
The Panthers secondary isn’t the most athletic or star-studded on paper. But with the linebackers lurking underneath and each secondary member playing in a defined role, the defensive backs are hard to beat.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.