With No Salary Cap, Carolina Panthers Choose To Rebuild

Ben TrianaFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2010

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 03:  Center Ryan Kalil #67 of the Carolina Panthers leads the offensive line during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If you're over 30 and play professional football in Charlotte, NC, you should be concerned for your job unless you're:

A.) Steve Smith

B.) Really good and your production has not declined

C.) Play a specialized position with limited replacements (aka., kicker John Kasay)

D.) Cheap

The Carolina Panthers have made the decision to rebuild at a time when the contracts of the players they release will not be counted against the team's salary cap. It looks like there might be a silver lining to dismantling a team whose window has all but closed. 

The near future for the Panthers appeared to be a desolate land of mediocrity, fighting for a wild-card berth, not quite good enough to win it all and not quite bad enough to start from scratch (and missing out on top-ten first round draft picks to speed up the process).

And during the next couple of years fans would be forced to watch Steve Smith walk away in the hopes of winning that elusive ring in the twilight of his career, John Beason consider whether or not he'd want to leave sooner rather than later, and watch the team try to acquire stop-gaps in the hopes that the moves were "just enough" to make the team a contender, knowing, in reality, a lot would have to go right to see the team back in the Super Bowl.

Instead, the team has eschewed a perennial second place finish in the NFC South for a relatively short rebuilding process that could right the ship.

Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending on how you look at it), it means that those veteran players with question marks surrounding their significant salaries must go.

Like Jake Delhomme.

Damione Lewis.

And rehabilitating Maake Kemoaetu.

Once the choice was made to head in a different direction, releasing these players, even the oft-defended Jake Delhomme, makes perfect sense.

These players were the definition of veterans: players with decent production, but production that can be replicated by young players with potential and some talent. So the decision rested on their value in the locker room...and their salaries.

The PR coming out of Charlotte from all sides is the claim that these decisions are economical, but that's not entirely true. Part of the decision rests on the ceiling for these players. How good can they be, especially now that they are over thirty? The front office must ask, "Have I seen everything I will from this guy?"

It's the same question interested teams asked of Julius Peppers. What do I get from a 30-year-old player along with his salary demands?

Even in an ideal situation, the answer for the Panthers was "not enough," and it's true. Lewis was producing at an average level. There is the belief that some of these young players could do the same or better, cost less, and produce for a longer period of time.

For Kemoeatu, the team gambled on him last year. He was given the chance and, unfortunately, was injured. What's even more unfortunate, the rehabilitation took over a year. So he wouldn't be able to play until the season after this one. For a gamble, that's too much risk, too much to have to invest for situation that is not entirely clear.

Delhomme, well, camps are split, but it is almost a certainty that at his age he could not guide the team to another Super Bowl. If Brett Favre can't do it, then what chance does Delhomme have?

It's clear that the younger players on this team need a couple of additions along with a few more years to develop, and these veterans were taking up money and space in order for that to happen.

If things go well in Carolina, then the majority of the defense could reach its prime in a year or two. The secondary, as long as they can keep Marshall, should continue to develop, and defensive ends Brown and Johnson should be adequate at the very least, and the linebacking core is young and talented.

That means the last of the resources can be used on developing or acquiring the DT's necessary to solidify the defense. If it turns out a DT can't be developed or drafted (that's a good chance considering the Panthers do not have a first round pick), the money will be available to sign one in free agency a year from now.

That's where money comes in again, but it's a last resort, not the first.

On the offensive side of the ball, Stewart and Williams have only so many years as premier running backs considering the pounding they take.

Plus, Steve Smith needs a reason to stay. 

That means new wide receivers and the hopes that a quarterback can get them the ball on a regular basis.

It wasn't going to happen if there was a quarterback controversy. Even if Moore isn't the franchise man, the future franchise quarterback will have trouble developing if he remains a third stringer amidst a quarterback battle.

In the end, it looks like it came down to Moore's upside. Perhaps more importantly, Steve Smith is much more valuable than Delhomme, and it has been clear for awhile now that Smith had stopped believing in Delhomme.

There's no way of keeping Smith if you keep Delhomme. A decision had to be made, and Delhomme had to go.

So now, the owner, front office, and coach can pitch to their best players that they're willing to do what is necessary to win. They're heading in a different direction. They've made the tough decisions a team needs to make if they want to be part of the elite in the NFL. It gives the best in Charlotte a reason to stay with the team.

It's a shrewd decision, but still, it's another gamble.

What if the players don't develop as planned and replacements can't be found? What if Smith, Beason, Williams, or Stewart leaves anyway?

What if Fox isn't retained after this year and the new coach doesn't like the personnel left behind?

Finally, the idea of loyalty in Charlotte has taken a significant hit.

The Panthers were one of the last stalwarts that tried to standby its players. They've supported athletes long past their sell-by dates. Fox was teary-eyed commenting on Delhomme's release.

Not anymore.

It doesn't matter how vehemently the team says it will support said player through his struggles. It doesn't matter if you've just signed a long-term deal. Given the right situation, the Carolina Panthers could still show you the door.

Granted, the idea of loyalty, either by players or by owners, has for a long time now been an illusion. For the Panthers, that illusion has been shattered.

Still, it's probably for the best. After all, their current plan meant a run at the playoffs every other year, and now that the Saints are the team to beat and the Falcons are on the up, being above-average doesn't guarantee a second place finish.

For the Panthers, the no-cap year was the deciding factor. It allowed the team to rebuild faster than usual. The books will be clear. The team will be young.  They can approach the new NFL (after a revised Collective Bargaining Agreement is developed) without lingering concerns.

Money was a factor, the deciding one, but there were other forces involved; primarily, that this team wasn't going to win with its current roster.

Hopefully this gamble pays off...for those left on the team.





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