There is an old saying that leadership starts at the top, and in the good ol’ boy network that is the National Football League, that saying still holds weight today.
This is as true in the Carolina Panthers organization as it is anywhere, where personnel decisions are made by the brass and trickle downward, starting with Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson, Team President Danny Morrison and general manager Marty Hurney.
By most accounts, 2011 has been a productive year for the “Big Three” in the Panthers front office. Among their greatest accomplishments, the Panthers hired head coach Ron Rivera, drafted Cam Newton with the first pick of the 2011 draft, and they re-signed each of the team’s core players without losing anyone vital to free agency.
However, the Panthers have reached the season’s midway point with a 2-6 record despite having a legitimate opportunity to win at least seven of their first eight games, and a few key decisions made by the guys at the top could have helped Carolina to at least a few more tick-marks in the “wins” column.
Cutting John Kasay
On July 28, the Panthers released the only field goal kicker the Panthers had ever known when they cut 20-year vet John Kasay in favor of signing Olindo Mare.
The reasoning was that Mare can handle both kickoff and field goal/extra point duties while Kasay’s aging leg meant the Panthers would have needed to keep a kickoff specialist on the roster in order to make room for the last original Panther.
It seems logical that freeing up roster space for a non-kicker is a good move, and Mare is a veteran kicker who has long been one of the best in the NFL.
Despite Kasay’s popularity in Charlotte—thousands show up to Bank of America Stadium wearing Kasay’s No. 4 jersey for every home game—Mare made believers among the Carolina faithful during his four-field goal performance against the Washington Redskins.
However, Mare likely lost as many fans after missing a 31-yard, game-tying field goal attempt in the closing seconds of the Panthers’ game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Though Carolina had several chances to win the game and should not have needed the field goal to force overtime, many fans believe that Kasay would have never missed that kick and he would have given the Panthers a chance to win the game.
No Action at the Trade Deadline
There were several established veteran players who could have helped the Panthers this season, including former Denver Broncos/current St. Louis Rams wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel, whom the Carolina Panthers did not actively pursue at the trade deadline.
Lloyd and Samuel are among the best at their positions right now and could have made an immediate impact on a 2-6 team that is competing every week but does not have the results to show for it.
Despite rumors listing Carolina as a possible destination for Lloyd when the Broncos put last year’s league-leading receiver on the trading block, Panthers G.M. Marty Hurney was steadfast in his decision not to pursue any midseason trades to fill the team’s needs.
There were similar late-summer rumors concerning Carolina's interest in Samuel, which proved to be wishful thinking by the media and Panthers fans.
The Panthers have, however, used free agency extensively throughout the year to improve the team with former Rivera players such as tight end Greg Olsen and wide out Legedu “L.A.” Naanee—though it’s arguable how much Naanee has actually helped the team as a disappointing No. 2 receiver opposite Steve Smith—and they have scoured the wires to fill holes created by injury as they have with guys like former TCU and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jason Phillips, who they picked up after he was released by the Ravens.
Carolina's most glaring needs, aside from better knee braces for the injury-plagued linebacker corps, are at No. 2 wide receiver, cornerback, defensive tackle and kick/punt return specialist, and the Panthers will likely continue owner Jerry Richardson’s long-held philosophy of building the team through the draft and developing home grown talent.
Over-Paying Thomas Davis
Thomas Davis is a team leader and one of the most talented players to ever suit up in a Carolina Panthers uniform.
Perhaps for those two reasons alone, the Carolina Panthers paid him $7 million up front with a bonus option for $8 million in 2012, though they lowered his 2011 salary to $1 million and structured his contract with a back-loaded escalating pay scale that ends with Davis earning more than $7 million on the field in 2015.
When healthy, the Pro Bowl outside linebacker has the range of Brian Urlacher, and he is great at stopping the run, protecting the flats and rushing the passer.
The operative word, however, is “healthy,” and by the end of the 2011 season, he will have missed 39 of a possible 48 regular season starts in three years.
Davis missed nine games in 2009 after tearing his ACL for the first time and re-injured the same knee during the 2010 preseason, causing him to miss that entire season, as well.
Though his knee appeared fully rehabilitated through the 2011 training camp and preseason, Davis once again tore his ACL in the Panthers’ Week 2 game against the Green Bay Packers and he will miss the final 14 games of the season.
Despite his track record of being injury prone, the Panthers have remained loyal to Davis, 28, and he seems to be loyal to the team that drafted him out of Georgia in the first round back in 2005.
Davis believes he has plenty of good football left in his body, and he has said he’s willing to restructure his contract to a lower pay scale as long as he gets the opportunity to play again, preferably for the Carolina Panthers.
Overall Grade: B+
2010 may have been the worst year in Carolina Panthers history and that was almost single-handedly due to Jerry Richardson’s decisions to cut nearly every key player over 30 and to hang on to a lame-duck John Fox-led coaching staff for one more year.
Richardson did this, presumably, because he knew of the impending 2011 NFL lockout—of which he was a leader among the owners—and in order to put his team in position for long-term success by suffering through short-term futility at the expense of PSL owners and fans.
The Panthers also drafted terribly in 2010, wasting early round picks on Jimmy Clausen and Armanti Edwards.
Though the Panthers front office has not made every correct decision in 2011, as outlined in this article, their overall performance this year has been among the best in the league and the “Big Three” seem to have the team primed for on-field success, i.e., becoming a winning team, starting in 2012 and for many years to come.
For hiring Ron Rivera and his coaching staff, drafting Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft and for re-signing Charles Johnson, DeAngelo Williams and Jon Beason to long-term contracts, the Carolina Panthers front office has earned a B+.
Sometimes leadership requires the appearance of failure to ultimately result in great success.