A Cannibalistic Frenzy: How to Overpay for Your Own Terrible Team
Panthers GM Marty Hurney wants to keep his job after a disastrous 2010 that saw him pay Jake Delhomme millions of dollars to go play for the Browns. To do so, he's gone on an absurd spending spree that's seen the team drop in excess of $100 million in contracts paid to lock up the core of a team that went 2-14 last year.
In a vacuum, some of the moves are defensible. We discussed the mammoth Charles Johnson deal yesterday, and while it was an obscene amount of money, it's not the worst thing in the world to bet on a young pass rusher who's shown a lot of promise. Hurney followed that contract today with a five-year deal for linebacker James Anderson, who, in his first year as a starter, might have been the defense's best player in 2010. That deal guarantees Anderson just $8.5 million, so it's not an enormous commitment, even though Anderson is already 28. Both of those moves could flop, but they're defensible.
Unfortunately, Hurney didn't stop there. Anderson only made his way into the starting lineup after starting linebacker Thomas Davis tore his ACL in June, his second ACL tear in eight months. As a former safety, Davis was already an undersized linebacker who relied upon his speed to make plays, so it would have been reasonable to wonder if he would come back as the same player he was in 2007 and 2008. The Panthers had the ability to find out for relatively cheap, with Davis signed for the 2011 season at a figure of just $3.2 million. Instead, Hurney ripped up Davis's contract and gave the 28-year-old a five-year deal, for which terms have not yet been disclosed. It really doesn't matter what the terms are, to be honest, because it's just insipid to give a long-term contract to a guy coming off of consecutive ACL tears.
Wait, How Many Running Backs Can You Have on a Roster?
It got worse. Wanting to ensure an effective ground game for first overall pick Cam Newton, the Panthers went out of their way to re-sign veteran halfback DeAngelo Williams, giving another 28-year-old a ridiculous five-year deal. Williams got $43 million in his extension, with an incredible $21 million in guaranteed money. It's an unconscionably dumb decision. As a starter, Williams has made it through a 16-game season without getting hurt exactly once. The team drafted Jonathan Stewart in the first round of the 2008 draft to take over as the primary starter after Williams left, and they got effective play from Mike Goodson as a change-of-pace back after Williams went on injured reserve with a foot injury. The team's running game declined in 2010, but it really wasn't because Williams wasn't there. They fell off because they had no quarterback, no leads to run the clock out on, and injuries all along the offensive line, especially with elite right tackle Jeff Otah missing the entire season. A healthier offensive line in 2011 will mean a more effective running game for the Panthers, but they'll be paying far too much to their running backs for the privilege.
The Old, Gray Olindo Mare
The biggest mistake the team made was paying for a veteran kicker, signing Olindo Mare to a four-year deal worth $12 million. Mare has a strong leg, a consistent skill that produced a touchback 27.8 percent of the time last year, the fifth-highest rate in the game. That's a valuable asset, but it's going to be far less important in 2011. The league moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 in March, a change that will turn plenty of would-be returns into touchbacks. Mare will still rank among the league leaders in touchbacks, but the difference between him and the league's average kickers will be muted.
The Panthers won't be 2-14 next year. Teams simply bounce back from year-to-year because the breaks that pushed them into the gutter will begin to start going their way again, a phenomenon Bill James coined the "Plexiglass Principle". The Panthers will almost surely be a healthier team in 2011. They were in a division with three teams that each outplayed their Pythagorean expectation3, so their schedule shouldn't be quite as tough as it might seem right now. They probably aren't going to repeat the turnaround exhibited by the 2008 Dolphins, but going 6-10 shouldn't be a problem, even with Jimmy Clausen and Cam Newton at quarterback. Still, it's hard to figure how this spending spree has turned them into a better team.