I wrote this for a friend's blog and posted it in the All-Pro Insider section because... well... to be quite honest, it's a lot more inviting of intelligent conversation/feedback. This was obviously written after the first New Orleans game a few weeks back and with all of the finger pointing I thought that it might serve some good here. At the very least, it could spark a better discussion than whether or not we should hope for the team to lose to improve draft position.
I was planning to do a first half review of the Carolina Panthers 2014-2015 season, but due to the short week and the big game vs. New Orleans on Thursday I opted to wait until after the game as it would be a pivotal point in the season. With the loss last night to the Saints, the Panthers have put themselves in a very poor position to potentially make the playoffs. The Saints now control their own destiny in the NFC South, with the only solace for Panthers fans being that Carolina has a much easier schedule to finish the year up while New Orleans is facing the same difficult schedule that Carolina began the season with. While Carolina is at Philadelphia for Monday Night Football next, they still have two games against the imploding Falcons, a home game against a dumpster fire of a Bucs squad, a game at the floundering Vikings, a difficult road game in New Orleans, and a home finale against a surprisingly competitive Browns team. If the team can finish strong like they have the last couple of seasons under Ron Rivera, then Carolina COULD still make the playoffs? The liklihood of that is a different story altogether.
I like to view myself as an optimist, but there is very little to get excited for this season. So who's fault is it? Kelvin Benjamin, who has now dropped important early TDs in back-to-back games? Cam Newton, who despite being in his fourth year as a pro is still slinging balls high and fast with almost no ability to deliver a pass with touch? Byron Bell, who has been one of the worst offensive tackles in the league since he's been on the roster? Nate Chandler, who has performed just as poorly as Bell? Roman Harper, who despite being only 31 looks and plays like a hobbled old man? Greg Hardy, who didn't have the foresight to fire an attorney that was willing to have a women's advocate judge that was up for re-election preside over the bench trial for his domestic violence charge (and who didn't throw out the "victim's" testimony despite her admitting that she was under the influence of cocaine that night and Hardy himself was the one that called 911)? Mike Shula, who has consistently been a terrible coordinator/coach at both the professional and college levels? Ron Rivera, who signed off on this squad? David Gettleman, who poorly handled the release of Steve Smith and cobbled together the current roster? The Injury Bug, whom if you've ever been bored enough to listen to a press conference after the game seems to be who the staff keeps blaming for poor performance rather than their own shortcomings?
If there's one thing that most reasonable people know, it is that it is impossible to place blame on one particular individual. It takes a team effort to be this disappointing. However, what has played a major factor? Hopefully by the end of this (obnoxiously) long write up, both Panthers fans and haters alike will at the very least be on the same page for perhaps the biggest contributor to this season's downfall. I have a first and last name for you: Salary. Cap.
Okay, so it's not exactly a name and all teams have to deal with the salary cap. Then why is it plaguing the Panthers so?
Let us look at the perhaps the worst unit on the Panthers this season. While the media would love to make us believe that it's the WRs or DBs it is in fact the OL. The Panthers passing attack finished 27th last season. Aside from Steve Smith and arguably Ted Ginn Jr., the team did not lose any big time playmakers. The DBs, though noticeably weaker after the loss of Mike Mitchell to the Steelers and Captain Munnerlyn to the Vikings, has done surprisingly well thanks to Josh Norman finally beginning to play within the scheme and 5th round draft pick Bene Benwikere admirably filling in for Munnerlyn at the nickel. The OL, on the other hand, lost team captain and Pro Bowler Jordan Gross to retirement as well Travelle Wharton, Jeff Byers, and Geoff Hangartner. While two of those last three were back-ups, they provided valuable depth and experience. The only remaining starters on this Panthers team are Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, and the aforementioned Byron Bell who was moved to protect Newton's blind side after struggling on the right side his entire tenure in Carolina.
As I've accused the salary cap troubles for being the primary reason for this season's poor showing, let us look at three other OLs and how they have been addressed along with their impacts on the salary cap.
The Saints OL is made up of free agents in the late stages of their career save for one player, which directly contributes to the large salary. The Cowboys OL have spent their entire careers in Dallas. The Broncos OL has two players that have spent their entire careers in Denver. So what about Carolina?
These figures do not include 2014 3rd round pick Trai Turner nor does it include 2012 2nd round pick Amini Silatolu (both guards) who are currently injured. Factoring their numbers instead raises the amount to $12,142,433. All but one player on the Panthers OL have spent their entire careers in Carolina and if we use Silatolu/Turner instead of Velasco/Norwell, then all of the players have spent their careers in Carolina.
Why is Carolina investing so little into their offensive line to protect arguably the best QB in the franchise's history?
Greg Hardy was franchise tagged during the offseason, giving him a salary of $13,116,000 for the season. He has been on the exempt list since Week 3 due to the domestic violence charges that he is currently set to go to a jury trial for. The Panthers stated that Hardy could return the team after resolving his legal dispute, but Hardy's trial was just pushed back until after the season which makes his return this season impossible. Rumours also have it that the Panthers are very disappointed in the way that Hardy has handled this whole debacle and he is almost assuredly not going to be back next season. The Panthers are now out $11,000,000 due to this situation. That is almost 75% of the salary for the Cowboys OL. Franchising Hardy made it impossible to keep Mitchell and Ginn Jr. due to the already limited cap space that the Panthers had going into this season, which leads us into the next number.
That is how much in "dead money" that the Panthers currently have on the books, not including Hardy. This is about the amount of money that it costs the Saints and the Broncos for their OLs. This includes $5,000,000 owed to Steve Smith this season after releasing him, as well as $8,000,000 that is still owed to Jon Beason who is now playing for the Giants. If we include Hardy's cap hit, the Panthers are paying players $35,790,514 to NOT play for them. Current GM David Gettleman is personally responsible for $18,116,000 (or about 50%) of this figure. While it's impossible to place the entirety of the blame on Gettleman for Hardy, he certainly did himself no favours by releasing Smith. I understand the reasoning behind the release, as this team would never be Cam Newton's team and the WRs would have never had veteran help so long as Steve Smith remained (hence the addition of Avant and Cotchery after Smith's release, as their roles were to mentor while Steve Smith is on the record saying that he views all of the other WRs as competition for his job and therefore would not mentor anyone). However, with the current state of affairs, was it really the best move for the team this season?
Enter former GM, Marty Hurney. Hurney gave massive contracts out to DE Charles Johnson, C Ryan Kalil, MLB Jon Beason, RB Deangelo Williams, and RB Jonathan Stewart during the lockout in order to preserve what he felt we there "core" players for the Panthers. Beason, as mentioned in the last paragraph, is no longer with the team. This season, the other four players account for $29,089,000 with the two RBs (a position that many would say has become devalued due to the current rules favouring the passing game) making up $10,585,000 of that. These contracts also prevent the players from being cut as three of them would result in approximately $20,000,000 EACH of dead money.
So with this season's salary cap being $133,000,000, the Panthers are spending 17% of it in dead money, 8% of it on two RBs that are rarely if ever on the field at the same time, and 18% of it on defensive ends (with more than half of that going to a player that is being paid to resolve his legal issues instead of play). If we include Hardy's money with the dead money, that means that the Panthers have spent 27% of the salary cap this season for players not to play. If we include Mike Tolbert's $3,350,000 then the Panthers are spending MORE on three RBs than they are their entire OL.
It's difficult to field a winning football team with the budget so poorly managed, but where does this leave the Panthers moving forward?
Fans are beginning to finally understand and accept that last year's 12-4 season was not the norm. The team is still in rebuilding mode after very poor drafts surrounding the lockout. Cam Newton is the only remaining player on the team from his draft class while Greg Hardy (who was drafted in the 5th round) is the only player from his draft still with the team. Come next season, the Panthers will only have a single player (Cam Newton) from the 2009, 2010, and 2011 draft classes still with the team. With the current contracts, the team will have spent $122,979,824 of the $133,000,000 2015 salary cap with only $4,361,686 of that going towards dead money ($4,000,000 of that going to Steve Smith). Charles Johnson is slated to make $20,020,000 which will surely be renegotiated to free up some cap space, and approximately $3,000,000 will likely go towards the 2015 draft class. With the rookies' salaries accounted for, the Panthers will only have $8,000,000 to spend in free agency. This makes the renegotiation with Charles Johnson absolutely crucial along with any raise in the salary cap a blessing.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however. The team has made moves with Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly's contract extensions in mind. The team will 3 (potentially 4) starters now from the 2012 draft class (LB Kuechly, G Silatolu, CB Norman, P Nortman), 3 from 2013 (DT Lotulelei, DT Short, LB Klein (with potential depth from G Kubila), and 3 to 5 starters from the 2014 draft class (WR Benjamin, OG Turner, CB Benwikere, DE Ealy, FS Boston). If the team can come away from the 2015 NFL Draft with 2-3 starters, the Panthers could have a very, very strong team that could end up being regulars in the NFL post season.