The Carolina Panthers have had the NFL's best team all season. I think there are a number of lessons the Jets and other NFL teams can take from the way they built their team. The Panthers might have come to some of these successes by accident rather than by philosophy. A number of their key players were drafted by a general manager who was fired three years ago so there is a mix of talent from two different executives with two different team building strategies. Still the end result has produced a 17-1 record from which teams can learn.
Lesson 1: Don't let the rest of the league tell you what to value.
You hear a lot about how certain positions have a lot of value in the NFL while a lot of others do not. You also hear frequently that the NFL is a copycat league. Teams are always trying to catch up to the team that started the last big fad and had success. The successful teams in this league frequently start trends.
I think it is fair to say that linebacker is not viewed as a huge impact position in today's NFL. I don't mean guys like Von Miller or Justin Houston. Those guys are pass rushers. They are only called linebackers because they rush the passer while standing up at the snap. I mean the traditional mold of linebackers, guys who play the run and drop into coverage. These guys rarely blitz.
Teams don't place a ton of value on players like this, but the Panthers do. A year ago I took a look at where All Pros were drafted. I found 18 players who had made an All Pro team as a traditional linebacker. Only 3 of them were top 10 selections. One of them was Luke Kuechly, who the Panthers took 9th overall in 2012.
These types of linebackers also are not paid like big impact players. Only 3 in the NFL have a contract exceeding a $10 million annual salary. Kuechly is one of them. (There are 11 wide receivers by comparison).
The traditional inside linebackers are at least valued higher than the traditional outside linebackers. The fifth highest paid traditional outside linebacker only has a contract averaging $6 million. It is Thomas Davis of Carolina.
These guys are exceptionally important parts of the Carolina defense. In today's NFL, if you have linebackers who can cover a lot of ground, it can be a coup. They can help neutralize a passing game, prevent top tight ends from creating mismatches, and still own the size that it doesn't hurt you against the run the way replacing a linebacker with a smaller defensive back would.
Davis is a premium player at his position. In part because he does not play a premium position, the Panthers get a premium talent at a price that is anything but premium. Kuechly fell to the Panthers in part because guys at premium positions in the 2012 Draft like Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon went before him and were deemed to have more value.
Create a system that allows talent not highly valued to flourish, and you are onto something in the NFL.
Lesson 2: Know how to prioritize.
One of the things I like to do in the NFL is study the way successful front offices operate. One Draft strategy a number of successful teams utilize is picking the best talent available and ignoring position. That sounds simple and logical enough.
I have started to notice a trend other successful franchises utilize. They prioritize certain positions. It isn't based on the normal way of thinking, though. Most people think about the area their team is weakest and the best player at that positions. That isn't what I see with the Panthers, though.
Think about the company where you work. There are certain jobs that are more essential than others. An offense or defensive system in the NFL is the same way. If you are the boss, you might be better at evaluating people to fill one job than you are at another. NFL personnel executives are sometimes the same way when it comes to evaluating a given position. Your company might be better at training somebody at one particular job than they are at another. Some NFL teams have coaching staffs more apt to develop players at one position than another.
I see a lot of this type of prioritizing when it comes to the construction of Carolina's roster. They have used their premium resources on a few key spots. Kuechly and Davis are the all-important linebackers. They used their first round pick from a year ago to take Shaq Thompson, another linebacker.
Another premium spot for the Panthers is on the defensive line. In Dave Gettleman's first Draft his first two picks were on defensive tackles, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. In his second draft, his second round pick was defensive end Kony Ealy. The player with their biggest cap hit this year was defensive end Charles Johnson (a contract that was given before Gettleman arrived).
The defense they run capitalizes on great line and linebacker play. I doubt the Panthers are going in willing to take anybody who plays these positions. It does seem like they prioritize players who fit what they want to do and have the requisite impact talent. These guys seem to be deemed more valuable than those at other positions.
These are the spots the Panthers use their premium resources because they know they can find players who fit and can be coached up from the scrap heap at other spots. Two-fifths of their starting offensive line this year was comprised of undrafted players who the Panthers found off the scrap heap. At the all-important left tackle position is Michael Oher, on his third team in three years and not commanding a top twenty contract at tackle. This ragtag bunch was Pro Football Focus' second best offensive line in 2015.
The secondary has been a revolving door for the Panthers in the last few years of replaceable parts. The Panthers developed fifth round pick Josh Norman into a star. Bené Benwikere was another fifth round pick. Charles Tillman and Roman Harper are veterans making less than $2 million. Kurt Coleman is on his fourth team. Why has the defense worked? The Panthers know with their defensive line providing a pass rush the secondary doesn't have to be as good. They also have run less difficult coverage concepts. Developing Norman has also been a big boost.
Wide receiver is an interesting position. You can now kind of see that the Panthers are starting to turn to it as their next big priority. In 2014 they took Kelvin Benjamin in the first round. In 2015 they took Devin Funchess in the second round. This had been another project spot. Now it is growing into their next investment spot. This is still a work in progress, though, with Benjamin out for the year with an injury and Funchess only beginning to develop. They were able to squeeze enough out of low priority veterans Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery and undrafted Corey Brown to keep Cam Newton as an MVP candidate.
Lesson 3: Give your coach time to grow.
It seemed like Ron Rivera was in deep trouble after two losing seasons to start his career. The Panthers had hired a new general manager. Jets fans recently saw first-hand how these shotgun weddings can fail.
Yet here the Panthers are. Rivera has grown as a coach after a rough start. What happened?
Much has been made of how he adjusted his in-game strategies. People call him "Riverboat Ron" because he studied tendencies and realized he needed to modernize his approach and get more aggressive on fourth and short. The odds are in the favor of the coaches who do.
Rivera's growth cuts deeper than that one adjustment, though. Joe Posnanski had a great piece on it.
But after his near-miss firing in 2012, Rivera realized he needed to reevaluate everything. He asked several of the team’s key players to go to dinner — wives, girlfriends, family, the whole bit. When dinner was over, he and the players moved to a room, and he asked them to tell him what had gone wrong during the season. They hemmed and hawed for a while, but when they realized that Rivera was serious they unleashed complaint after complaint — about this player, about that coach, about this team rule, about everything. Rivera’s head spun. He had known about none of it.
"Wait a minute," Rivera finally shouted. "Why didn’t you tell me all this before?"
The players shrugged. They didn’t want to be snitches. They didn’t think he’d care. They didn’t think he’d do anything about it. Rivera was fuming. He’d made it entirely clear to his players — or so he thought — that his door was open, and he EXPECTED them to come to with any complaint or information or idea that could help or hurt the team. They had not come.
He also discusses a conversation Rivera had with John Madden.
Then Madden said something that changed everything for Rivera.
"You hear all the time about coaching by the book," Madden told him. "Right? You hear that all time, don’t you? He coached by the book. He should have gone by the book. Ron, here’s the secret. There is no book."
There is no book. If Ron Rivera was ever to write his own story, that might be the title. There is no book. It was like a veil lifted, and Rivera saw things clearly for the first time. The countless guidelines he had learned through the years? They are just guidelines. The unwritten rules that coaches follow? They are only suggestions. Rivera didn’t have to follow the precise path of the people he admired. He didn’t have to be the coach he had visualized. There is no book.
It might seem obvious, but people do improve as they get more experience on the job. They learn things. Entering this season, seven head coaches had won Super Bowls in the NFL. Six of them had been an NFL head coach for four years or longer before winning his first championship. And the discussion here was firing Rivera after two seasons. And in year one, the Panthers had won five more games than they had the season before Rivera arrived. There were clear signs of progress.
Teams are impatient. Owners and fans want results now, and teams aren't apt to give their guys a chance to learn how to do the job. It isn't easy to stay patient. It also has to be judged case to case. I can't help but think of recent Jets head coaches like Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, and Rex Ryan. I don't think any of them improved as coaches as their tenures progressed. Heck, they all got second jobs and didn't show much growth. Getting rid of Rich Kotite after two years was obviously the right move. He was in so far over his head that he wouldn't have figured it out if the Jets had given him a century. Not everybody learns. Sometimes, though, you give up on somebody too soon. The new guy comes in and makes the same mistakes the old guy would have learned not to make from experience.
There is a happy medium. Too many teams are too rash to make firings. The Panthers are being rewarded for giving their guy a chance.
Lesson 4: Nothing matters until you find a quarterback. You keep trying to find one until you have one.
For all of the good lessons the Panthers might have taught the league, none of it would matter if they did not have an MVP type quarterback in Cam Newton. They invested a premium resource in him, the number overall pick in the 2011 Draft. In taking Newton, they passed over the likes of Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, JJ Watt, Julio Jones, and AJ Green. Losing out on one of those guys is quite a price to pay. History has proven it to be the right move, though. As great as those guys are, the Panthers wouldn't be in the Super Bowl if you replace Newton with one of them, even Watt.
At the time, it would have been easy to pass on a quarterback. Andrew Luck had the opportunity to enter that Draft, but he passed. Newton was not an obvious decision. You can look back at what plenty of experts were saying. There were plenty of doubts. Heck, you can look at the idiotic stuff I wrote about how Newton wouldn't translate to the pros.
It's risky to take a quarterback number one overall. The Panthers had a fallback position. They had invested a second round pick in Jimmy Clausen the year before. They could have argued that they needed to see what they had in Clausen.
If they had done that, their franchise would have been in much worse shape. Quarterback evaluation is an inexact science. If you aren't 100% sure you have your guy, and you see somebody who you are convinced can be a franchise quarterback, you had better take him.
Why would Jimmy Clausen's feelings getting hurt dissuade a team from making a move at quarterback? If he was good enough, he could have beaten out the rookie. What if Clausen was also great? Is having two terrific quarterbacks a problem?
Teams get tunnel vision when it comes to quarterbacks. They get scared they will be criticized for "admitting a mistake" if they take a quarterback at the top of the Draft with another young signal caller on the roster. Really it's about giving yourself as many chances as possible. It's hard to find a quarterback. It's also essential. The Panthers understood this, and it has brought them to within one win of a championship.