How to Rebuild: Carolina Panthers 2011-2015 Edition

Daniel Essen on how the New York Jets can follow a rebuild model set forth by the Carolina Panthers…

In the previous edition, we looked at the Seattle Seahawks and what led up to their Super Bowl run in 2013. This time around, let’s take a look at how the Carolina Panthers went from going 2-14 in 2010 and firing everyone, to going to the Super Bowl in 2015. There are a few lessons that are directly relevant for the New York Jets.

The Panthers had a terrible season in 2010 and fired head coach John Fox but kept their general manager, Marty Hurney. They then hired former Bears and Chargers defensive coordinator, and first-time head coach Ron Rivera.

Solve Problems Step by Step

When rebuilding its important to base the evaluation of a season on more than record alone. Often team statistics are a good litmus test as to where a team is at that point. The Panthers entered the 2011 season with many of the same problems as the Jets. They had an underacheiving defense and a horrendous offense. They had the 18th ranked defense in the NFL and the worst (32nd ranked) offense in the NFL. A 2-14 record landed the Panthers the first pick overall in the draft. They selected QB Cam Newton from Auburn. Then, in July, the Panthers traded for Bears TE Greg Olsen to specifically aide Newton’s growth into the NFL game. Their offense, incredibly, went from 32nd ranked to 5th in 2011. They still had issues on defense, though, as they fell to the 28th ranked defense that season.

In 2012, the Panthers drafted ILB Luke Kuechly and CB Josh Norman (5th round). That year they rose from a 28th ranked defense to 18th. Then, in 2013, after drafting DT Star Lotulelei, and DT Kewann Short, and another year developing their young defense the Panthers rose all the way to the 2nd best defense in the NFL. Sure enough, as their team showed statistical improvement on both sides of the ball, their record followed that upward trend. In 2013 they went 12-4 and made the playoffs. In 2014, they made up for the loss of WR Steve Smith, drafting WR Kelvin Benjamin and tried to solidify the offensive line in front of Cam Newton by drafting OG Trai Turner.

In the 2015 regular season, the Panthers had great balance with the 11th best offense and 6th best defense in the NFL while winning 15 straight games to start the season. That postseason they made a Super Bowl appearance.

The Jets finished this season with the 30th ranked offense and the 28th ranked defense in the NFL. The goal for next season is to improve on preferably both of those rankings because both are scarily close to the bottom of the league. That doesn’t mean we should be expecting the Jets to be top 5 on offense or defense next season. But, there has to be improvement. Whatever moves the Jets make in free agency and in the draft, they need to make sure that they’re upgrading at as many positions as possible.

In the draft, the Jets can continue going with the best-player-available route but while trying to avoid positions where they already have sufficient talent (i.e – Defensive End and Wide Receiver), particularly early in the draft. We’ve already seen how that has negatively affected their growth as a team by stacking first round defensive ends. However, in free agency they’ll have to try to bring in players that improve their need areas. For one example, a player like OLB Melvin Ingram or OLB Nick Perry should be targets for the Jets. The Jets outside linebackers this season struggled to collapse the pocket on QB’s, and force plays inside to players like Leonard Williams. Ingram or Perry would be a great compliment to their main strength along the defensive line.

Ignore the Noise, Make Tough Decisions

Both Ron Rivera, Cam Newton generated a good amount of negative noise, in different ways, that the Panthers had to work through to get to where they were in 2015.

Though it seems like selecting Cam Newton in 2011 was a no-brainer now, it wasn’t then. They had just picked Jimmy Clausen the year before and some believed it was too soon to select another quarterback. The Panthers, who did their due diligence scouting Newton, and knew most about Clausen, decided to select Newton. However, they had much more to deal with after they selected Newton. Everything Cam Newton did since his rookie year seemed to garner polarizing national attention. First it was finding out that Newton hated losing.  Then it was his honest desire to be an icon, the sustainability of his style of football, the dancing, the giving footballs to fans after touchdowns, etc. But the organization didn’t make a big deal about any of these things. Letting Newton be himself yielded a great deal of positives, particularly amidst the frenzy during his 2015 MVP season where every week was a new reason to criticize him. They never took the bait.

With Ron Rivera, it seemed like his job was on the line after two straight losing season in 2011 and 2012 with Cam Newton at QB. Many felt like Rivera could be the reason the team was underachieving and could be fired. In fact some people actual reported that he was fired. Being a first time head coach doesn’t always encourage the patience it could, as many Jets fans are aware. But Rivera’s firing never happened. Part of the confusion was self inflicted.

Earlier in 2012, The Panthers actually fired GM Marty Hurney 6 games into the season, after a 1-5 start. Hurney had been part of the organization for 10 years and saw them go to two NFC Championships and one Super Bowl. As a result, Hurney’s firing came much to the dismay of WR Steve Smith and DE Charles Johnson who were two of the longest tenured veterans on the team at the time. Firing a GM mid-season and keeping the head coach is a weird and dangerous move in terms of stability and organizational direction. But Jerry Richardson made the decision, and brought in David Gettleman to be their new general manager. Its also important to note that Gettleman wasn’t just a random hire. He had been an executive for the New York Giants since 1999 and was a senior pro personnel analyst for the Giants when they won the Super Bowl in 2012.

Richardson stuck with Rivera, though, despite the uncertainty that came with the general manager change in 2012. One of the main reasons they brought Rivera on because of his reputation building defenses and he did exactly that. In 2013, they were back in the playoffs. In 2014 they had miraculous playoff run after Cam Newton’s car accident. Finally, the 2015 run of 15 straight wins and a Super Bowl appearance, finally quieted any concerns about his job security.

The Jets seem to always take the bait when it comes public opinion and media firestorms. Whether its the Idzik billboard or re-signing Ryan Fitzpatrick, it seems the organization sometimes tries to hard to appease the fans, the media, or even sometimes groups of players (i.e – Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker). Doing so often undermines the entire process of rebuilding. The Jets have to be grown ups now.

This offseason, that’s going to mean making tough decisions that many fans or even some players in the locker room might not like. For example, cutting or trading any combination of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, or Sheldon Richardson won’t be universally agreed upon by fans and players alike. Neither will their first round pick in the 2017 draft (or really any of the other picks for that matter). It’s impossible to please everyone. The Giants boat party has reminded us what kind of overreactions are possible when it comes to New York sports. But, the first thought for the Jets front office should not be “will this quiet the media?” or “will this sell tickets?” or “will this make Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall show up to practice?” It should be  “will this benefit the long term success of the team?”

The Panthers’ rebuilding process certainly was not smooth. But despite having two different GMs from 2011-2015, the Panthers’ approach to the process remained fairly constant. They built through the draft, and they retained the best talent on their roster. Though the Panthers may have deviated from that approach in 2016 when they let Josh Norman go and suffered the consequences (fell from the 11th ranked to 29th ranked pass defense in the NFL), the build up to 2015 is a good model for the Jets in terms of taking it step by step and blocking out non-constructive noise.

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