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Examining what went wrong in Carolina

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

During Ron Rivera’s press conference at the 2020 NFL Combine, he ended his comments with some thoughts that struck me as particularly meaningful at the time, but that I didn’t have the chance to explore immediately with the focus on the draft.

“One of the things I talked about was trying to build a sustainable, winning culture. You know, we had a little bit of that going for awhile in Carolina. We had a five good year stretch. Unfortunately, we weren’t able, through attrition we weren’t able to continue that. But, that’s the starting point.”

Now a week out from what appears to have been a pretty interesting draft, I thought I’d dig a bit into what went wrong in Carolina - during and after that five year stretch - and what steps Rivera might be taking to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Rivera’s Tenure in Carolina

Hired in early 2011, Rivera was the fourth head coach in Panther history. The Panthers were coming off a 2-14 season in 2010, which was poor enough to get them the #1 pick in the 2011 draft, where they selected Cam Newton.

The Panthers struggled a bit in 2011, finishing 6-10, but, according to Football Outsiders, had the biggest year-to-year offensive improvement in team history, going from last in the league to 4th overall. That season they also became the first team in NFL history to have three players rush for over 700 yards (Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart). Their defense, however, was horrible that year, finishing last in the league. Steve Smith (WR), Ryan Kalil (C), and Newton (QB), were the team’s Pro Bowlers.

In 2012, the team took Luke Kuechly number 9 overall in the draft in an attempt to bolster their anemic defense. The Panthers struggled, starting their season 1-5 before General Manager Marty Hurney was cut loose. Over the rest of the season, they would go 6-4, finishing the season 7-9 under the interim management of Brandon Beane.

In 2013, the Panthers, now under the management of Dave Gettleman, would select two DTs with their first two picks in the draft (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short). They would post a 12-4 record, winning the NFC South and losing in the divisional round of the playoffs. They would end the season with 7 Pro Bowlers (4 on offense, 2 on defense, and 1 ST).

Before the 2014 season, the Panthers selected Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the draft, in an effort to get Newton a big offensive weapon. The Panthers went 7-8-1 and, improbably, won the weak NFC South, making the playoffs for the second year in a row. They won in the wildcard round and lost the following week. Greg Olsen and Kuechly were the only Pro Bowlers on the team.

AMFOOT-NFL-SUPERBOWL Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

In the 2015 draft, the team added another key defensive leader, Shaq Thompson (LB) in the first round. It ended up being the best season in Panthers’ team history, with the team going 15-1 under the guidance of league MVP Cam Newton. The Panthers won in the divisional round of the playoffs and the NFC championship, eventually losing to the Broncos in the Super Bowl.

My assumption is that the “five good year stretch” Rivera was referring to was 2013-2017, where the team made the playoffs in 4 of 5 years, but the cracks in the team’s foundation begin to show up in 2016.

In the 2016 draft, the team took Vernon Butler (DE) in the first round. Butler didn’t end up getting his first start in the league until his fourth season. They would lose a number of starters from their Super Bowl team, including Jared Allen (DE) (retirement), Charles Tillman (CB) (retirement), Roman Harper (SS) (free agency), and Josh Norman (CB) (free agency). Starting LT, Michael Oher spent most of the year on IR. The Panthers went 6-10 during the season and had five Pro Bowlers: Thomas Davis (LB), Kuechly, Olsen, Mike Tolbert (FB), and Trai Turner (G).

The Panthers took Christian McCaffrey in the first round of the 2017 draft. Months later, Gettleman was released and Marty Hurney, the GM when Rivera was originally hired, was brought back. The Panthers signed 9 free agents, including a 37 year old Julius Peppers, and proceeded to go 11-5 during the season, eventually losing in the wildcard round of the playoffs. Three of the Panthers’ offensive linemen were either named to the Pro Bowl (Turner), or All Pro (Norwell, D. Williams). Davis, Kuechly, and Gano (K) all got Pro Bowl invites as well.

Things Fall Apart

In 2018, the Panthers selected WR DJ Moore in the first round, helping to bolster the unit previously led by the disappointing Kelvin Benjamin, who was traded away to the Bills. Before the season began, Rivera lost both his assistant head coach/defensive coordinator (Steve Wilks) and offensive coordinator (Mike Shula) to jobs with the Cardinals and Giants, respectively. All Pro guard Norwell left in free agency to join the Jaguars. The Panthers ended up going 7-9 and missed the playoffs for only the second time in six years.

The Panthers took Brian Burns (EDGE) in the first round of the 2019 draft. Starting QB, Cam Newton, went down two weeks into the season with a foot injury. Undrafted second year QB, Kyle Allen, won his first four starts, but the Panthers would lose 5 of the next 6 - including the last of those games to the Redskins - and Rivera would be fired by owner David Tepper, citing his desire to move in another direction and start his head coaching search before the end of the 2019 season.

Looking at the Drafts

Thinking back on Rivera’s “attrition” comment, I expected to find that - when I went back to look at their picks - the Panthers wouldn’t have drafted particularly well to replace key players. That wasn’t necessarily the case, however.

In 2011, they had 8 picks and drafted the foundational player for their success - Cam Newton, who only finally left the team this offseason. They also drafted DT Terrell McClain, who has had a relatively long career, but nearly all of it off the Panthers (he was cut with injury issues after this rookie year).

In 2012, they had 7 picks and drafted difference makers Luke Kuechly (who has recently retired) and Josh Norman (in the 5th round). Of course, Norman was allowed to walk in free agency in 2016.

The 2013 draft had the Panthers with only 5 picks, but they made them count. Star Lotulelei (DT) played out all 5 years of his rookie deal in Carolina, going to Buffalo as a free agent in 2018. Kawann Short (DT) has spent his whole career in Carolina, getting a second deal after his rookie contract. And, depth LB, AJ Klein went to New Orleans in 2017, after his rookie deal ended.

In 2014, with 6 picks, the Panthers selected the underwhelming Kelvin Benjamin in the first, and though he never lived up to his promise in Carolina, they were able to trade him in 2017 for draft capital. Later round picks Trai Turner (G) and Tre Boston (S) would turn into a Pro Bowler and solid depth, respectively, though most of Boston’s best work would come after being cut by the Panthers in early 2017.

In 2015, the Panthers again only had 5 picks, but they made solid use of them. Shaq Thompson (LB), taken in the first, remains a key building block of their defense. Devin Funchess played his rookie contract out with the Panthers and left for Indy in free agency in 2018. All Pro Daryl Williams (G) was given a second contract that extended his rookie deal one additional season, and just left this offseason for Buffalo. Back-up LB, David Mayo played out his rookie deal in Carolina and left for the Giants in free agency in 2019.

With only 5 picks in the 2016 draft, the Panthers’ first rounder, Vernon Butler, busted. They picked up two CBs: James Bradberry, who just left the team at the end of of his rookie deal, and Daryl Worley. Worley was traded to the Eagles for Torrey Smith after two seasons, in 2018. The Bradberry pick, in effect, backfilled the Norman loss. This was the weakest draft of Rivera’s time in Carolina.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

In 2017, with 7 picks, the Panthers hit on transcendent talent, Christian McCaffrey, in the first. They also drafted WR Curtis Samuel in the second, in time to replace the outgoing Benjamin. They also took Taylor Moton, who eventually became their starting RT, in the second. One additional curiosity is they also took kicker Harrison Butker in the 7th, though he never played a regular season game for them. He was poached off their practice squad during his rookie season and eventually went on to win a Super Bowl with the Chiefs.

The 2018 draft, with 8 picks, yielded two players of note. First rounder DJ Moore (WR) has gone on to become a key piece of the Panthers’ offense, and second rounder Donte Jackson has fit into a starting CB role with the team.

It’s still too early to tell about the future of the 2019 draft class, and in any case, they had little effect on Rivera’s final season in Carolina.

During Rivera’s tenure in Carolina, the Panthers drafted top talent at several offensive skill positions (Newton, McCaffrey, Moore) AND key defensive positions (Kuechly, Thompson, and Norman). But, there were several drafts (2013, 2015, 2016) where the Panthers only had five picks, and the 2016 draft, in particular, failed to re-stock the team’s pantry.

Lessons Learned

So what can we, and Rivera, take away from his time in Carolina about how to better “build a sustainable, winning culture” in DC? Looking back over Rivera’s 8.5 years in Carolina, these key elements stand out to me:

  • Rivera coached under four different management regimes (Hurney 1.0, Beane, Gettleman, and Hurney 2.0) in Carolina. Across the board, Hurney drafted the best, in my opinion, taking Newton, Kuechly, and Moore. Gettleman’s early picks, aside from his last one, McCaffrey, were actually average at best (Lotulelei, Benjamin, Thompson, and Butler). The GM turnover he experienced in Carolina is surely something he would like to avoid in Washington, if only for the sake of keeping his talent pipeline full. I suspect Rivera has a keen sense too, of the importance of the draft in not just yielding a star per season, but also depth players to keep the team moving along.
  • It’s hard to say how much, if at all, Rivera regretted letting certain free agents get away in his time there. What is very clear though is that the Panthers (with John Matsko) created a pretty amazing offensive lineman academy in Carolina. Center Ryan Kalil (second rounder) was a multi-year All Pro. Andrew Norwell was taken as an UDFA in 2014 and groomed into an All Pro by 2017. Trai Turner, selected in third round in 2014, is now a 5 time Pro Bowler. And 2015 fourth rounder, Daryl Williams was named second team All Pro in 2017. In 2018, the Panthers lost both starting tackles in the pre-season and Norwell (the league’s best pass-protecting guard at the time) walked in free agency. Their o-line power ranking slipped from about 10 to 17, year over year. The things we’ve heard thus far from Rivera suggest he has learned the “importance of offensive line versatility” lesson very well.
  • I had gone into this piece thinking “attrition” was focused primarily on player development, but as I got into it, I think it applies to coaches as well. In 2018, Rivera became a bit of a victim of his own success. He lost both his top coordinators to other teams as the Panthers’ winning ways gained notice. One wonders if part of his coaching calculus in DC wasn’t selecting coaches who have topped out at coordinator (Del Rio) and are just getting their first shot (Turner), at least in part because they can likely be counted on to stick around for awhile and help provide stability.

Have I unlocked the enigma that Ron Rivera laid out for us in his Combine presser? Only time will tell. But, I do love the fact that Rivera is the sort of coach who - without ego - can look back on what he has done well and what he hasn’t and use that information to try to chart a more successful path forward in the future. I can’t wait to see the next phase of the Riv-Era in DC.