Arizona and Carolina - Two Different Ways to Arrive at the Same Place

I very nearly called this post "Franchise Building 101" but decided to use two different examples to illustrate the point.

Yes, in my humble opinion, there are two diametrically opposed ways of building a franchise that will both wind up in the same spot...kinda like radical left and radical right politics both end up as TROUBLE (you want Hitler or Stalin or do you prefer Mussolini?). But we're talking positive changes here, as in how the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers have risen to prominence in the NFL recently.

The Cardinals and Panthers have both approached things in similar ways on one hand. They built up their defenses first with the idea of letting the offense come into its own with the help of a solid D. That's a proven winning roadmap IF you can pull it off on the offensive side of the ball. Since taking a QB out of college and helping him along the way to becoming a star has been very hit or miss throughout NFL history, that's the more difficult (but rewarding) path...and has been how the Carolina Panthers have approached team-building.

Pretty much "how you do it" is based on pure happenstance. Coach/GM get hired, often to a flailing organization, and they have pieces to put together. Major pieces. As it turns out in Carolina, the Panthers had no offense (last in the NFL with Jimmy Claussen at QB), hired a new Head Coach (Ron Rivera), and GM Marty Hurney's final season saw him draft Cameron Newton from Auburn before Hurney was shown the door due to salary cap mismanagement. 

The Panthers brought in David Gettleman and the rest is history. He and Rivera concocted drafting plans that Gettleman had the final say in, but likely (it appears) listened to input from a Head Coach that he didn't pick (Rivera). The fact the two men have a good working relationship is likely due in no small part to the professionalism of both men and sharing a common goal, outlook, and ideas of team building.

How did the Cardinals do it?

The Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers both built the defense first while trying to pick up pieces to a multi-year plan on the offensive side. They drafted high profile players like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu while keeping core veterans like Calais Campbell and Larry Fitzgerald. Over several drafts, they got guys like WR Michael Floyd, OG Jonathan Cooper, and WR John Brown and finally have a solid O-line and the only real weakness on the team (all teams have them) is their lack of a smashmouth, physical, power running game. 

As it turns out, this isn't such a horrid thing as they close out games via other means - a stingy, star-studded defense and a veteran QB in Carson Palmer with likely a top-3 WR corps means Palmer can run a West Coast offense, throwing high-percentage short passes to a number of capable guys. Same idea as the Joe Montana years, minus Joe Cool's immortal presence of course, but rather looking at short passes as "long hand-offs" to get the ball out of traffic and into space.

Their current Johnson & Johnson backfield is a normal modern NFL backfield co-op, with "CJ2K" being on the downslope of a nice career as the guy who can still take it to the house while David Johnson, a rookie, is a bit bigger guy and a receiving threat out of the backfield.

Along the way, the team has transformed pretty much the league's worst offensive line (remember poor Kevin "Corn on the " Kolb?) to one of the league's better units, acquiring guard Mike Iupati along the way.

That's one way to do up a defense, keep feeding that defense parts to keep it top-tier from one season to the next, and then build the offense with the thought down the road of acquiring a plug-and-play QB. That's actually the easier road, albeit more costly against the salary cap because you're paying for a near-franchise/franchise QB from the first day you've got him. It's also a more proven, stable way of doing things as you're not waiting for years wondering "did we draft the right kid to lead us?"

How did the Panthers do it?

 Carolina's approach was from the other end - get the young QB to start with and let him "grow up with his team." With Newton being the Rivera Era's initial draft choice, both the QB and HC were incoming rookies. 

Recent lightning-fast QB development aside, Cam came from an entirely different offense than that used by typical NFL teams, and much of his recent success can be credited to none other than Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula, who has tailored the Carolina offense to fit the people they have, not the other way around.

As a bit of a side note, I've always felt a great offensive mind changes his scheme to fit his players instead of forcing square pegs into round holes like a guy like Steve Spagnuolo apparently does on the defensive side. No flexibility. But "flexible" has been Shula's middle name as the offense went full-circle from Cam's rookie season to now. It was a running game with vertical passing when Cam was a rookie, and when the team actually had probable future Hall of Fame WR Steve Smith (and Greg Olsen as the safety valve). 

As the Panthers got younger and their roster turned over from some of those over-the-hill, over-priced players for the future (even though some like DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith hadn't finished their careers), they HAD to get that salary cap under control. The best way to do that is figure out when you can minimize the "dead money" cap hit, let go of some pricey guys, and draft/sign young players to fill those roles.

It's not the "quick way," but it's the way you go for longer-term NFL success. Cam's got another five years of playing his current game before they have to back off some of the running due to his age (he's only 26 now) and he becomes more of a pocket passer.

The beauty of this approach is that the idea is, by that time, Cam will  have ten years of NFL experience and has already shown this season that he has largely "figured things out." The playbook will never be larger than it is these days in Charlotte.

Since Newton was drafted, 4 of the 5 starting offensive linemen have changed. Only Ryan Kalil remains at center. The entire WR coprs has turned over. The only real holdovers are TE Greg Olsen and RB Jonathan Stewart, and even Olsen wasn't a Panther until Cam's second season, I believe, following Jeremy Shockey.

The Panthers were forced to go the longer-term road via the draft due to those salary cap issues. There was no way around it. In fact, one of Gettleman's famous phrases has to do with shopping for free agents at the "Dollar Store" because of it, and he was successful with an astonishing number of those low-dollar plug-ins. Ted Ginn, Jr. is one, but my favorite is the One That Got Away - SS Mike Mitchell, who played his way out of Carolina's salary range and signed with the Steelers. The team still hasn't filled his talent at the strong safety spot, but again, no team is bereft of needs - not even the top teams.

Rivera had to build BOTH sides of the ball, unlike Bruce Arians in Arizona. When Cam was a rookie, the Panthers simply could not stop runs up the middle. Gettleman fixed that when he drafted my favorite draft pick of all time other than Cam, and that's when he picked MLB Luke Kuechly in 2012. Josh Norman was added late in the same draft, and that soft middle is no longer soft with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, back-to-back picks at the top of the 2013 draft.

When you get a young QB like Cam, it's often better to have young players (with a small mix of veterans for stability and education) on the roster than a lot of older guys. The reason is that by the time a QB really hits his stride - 3 to 5 years after entering the NFL in general - those "older guys" will be gone either from the team or retired from the NFL, and the onus falls on the young QB to also "bring along" some younger guys while he's still putting the last pieces of the offense together. Better to have a group of mostly-young guys for the young QB to grow up with as I mentioned.

The reason for that is simply Human bonding. They've been in the trenches together before, seen the tough times together, and have an emotional chip in the game together at the same time. I can't help but think a QB and his O-line should be more of a unit than not, and that a young QB that has grown with the guys blocking for him has advantages. Those guys know what that QB can and cannot do well, so they play to those strengths and try their best to cover any shortcomings that they and only they (and the coaches) really know about. 

On the flip side, a team that grew up together and seeing a veteran QB with a name like Carson Palmer come in likely gives the rest of the offense some re-assurance that they won't have to "start from square one" like you would with a rookie QB, and they'd expect the improvement to be more of an immediate thing. And they would be right to a point...after all, even a veteran QB needs a little time to learn a particular system's peculiarities.

Where are they now?

That one's easy. 1-2 in the NFC playoffs, both with first-round byes, and the only decision that has to be made there is which team gets home field advantage throughout the playoffs. I think most Panthers fans would be incredibly happy before the season began if you told them we'd be #2 in the NFC for the playoffs. Fans would have taken that and been ecstatic. A win against Tampa Bay in Charlotte this Sunday means the Panthers lock up home field throughout, so they have skin in the game despite their first loss out of nineteen regular season games last week in Atlanta. 

Both the Cards and Panthers have top-five defenses and explosive offenses even if Arizona's offense is a bit more "refined" than that of Carolina, but the two teams are built entirely differently. 

I have been saying for years that the Panthers are built from the ground up to be, first and foremost, a power running team. They run the ball more than anyone in the NFL and are second in rushing yardage, which would bear out the power running theme.

Carolina also happens to have the most potent red-zone threat in NFL history with Cam Newton. He can be elusive when necessary and can out-run most NFL linebackers with his sub 4.6-40 speed. Last week, he showed us he can "truck" an entire team's defense in Atlanta. That play was just MONSTER "beast mode" out of Cam, to pilfer an existing nickname.

With renewed vigor and a lot less media scrutiny now that they are no longer undefeated, the Panthers can put that Atlanta game film on from last week, get their coaches' ire, and go out this Sunday with a purpose. The team has looked rather lackluster over the past month, and perhaps a loss is exactly the kick in the tail they needed heading into the playoffs facing teams a lot better than the Saints or Cowboys.

If the Panthers play like they did last week, any playoff run will last but a single game but Rivera's personal journey with the lone-loss 1985 Chicago Bears should help the team through this soul-searching time. Riverboat Ron has lived it and should be able to shepherd and motivate his team for the upcoming stretch - the most important stretch during any of these players' NFL careers.

I'd expect to see more than just one playoff game between the two teams over the next few years.

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