Icarus: The Fall of Dave Gettleman and the 2016 Carolina Panthers

He taught Icarus how to fly and warned him not to fly too high, which would cause the wax to melt, nor too low, which would cause the feathers to get wet with sea water. Together, they flew out of the tower towards freedom. However, Icarus soon forgot his father’s warnings, and started flying higher and higher, until the wax started melting under the scorching sun. His wings dissolved and he fell into the sea and drowned.
— Myth of Icarus

It’s a lesson that can be easily forgotten when experiencing the exhilaration of flying high. And like Icarus, Dave Gettleman flew too close to the sun and the 2016 Panthers, who not long ago felt that euphoria, have crashed and drowned. 

Since Dave Gettleman became Carolina’s general manager, he has demonstrated the confidence and daring that one needs to fly. He battled the intense headwinds of financial difficulty, tense goodbyes to Panther legends, and attacks from the Kraken as he flew from the tower. At times, he pushed the limits, flying high in 2013 without an offense and too low in 2014 with a left-handed left tackle. This year, however, Carolina’s Icarus flew too high, burning his wings and drowning the hope that he inspired amongst fans.

How could Gettleman make a tragic mistake? What made him forget Daedalus’ lesson?

Carolina’s GM has repeated that he believes in using free agency to set up the draft, but this past year he failed to heed his own advice. Carolina didn’t make any notable additions this past offseason. Afraid of disrupting team chemistry, Gettleman believed the Panthers success was sustainable. It wasn’t about missing pieces, it was about replicating success by preserving the group for another chance at a title.

It made sense at first. The window for success would only open for so long and key players were in or approaching contract years. Gettleman quickly extended Michael Oher to a 3-yr deal, signed Mike Remmers to a 1-yr deal, and looked in preparation to extend Kawann Short and potentially Josh Norman. When contract talks with Norman soured and Carolina rescinded his franchise tag, fans weren’t happy but trusted that Gettleman had a plan moving forward. Short, we thought, was obviously his target.

Gettleman, fans reasoned, was surely eying calloused veterans who could contribute in the right defense like Peanut Tillman had the year before so they could focus on keeping the core together. Carolina didn’t sign any defensive backs in the following week leading up to the draft, however. They never extended Short either.

When Gettleman drafted a defensive tackle in the 1st RD (Vernon Butler) and then an unknown corner (James Bradberry) from an unknown school in the 2nd Rd, Panther fans scratched their heads. Any other fanbase would have exploded in anger if their team was loaded at defensive tackle, and in dire need of secondary or offensive line help, drafted another hog-molly. Fans of the wildly popular GM, nevertheless, defended it as a typical, and likely genius, Gettleman move. But even the most ardent Gettleman supporters quietly questioned if he was sticking to his best player available strategy, or if he sought to gain leverage in the Kawann Short negotiations. It would certainly be the negation of his philosophy if he had. Still, most faithfully trusted in Gettleman’s scouting expertise, and this corner did look like a bigger version of Josh Norman.

When Gettleman “traded third- and fifth-round picks with Cleveland and gave up a fourth-rounder to move up 16 spots” to get another corner, Daryl Worley, and then selected a third consecutive corner, Zack Sanchez, in the 5th Rd, the Panthers GM undeniably strayed from his draft philosophy. He had drafted for need. Sure he denied that he had, but the Panthers invested enough draft stock to at least see it play out. The draft wasn't set up by by free agency, it was cornered by the failures of free agency.  

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In retrospect, it was an unprecedented set of moves. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are improving as the season progresses, but they have faced expected challenges acclimating to the professional level. Vernon Butler has struggled with an ankle injury throughout the season, but few believed he would be more than a rotational player behind Short and Star Lotulelei anyway. Zack Sanchez isn’t even on the team, and Bene’ Benwikere, the prided Gettleman draft-gem that showed he was capable enough of a scout to pull it off, was cut a month into the season. 

It wasn’t the draft alone that melted Gettleman’s wings. It wasn’t even his hesitancy to tinker with a good thing. It was Gettleman’s impervious confidence that he could even defy his own creed of setting up the draft with free agency, which ultimately took him too close to the sun. He let free agency dictate the draft, not set it up, resulting in Carolina’s epic and Icarus-like fall. 

By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn
Follow his work on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles