Overshadowed the Steve Smith storyline, this game may have revealed problems that are actually symptoms of a terminal illness. Ron Rivera's Carolina Panthers health is in question. There are a lot of questions to be answered before a full diagnosis can be given, but Dave Gettleman and personnel problems have to be considered. Perhaps, Panther fans have too easily let Gettleman off the hook for the Steve Smith situation and addressing personnel weaknesses, particularly at offensive line.
In typical fashion, Smitty perfectly captured the moment in a few words, "put your goggles on, there's going to be blood and guts everywhere." It was ugly, and I'm not talking about the game Fans stood shocked as the organization poorly handled the situation. The local media scrambled to rationalize the move as an aging receiver decreased production was no longer enough to counter his giant personality, one so big it was impeding the team's development.
Carolina's front office, however, remained steadfast throughout the fallout, claiming that this was just an organization in transition making a difficult, but necessary move. Gettleman rationalized:
To move on from a storied veteran player is probably the most difficult of all. A decision not to be taken lightly. However, after much thought I feel very strongly it’s the right one.
As I’ve stated many times, all decisions I make will be in the long term best interest of the Carolina Panthers. Decisions, either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good and it is imperative to take an unemotional global view.Ron Rivera found himself, as any head coach would, defending the team's ability to move on by really noting that they were only losing 10 total catches on average in losing the entire 2013 receiving core. Move on the Panthers did. A dismally quiet free agency period, where Carolina acquired less than sexy wide receiver replacements, near lulled Panther fans to sleep. Followed by what was thought to be solid draft, the Greg Hardy scandal, and typical training camp optimism, Panther fans started to buy into the parting ways with Steve Smith. Gettleman's talking points and the dazzling 1st round selection Kelvin Benjamin's early emergence helped fans work through their grief. The team's 2-0 start made all of it look perfect. Gettleman committed to younger leadership, grabbed defensive end Kony Ealy in the 2nd round, and hit on Trai Turner and Bene Benwikere in the 3rd and 5th rounds. It all looked to be paying off. Carolina's defense was stifling and fast in the first games, and the offense played well-enough. After beating the +Detroit Lions in convincing fashion in Week 2, it seemed that Carolina was better positioned than in 2013.
As Carolina appeared to have plugged the hole left by Smith's departure, Smitty was settling nicely in his new Baltimore home. The two seemed to have near perfectly matched identities--a tough salty receiver in a tough salty town. Smitty raged in Baltimore as Panther fans marveled at their new toy Benjamin. Exploding in Week 1 against division rival, the +Cincinnati Bengals, Smitty looked refreshingly youthful and expectedly scrappy, reigning in 7 catches for 118 yards and a TD. His big touchdown had the toughness that we always associate with Smitty as he threw a poor corner to the ground in the process. Some were surprised by Smith's production, but few were surprised that he had something to say about it:
Smith's production didn't slow after Week 1. He's been among the top performing wideouts in the NFL and the leading receiver on a surging +Baltimore Ravens team. We all know who he was talking to in this video, but here's a few stats to put a little money where Smith's mouth is:
It's pretty clear there's still gas left in Smith's tank. This massacre wasn't just indicative of Smith's continued capability, however. Yes, he balled more than anyone today, but Baltimore didn't win because of Smith, Sr. They won because Carolina played as poorly as Baltimore played well. The Panthers lost every battle. Joe Flacco stood undisturbed, surgically dismantling the secondary, in the few moments that the Ravens running game wasn't gashing the Panthers. The dominance wasn't any less on the defensive side for Baltimore. Cam Newton and the air attack was reasonably effective, but the offensive line was so horrendous it was just a matter of time before the wheels came off. It was a train wreck, a wreck that has lasted two weeks now.
So how bad is this? Sunday's carnage represents more than Smitty's departure from Carolina potentially being an unwise move. This game highlights serious personnel errors Dave Gettleman has over the past year--most significantly failing to field an adequate offensive line.
Nearly the first day on the job, Gettleman bumped heads with lifelong Panther Jordan Gross--suggesting he wasn't worth the money that he demanded. Gross later joked about this, but it was clear his retirement was because Gettleman wasn't interested in providing what Gross thought adequate compensation to a reliable veteran, who just had strong season. Gross chose to leave on the high not, rather than playing another year for less money he believed fair with likely less on-field success. What's "gross" about all of this is that Gettleman was wrong. Maybe not that Gross's production would likely decline and not really live up to the pay he was demanding, but Gettleman was wrong in believing Carolina could dollar cost average and make due with a mix of UDFAs tackles. It's not working.
This is a failure, one that cannot be denied. Carolina ranks 30th in run blocking and 28th in pass protection. They've allowed 9 sacks, 11 QB hits, and 26 hurries. Most despairingly is the team's horrible failure to get the run game going. Carolina backs average 2.98 yards per carry and find themselves entirely "stuffed" 28% of the time. Yes, getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage is a stat, and Carolina is ranked 31st in being run-stuffed, second worst to only Philadelphia who averages only 2.29 yards per carry.
This offensive line has just been atrocious. Much has had to do with poor play, but just as much has been because of inadequate personnel. Add in a couple of nicks and bangs, and Carolina is fielding a less than talented line running at 3/4 speed. Gettleman's plan was predicated on this working perfectly. Unfortunately, Nate Chandler and Byron Bell have to play career games each week to meet the demands placed on them. It's too much to ask. The most absurd part of this is imagining one of these guys going down to injury. How bad would Carolina be then? If this is the best the Panthers can muster, I'd hate to see the second and third stringers on a team where the starting tackles would be a second or third stringer on most other teams.
Similar problems exist on the defensive side also. Perhaps, not as apparent looking at the roster, but the problems are ther--specifically in the secondary. A group of cast offs, UDFAs, and players in the twilight of their careers, Carolina's secondary is good enough when the pass rush is productive. Like any secondary, they are going to struggle when asked to do too much. Right now, Carolina is asking them to carry their weight in lieu of the disappointing performance of the front seven. Personnel limitations also dictate Panther coverage schemes, lending to a lot of zone defensive plays because the guys struggle matching up one-on-one. Everyone thought Gettleman was pushing the limits last year with this formula, but it worked. He looked genius. He was a guy that could spy system talent. Well Carolina's system isn't working right now, and it shows with the 75 points allowed in the last two games. Carolina just isn't generating the pass rush necessary for Gettleman's secondary potion to work.
The scariest part of this is that Carolina has been getting thrashed even worse on the ground, where the real defensive backbone was supposed to be. Currently, the Panthers allow a demoralizing 5.1 yards per carry, the leagues worst. Carolina's secondary hasn't really been exposed yet because teams have been bludgeoning the Panthers on the ground. Carolina's losses have really come from the side of the ball everyone thought would be the greatest strength.
I'm not ready to say it's over, but the past weeks have revealed that there are deep personnel weaknesses where ultimately Dave Gettleman has to shoulder responsibility. True this team has suffered its share of injuries and been sapped with distractions, but so have other teams--like Baltimore who just put the stomping on Carolina. Missing Greg Hardy has been more devastating than anyone expected, particularly because of Charles Johnson's disappearance. This isn't just because of one player, though, Steve Smith included. In the most perfect of worlds, Gettleman would have pulled another rabbit out of the hat. The slight of hand in this magic trick would have come from an all-consuming defense that won games near single-handedly. The trick is busted right now, however, Gettleman should get a decent share of the blame. If we are going to trounce on Philly "Clappin Seal" Brown because he dropped a punt or on Wes Horton because of an encroachment play, we need to trounce on Gettleman for asking Rivera to turn a tin can offensive line and secondary into gold.
Parting ways with Steve Smith clearly isn't the cause of Carolina's woes, but it may be badly symbolic.
By the Professor