We may question Gettleman, but plan sound

GM Dave Gettleman has positioned the Panthers to be able to re-sign its star players to long-term extensions. Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was getting a hard time on Tuesday in one of the hallways of the Ritz Carlton during a break in the NFL owners meetings.

Not about any of his decisions in free agency. About his weight.

The pressure was coming from former Panthers coach John Fox, who became friends with Gettleman when both were with the New York Giants. Down more than 40 pounds since being hospitalized with a heart condition last season, Fox seemed genuinely concerned.

Gettleman, holding a cookie as thick as a laptop in his right hand, laughed and shrugged off the advice.

He's handled criticism about his moves during free agency, from the release of wide receiver Steve Smith to the signing of little-known Tiquan Underwood, in similar fashion.

When asked how he felt about the heat he's been taking nationally -- and nobody has taken more during this offseason -- Gettleman began laughing before the question was complete.

"What was I thinking?'' he said. "I was thinking we're doing the right thing. We had a plan. We had a philosophy. We made a decision. We're going to stick with it.

"I felt fine.''

Whether you agree or disagree with the decisions Gettleman has made, you have to admire the way he sticks to the plan.

Overall, it's a good plan. He wants by this time next year -- or at worst the year after that -- to be in position to say the team is not in cap hell. He wants to be in position to tell agents that he has the money to pay his client, but "I don't think that's his value.''

What we forget when caught up in the emotion of decisions such as the one to release Smith is the Panthers were more than $16 million over the cap when Gettleman was hired last year. He got them to more than $15 million under the cap through restructured deals and cuts before last season.

That number got even better for 2014 after the league upped the salary cap to $133 million -- $5 million more than Gettleman expected.

His decisions put the team in position to place a $13.1 franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy, a key cog in the league's No. 2 defense. They are putting the team in position to sign quarterback Cam Newton to a long-term deal, probably before the end of next season.

They are putting Carolina in position to eventually sign middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and other players who were key to last season's 12-4 team to long-term deals.

So when Gettleman reads or hears that he's cheap or stupid or any of the other more colorful adjectives used to describe his free-agency moves, he can sleep at night knowing what he's doing is in the best long-term interest of Carolina.

"The best analogy I can use is the credit card,'' Gettleman said. "You've maxed out your cards, you paid part of it down, then all of a sudden you get a bonus. What's the smart thing to do? The smart thing is to pay the credit card off, not max it out again.

"That's what we're trying to do.''

Gettleman did that last year in a way that allowed the Panthers to become a playoff team for the first time since 2008. He's trying to do it this year in a way that will allow them to take the next step forward.

Some of his decisions may not look great on paper. They may look like a step backward. Not retaining any of your top four wide receivers from a season ago is at the top of the list.

But Gettleman is quick to point out that when he was with the Giants in 2011 nobody expected Victor Cruz to do anything after failing to catch a pass as a rookie.

Cruz caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns.

So who might be the Cruz out of Carolina's young group that includes Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and recently signed Underwood, known more for his hair than his play?

"I don't know,'' Gettleman said. "It's going to be fun to figure it out.''

You get the feeling Gettleman will figure it out. He has an eye for talent, so when he says right tackle Byron Bell may be a natural fit to replace the retired Jordan Gross at left tackle you tend to believe him.

When he says he's happy with the way free agency has gone, despite adding names few know without using a search engine, his smile is convincing.

So go ahead, give him a hard time.

He'll just laugh and move on with the confidence that he's doing the right thing.

He may even have an oversized cookie while doing it.