Panthers GM places winning over loyalty

It was an awkward but funny moment during Jordan Gross' recent retirement news conference, when most of the people in the room laughed. It also was an eye-opening moment that most in the room understood.

It happened when the left tackle got around to thanking general manager Dave Gettleman as one the people who played a role in his 11-year career with the Carolina Panthers.

"I didn't like you very much last offseason, but I got over that," Gross said with a smile.

He was referring to Gettleman asking him to restructure his contract a year ago, in essence making 2013 the last season of what Gross planned to be his final NFL contract.

Gross wasn't happy about it at the time, but he went along with the request because he's a team player and it allowed Gettleman salary-cap room to improve the team in other areas.

As he got to know Gettleman, Gross learned to like him.

He should. Gettleman is a likable guy.

But there remained doubts about the new GM, even late in the season when he hadn't approached Gross about a new deal. As Gross repeatedly said in response to questions about his future, the new regime has a different way of doing things.


Former general manager Marty Hurney was loyal to a fault. He rewarded key players with contracts that, looking back, were bad for the long-term health of the team. He was particularly loyal to players who had been with the team a long time.

Gettleman's primary allegiance is to winning.

He showed that when he asked Gross, one of the team's most respected players and leaders, to knock a year off his contract -- a year Gettleman probably would like to have back now that he realizes Gross' full value.

He showed that when he traded linebacker Jon Beason, one of the more popular Panthers, three games into this past season.

He's showing it big time by saying the team continues to evaluate Steve Smith and what role -- if any -- he will have in 2014 for the reigning NFC South champions.

That he said it about the team's all-time leading receiver without much provocation sent a message loud and clear that Hurney's way was a thing of the past.

It's like a story of good cop, bad cop.

Hurney was the good cop. Gettleman is the bad cop, even though he's not a bad person.

Gross finally got over his dislike for Gettleman by spending time with him. Gross told me on Sunday, during Smith's fundraiser to fight domestic violence, that his good friend needed to do the same.

That reportedly happened Tuesday when Smith, at his own request, met with Gettleman. What, if anything, will come of it remains to be seen.

As I wrote when Gettleman first raised questions about Smith's future, the 13-year veteran deserved better treatment. Gettleman should have talked to Smith before talking to reporters, which would have prevented this from becoming a soap opera and angering a player you don't want angry.

But this is Carolina's new way of doing things. Gettleman has taken emotion out of the equation. He has been entrusted with doing his job without interference from team owner Jerry Richardson, who in the past might have protected Smith.

"When I went there as a rookie, that's all everybody told me about, that it's a real family organization 'cause that's how Jerry Richardson runs it," defensive end Greg Hardy told me during a Wednesday trip to ESPN headquarters.

"Gettleman coming in with a money-first attitude ticked everybody off, man. So he kind of changed the face of the organization to: It is a business, and once business is settled we can be a family."

It's hard to argue with the formula. It's one that, as Gettleman learned in his time with the New York Giants, wins Super Bowls. It's a my-way-or-the-highway approach that might even be essential in tough salary-cap times.

Gettleman is looking at the cold, hard facts that say only 16 times in NFL history has a receiver gained 1,000 yards after turning 35, and not once since Derrick Mason in 2009. Smith turns 35 in May.

But the GM can't overlook that there are star receivers who had more receptions at the age of 35 than at 34. Drew Hill improved from 74 to 90. Tim Brown went from 76 to 91. Cris Carter went from 90 to 96.

This isn't like when San Francisco let Jerry Rice go after the 2000 season. The 49ers had Terrell Owens emerging as a superstar.

The Panthers have ... well, nobody after Smith.

Smith still can be a No. 1 receiver for another year, maybe two. He'd make a helluva No. 2 receiver if the Panthers could find a No. 1 in free agency or the draft.

Gettleman doesn't appear to deal in ifs or possibilities. He looks at what's best long term.

He treats it like a business, even though the Panthers come off as one big, happy family.

That's reality. If Smith wants to remain with the team and ride off into the sunset as Gross did with a news conference full of laughter and tears, he probably will have to agree to a lesser role -- if not a lesser contract. And even that might not be enough for Gettleman.

Gettleman just has a different way of looking at things. While Smith is chasing numbers, attempting to finish his career ranked in the NFL's top 10 in receptions and yards, Gettleman is crunching them.

That doesn't always make for a harmonious relationship.

Gross got past that and, in the end, found an appreciation for Gettleman.

Smith must get to that point, too.

Gettleman isn't going anywhere.