The NFL tends to be a copycat league. When the Patriots found success on offense with the combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end, teams like the Colts and Vikings followed suit. After the Panthers began to implement read-option concepts from Cam Newton's college playbook during his rookie season, the 49ers, Seahawks, and Washington all went with heavier doses of the zone-read the following season. And as the Cardinals have had success pushing a bigger safety like Deone Bucannon into a linebacker role, we've seen the Rams do the same thing with a failed safety prospect in Mark Barron. The efficacy of these moves vary, but you get the idea.
Given that they've won three straight division titles and posted a league-best 15-1 record during the 2015 regular season, now seems like a good time for NFL teams to start copying the Carolina Panthers. Of course, that's easier said than done. It's one thing to want to copy an offense built around Carolina's concepts, but it's another to pull that off with a quarterback who isn't as athletic and talented as Newton. For instance, it's easy to say more coaches should copy Ron Rivera's aggressive style on fourth down, but do those coaches have the combination of Newton and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield?
To figure out what to copy, we have to figure out how we got here. Carolina's path to the Super Bowl was paved in an unlikely manner, mixing missteps with strokes of sheer brilliance. There are aspects which are utterly impossible to steal and concepts from which the vast majority of teams could learn. The Panthers have managed to get more out of their talent than just about any team in football this season. Let's run through how that talent was acquired by looking at the 10 most meaningful moments from Carolina's building process to figure out what the Panthers have done well.
Going in chronological order that starts a full decade ago with one of the Super Bowl's biggest question marks:
1. April 23, 2005: Panthers select safety/linebacker Thomas Davis with their first-round pick.
The longest-tenured player on Carolina's roster, Davis was a hybrid prospect who actually preceded the Bucannons and Barrons of the world by several years. The Panthers started him out at a strong safety before moving him to strong-side linebacker, but he eventually settled in on the weak side, where his range and athleticism played up in pass coverage.
Davis' tenure with the Panthers has been star-crossed. He famously tore his ACL three times in three years before finally returning in 2012. Since then, not only has Davis mostly been healthy, but he's been even better than before the ACL injuries. In concert with Luke Kuechly, Davis's coverage abilities have come to define what makes the Carolina defense so effective. It would be a huge blow if he were to miss the Super Bowl with the broken arm he sustained against Arizona, given that he was the best player on the field before Darren Fells inexplicably thought he could leap over a standing NFL player. Given what Davis has overcome, though, it's hard to imagine that he would skip out on the Super Bowl with anything short of a missing arm.
Davis is the only player from the 2005 or 2006 Panthers drafts left on the roster; this was mostly a wasted draft for general manager Marty Hurney after Davis' selection, given that the team's second-round pick (Eric Shelton) was a running back who racked up eight carries while both their third- and fourth-round picks, Atiyyah Ellison and Stefan Lefors, respectively, failed to ever suit up for Carolina. Their other third-rounder had a wildly successful run, but sadly for the Panthers, the vast majority of Evan Mathis' impressive career has come elsewhere. The Panthers will see him on the other side of the ball during the Super Bowl.
Hurney's best draft for many years, in 2007, saw the Panthers come away with three building blocks in four tries. In addition to Kalil and Johnson, Carolina used its first-round pick on middle linebacker Jon Beason, who would play at a high level before injuries irreparably changed his career. The exception in the bunch was second-round wideout Dwayne Jarrett, but that happens. Kalil and Johnson are still anchoring either side of the Carolina lines, eight years later.
3. Jan. 13, 2011: The Panthers hire Ron Rivera as their head coach.
You already know what Ron Rivera has become, but he was hardly a slam dunk candidate when the Panthers hired him to be the fourth head coach in franchise history. The Panthers were Rivera's ninth head coaching interview. He was fired by the Bears as their defensive coordinator in 2006, was coordinating a Chargers defense which finished 10th in points allowed in 2010, and was competing against a group of coaches who would not sniff a head-coaching gig today. Rivera beat out Rob Ryan, Greg Manusky, and Perry Fewell. He took a pay cut of more than 50 percent from what incumbent John Fox had been making, and inherited a 2-14 team whose quarterback was Jimmy Clausen.
Rivera has become one of the league's best coaches, developing a bevy of young defensive talent while maturing as a game manager. Once the poster child for conservative late-game decisions, Rivera snapped after an infuriating 24-23 loss to the Bills during Week 2 of the 2013 season and morphed into Riverboat (or Analytical) Ron. The Panthers were 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer up to that point; since, Rivera's Panthers are 16-3-1 in those same contests. Few coaches show the propensity to adapt or change their styles, even when their personnel and overwhelming evidence suggests that they should push in a different direction. Rivera has. While that swing in close games isn't entirely dependent upon his fourth-down decision-making by any means, it's a sign of how progressive and enlightened he has become as a coach. He's now one of the most valuable coaches in football.
4. April 28, 2011: Carolina uses the first overall pick on quarterback Cam Newton.
While the 2011 class was quite possibly the greatest defensive draft in NFL history, the Panthers don't regret passing up the likes of Von Miller and J.J. Watt for an offensive weapon. You don't need me to tell you about Newton, who is about to win his first Most Valuable Player award. He's good.
What is worth remembering, though, is just how controversial the Newton selection was at the time. Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel interviewed 24 personnel men before the draft and asked them about the quarterbacks in that year's class, and the results are painful to read in hindsight. Of 24 executives, 11 said they wouldn't take Newton in the first round; one said he wouldn't pick the Auburn star at all. A whopping 13 of the 24 said Newton would either be a bust or play without ever turning into an effective quarterback. When polled, executives projected Missouri starter Blaine Gabbert as a more desirable candidate than Newton, with Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, and Christian Ponder subsequently ranking ahead of Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick.
In other words: Nobody knows anything. The rest of Carolina's 2011 draft was a mess; Hurney had already dealt away his second-round pick to the Patriots to acquire the forgettable Armanti Edwards in a deal which ended up as the 89th pick for the 33rd selection. None of Carolina's seven other selections lasted until the final year of their respective rookie deals. Even with the lack of help elsewhere, though, it's impossible to have a bad draft when you find your franchise quarterback.
5. July 29, 2011: Carolina trades a 2012 third-round pick to the Bears for tight end Greg Olsen.
Let's pause for a moment so Bears fans can stop wincing. This is how bad trades happen. Then-Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo hired former Rams head coach Mike Martz to serve as offensive coordinator. Martz had no use for tight ends, which marginalized Olsen, the team's 2007 first-round pick. Olsen had seemed to be on the cusp of a breakout after a 60-catch season in 2009, but he dropped down to 41 catches in 2010. With Olsen one year away from free agency in an offense which didn't suit his skills, the Bears were stuck and traded Olsen for a third-round pick. To be fair, they used the third-rounder in the deal to acquire Brandon Marshall, but that just reminds Bears fans of another bad trade, and that's a lot of wincing for one paragraph.
The Olsen deal is a reminder of why teams take chances on first-rounders like Trent Richardson, even after they've struggled during their first (or second) stops in the NFL. It can be dangerous to trust your college scouting against years of professional evidence, and the Panthers might have been able to sign Olsen as a free agent a year later, but there are times where you end up finding a valuable asset for far less than it would have cost at any other point. The Panthers bought about as low as they possibly could on Olsen and found an offensive building block. That's a great trade for Hurney.
6. Summer 2011-12: Marty Hurney hands out a series of lengthy contract extensions to the young talent on his team.
Here's where things go south for Carolina's then-general manager. With the Panthers coming off of a wildly disappointing 2-14 season, Hurney made two masterstrokes in hiring Rivera and drafting Newton. In an attempt to solidify the talent of his team going forward, Hurney bet big on the core of Carolina's roster. Really big. In many cases, Hurney's instincts in terms of his players' talent weren't wrong, but the price he paid was onerous. During the next two years, he handed out the following deals:
Star center Ryan Kalil got a six-year, $49-million extension with $19 million guaranteed, giving him the largest deal of any NFL center.
James Anderson, a run-plugging outside linebacker, took home a five-year, $22-million deal with $8.5 million guaranteed.
Safety Charles Godfrey received a five-year, $27.5-million deal with $12.4 million guaranteed.
Thumping middle linebacker Jon Beason signed a five-year, $50-million deal with $25 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid interior linebacker in league history.
Thomas Davis, coming off of two ACL tears, signed a five-year extension worth $36.5 million with $8 million guaranteed.
Budding star Charles Johnson, who formed the team's pass-rush core alongside Greg Hardy, signed a mammoth six-year, $76 million deal with $32 million guaranteed to stay out of free agency.
Kicker Olindo Mare signed a four-year, $12-million deal, ending stalwart John Kasay's time with the team.
Running back DeAngelo Williams flirted with the Broncos, coincidentally, before returning to Carolina on a five-year, $43-million extension which guaranteed him $21 million.
Finally, the following year, the Panthers doubled down on running backs by giving Jonathan Stewart a six-year, $37-million deal with $22.5 million in guarantees.
Remember that Hurney was handing these contracts out when the cap was at $120 million; it's risen by nearly 20 percent to $143 million. Even the best deals from this group haven't turned into bargains. Davis' deal turned out well after the Panthers forced him to take a pay cut after his third ACL tear. Kalil is a fantastic center who has the second-highest cap hit in football. Johnson is a valuable two-way end, but he's averaged 9.6 sacks per 16 games since signing his deal and has a larger cap hit than Watt. Stewart is unquestionably talented, but injuries and timeshares to avoid injuries have prevented him from posting even a 1,000-yard season since his extension. And that's before getting to the other deals, which are disastrous without needing hindsight.
In every one of these deals, Hurney either paid market value or a premium to keep the Panthers together. In doing so, he kneecapped the team for years to come. Carolina has had to repeatedly restructure these deals to create the cap space to field a 53-man roster. The Panthers haven't been able to invest meaningfully in free agency and have been forced to let contributors they've unearthed leave because they simply can't afford to retain them. The Panthers are a win away from their first Super Bowl title; with a better cap situation, this could have been the ascension of a dynasty.
That's because Hurney was about to hit his finest moment.
7. April 26-28, 2012: Hurney drafts linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman.
Oh, just finding two of the 10 best defensive players in football, no big deal. Kuechly inexplicably fell to the ninth spot in the first round out of the league's general disinterest in interior linebackers, with Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon, Morris Claiborne and Mark Barron all coming off the board before the Boston College star. Hurney could have looked at the presence of (the injured) Beason and Davis in his linebacking corps and drafted for a need elsewhere, but he went with the best available player and came away with a Hall of Fame-caliber defensive asset.
If there's something to be learned here, it's that teams are probably underestimating the value of rangy linebackers in the modern NFL. The Panthers (with Kuechly and Davis) and the Patriots (with Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower) are the two teams who have really gone out of their way to get the most out of a pair of athletic, gifted linebackers without really worrying about having them rush the quarterback. I wouldn't be surprised if more teams started heading in that direction in years to come. And we should note that Kuechly's range wasn't a post-draft discovery. He showed it at B.C. and tested exceptionally well at the combine. The "freak" label would not be misapplied here.
Norman, meanwhile, needed a couple of years of development before turning into a star. The fifth-rounder struggled mightily as a rookie before being benched, spent his sophomore season alternately injured and inactive, and was reportedly a candidate to be released before the 2014 season. He finally turned things around during 2014, improving as the season went along, before turning into arguably the league's best cornerback during the 2015 campaign.
8. Oct. 22, 2012: The Panthers fire Hurney after a 1-5 start.
In hindsight, should the Panthers have been so brash about firing Hurney? At the time, there wasn't much of an argument against doing so. I certainly agreed with the move. The emergence of Newton and Kuechly as stars was a reasonable riposte, and the further ascension of Norman makes it even more difficult to justify the decision. When you find three elite assets in two years in the draft, you're unquestionably doing something right. Had Hurney been given time for those players to develop, there's no way the Panthers would have let him go.
And yet, there's enough in the way of mistakes elsewhere to justify the decision. Hurney's aggressiveness in dealing future first-round picks for present second-rounders turned his 2009 and 2010 drafts into disasters, and when those picks turned into Jeff Otah and Everette Brown, the decisions got even worse. The only players left from the 2008-10 drafts still on Carolina's roster are Stewart and Robert McClain (who left and came back as a street free agent this year). Hurney's cap decisions crippled the team for years; it's a testament to how great the selections of Newton and Kuechly were and how smart he was to hire Rivera that the Panthers have been able to overcome those woes. Hurney's legacy was once disastrous; now, it's complicated.
9. Jan. 10, 2013: Carolina hires Dave Gettleman as its new general manager.
Again, it's hard to overstate how undesirable Carolina's job must have looked when the team hired Gettleman away from the Giants. While Newton had shown promise during his rookie season, the Panthers had gone 8-24 in their previous two seasons and were $16 million over the salary cap, with bad deals up and down their roster. Gettleman beat out fellow Giants product Marc Ross, Titans executive Lake Dawson, and Montreal general manager Jim Popp for the job. It was a mess.
Gettleman promptly won the division in each of his first three seasons as general manager. With no flexibility in free agency, Gettleman has managed to mine the bargain bin and come away with useful contributors. In 2013, it was Ted Ginn and Mike Mitchell. Last season, it was Jerricho Cotchery. This season, it was the amazing return to form of Michael Oher, who went from being a liability at right tackle to an above-average left tackle. His best draft is still probably 2013, when he used his first two picks on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, both of whom are familiar friends with Russell Wilson after the divisional round. You can make a case, given the limited resources he's had available, that Gettleman's been the best general manager in football since his arrival in Carolina.
10. March 13, 2014: The Panthers cut longtime wideout Steve Smith.
The hardest thing Gettleman has had to do, in some ways, helped propel the franchise forward. Both Gettleman and Rivera came in for enormous criticism after cutting Carolina's legendary wide receiver, not the least of which came from Smith himself. You can make a case that the move was handled poorly, that the Panthers tried to surreptitiously find a trade market for Smith before being embarrassed when the news leaked publicly, and then released him without giving Smith any advance warning. The quotes Gettleman and Rivera gave after the move were boilerplate and offered little insight into a fan base which couldn't have understood why the Panthers were cutting their franchise player.
And yet, the Panthers got past it. Smith famously torched them for two touchdowns in his rematch against Carolina in Week 4 the following season, but the Panthers transitioned and survived without Smith. They saved a combined $8 million in the final two years of Smith's deal, giving them much-needed cap space to fill out their roster. They'll be done paying Smith after this season, which will save them the $3 million cap charge which would have come with cutting him this offseason (or the $12 million it would have cost to have him on the roster). It was a move that was going to happen, whether during the 2014 or 2015 offseasons. There was no way around it, as painful as it might have been.
Beyond that, though, you can look at the move and wonder if it was the moment the team transitioned from being Smith's team to being Newton's team. Smith is a ferocious competitor and a legendary quote, but can you imagine the happy-go-lucky, dabbing Panthers with Smith at their center? Maybe you could, given that Carolina is 15-1 and a win away from the Super Bowl title. And it would have been fun to see Smith, sidelined with a torn Achilles, have a chance to win his first Super Bowl in what would have been his final season as a pro.
Then again, the Panthers aren't a storybook team. They don't fit easily constructed stories of how to build or develop a Super Bowl winner. They made mistakes along the way. Lots of them. They were close to firing Rivera during the 2013 offseason (although not, apparently, after they started 1-2 the following season.) In 2014, they were 3-8-1 and could justifiably have shut Newton down for the season due to injuries, both before and after he was in a nasty car wreck. But they didn't, they won the division at 7-8-1, and it's been an upward trajectory ever since.
The thing you take away from the Panthers, more than anything, is just how unique their rise has been.