SAN FRANCISCO — When the stubby guy with a wicked bad Boston accent uttered the phrase entering his first draft as general manager of the Panthers in 2013, fans must have thought Carolina made a mistake hiring that Yankee.
“Big men allow you to compete,” Dave Gettleman said. “We're certainly going to look at the big hog mollies.”
Big hog mollies?
Gettleman, who had been grinding nearly 30 years as a scout, must have spent one too many nights in the film room.
“Yeah, people thought I was crazy,” Gettleman said now.
It turns out, a big hog molly is a term that helped explain Gettleman’s philosophy for building a football team: from the inside out.
Gettleman first heard the term “hog molly” from longtime scout George Sengal when he was in his early days working with the Bills. It’s another name for the Northern Hogsucker fish, which is very strong for its size (usually about two pounds) because it spends its life fighting against heavy currents in fast-moving streams. And it’s ugly. But for Gettleman, a hog molly represents a strong, big-bodied player who knows how to fight in the trenches.
“Tom Coughlin made a great statement to me fairly early when he came in [as Giants coach]: big men allow you to compete,” Gettleman said. “And the more you look at it, the more you watch film—I was a pro [personnel] guy for 15 years, all I did was watch film—and it’s true. If you’re not strong on either side of the line with the big guys, it’s going to bite you. It’s going to cost you. That was the one thing I knew we had to do.”
And that statement stuck in Gettleman’s head as he made his first two draft picks as the Panthers’ general manager: nose tackle Star Lotulelei (6' 2", 311 pounds) and defensive tackle Kawann Short (6' 3", 299 pounds).
Two defensive tackles with his first two picks? “Everyone looked at me like I had brain damage,” Gettleman said.
A year later, Gettleman drafted LSU guard Trai Turner (6' 3", 310 pounds) and signed Andrew Norwell (6' 5", 320 pounds) as an undrafted free agent, rounding out the group of players that represent the foundation for what the Panthers do on offense and defense heading into Super Bowl 50. Lotulelei and Short give the Panthers a hard-to-move defensive interior on the line. They set the tone for the defense and allow linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to run and hit without many blockers on them.
Turner, who is just 22, has quickly become one of the best young guards in the NFL. He and Norwell, along with exceptional center Ryan Kalil, are the focal point of the Panthers’ varied run game. Not only are they strong enough to hold the point of attack, but they’re athletic to the point that all three are used to pull and trap in the Panthers’ power run game.
“We’ve got a bunch of smart and tough guys,” offensive line coach John Matsko said. “Kalil is very rare, he’s [former Steelers great and Pro Football Hall of Famer] Mike Webster. Trai is coming on. He improves every day. Andrew is very smart and tough.”
Matsko, who worked with Gettleman while both were with the Giants, said that all of the hog molly talk was music to his ears.
“Dave knows a football player,” Matsko said. “It’s really a credit to Dave that he worked as long as he did. He got an opportunity and he made the most of it. Dave’s a worker, a grinder and he knows a football player.”
Once fans saw Gettleman’s plan at work on the field, it didn’t take long for them to go hog-wild for the hog mollies. The hog molly sandwich debuted at Bank of America Stadium before the 2014 season, and Gettleman was consulted on it, according to the Charlotte Observer. Among his directives: it should drip down the eater’s arm, and it should be on bread that won’t get soggy. The result: eight ounces of house-smoked beef brisket, french-fried onions, cole slaw, barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeno peppers and four slices of bacon, on a Kaiser roll.
“It really kind of took off,” says Gettleman.
All the way to the Super Bowl.