It’s easy—and rational—to attribute Carolina’s success to the Cam Newtons and the Luke Kuechlys. Indeed, this team has a handful of stars playing the most important positions within its scheme. But as GM Dave Gettleman said at media night on Monday, “The NFL salary cap does not allow you to sign Pro Bowlers at every position.”
Gettleman was speaking to the importance of drafting and developing talent within your organization, but his point also applies to the veteran market, where he and his staff have brought in an unusually high number of important players through free agency or trade. Five of Carolina’s regular defensive contributors are on at least their third NFL team: defensive end Jared Allen; nickelback Cortland Finnegan; cornerback Robert McClain; safety Kurt Coleman; and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. Plus, longtime Bear Charles Tillman signed in free agency this past offseason, and two years ago ex-Saint Roman Harper jumped aboard. All of these men came cheap because they were believed to be on the downside of their careers.
There are three other key guys on offense who are on at least their third team: left tackle Michael Oher and wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Ted Ginn Jr. In all, that’s eight veteran contributors in Carolina’s lineup. So why all the success with retreads?
“I think the guys in our locker room accept the guys that come in very quickly,” said Panthers Ron Rivera. “A great example is when we brought in Cortland Finnegan in the middle the year, and the first guy to take him to dinner was Luke Kuechly. I think our guys see the value of bringing players in and trying to get them assimilated very quickly.”
Another player who entered midseason was Jared Allen. “When I got here [from Chicago] I could just tell that it was special and there was a different feeling,” he said. “You just want to do anything to fit it and help, and I’ve always said this whole year, it has been a humbling experience for me.”
What’s implied in Allen’s comment is that it’s not necessarily common for an NFL locker room to be so open and cohesive. With so much money at stake, players can have different agendas. Of course, every team that’s ever reached the Super Bowl has believed its culture and locker room is special. Surely there’s more to it than that.
“I think the organization, Coach Rivera, the coaching staff, they do a great job of identifying guys that fit into the culture, [but also] they’ve brought in guys that are familiar with the schemes,” said Cotchery.
Several Panthers players and coaches pointed to Coleman as just that kind of guy. “The nice thing with him coming to us,” said Rivera, “is he had some familiarity with [defensive coordinator] Sean McDermott. [As a rookie in 2010, Coleman played for McDermott in Philadelphia.] “We look for guys who fit our speed, our system. Kurt is a great example.”
Another one: Michael Oher, who as a youngster in Baltimore was coached by current Panthers offensive line coach John Matsko. “With Michael’s relationship with [Matsko], he really developed a fast relationship around [assistant offensive line coach] Ray Brown. I think the dynamics between those two coaches and Michael is very strong. I think that’s part of why [he has thrived].”
In the bottom-line world of pro football, player-coach relationships really only matter to whatever extent it translates into on-field success. Which is why, as Cotchery suggested, the scheme factors so heavily into this equation. Carolina’s offensive identity is very distinct: It’s a multipronged run-based approach that uses heavy personnel and miscellaneous move-blockers to set up misdirection runs and downfield passes. There’s a very specific definition for which types of players work in an approach like this.
It’s even truer on defense. The Panthers play a lot of classic Cover 3 and Cover 2 zones. Their blitzes are more complex but not necessarily novel. Most of them come off the pages of the late Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s book, which has been copied around the league, especially by Johnson’s longtime protégé McDermott.
“This defense is very technically and fundamentally sound,” said Coleman. “There’s no gray area, and when there is, we get it worked out. I think that’s the mark of a true defense. We’re not asked to do anything other than what our job states.”
And then, of course, there’s the simple point Gettleman made about finding veteran players. “We watch film and we work at it.”
Nothing like taking care of the basics.