When a team follows up its best season in years with an offseason that has its fans fairly apoplectic, there can be several reasons. Personnel attrition, salary cap mismanagement, new blood in the coaching staff or front office ... there are all kinds of reasons teams fall off from one year to the next.
The 2014 Carolina Panthers have many burying their offense months before they play a single game, because general manager Dave Gettleman decided that he could get away with losing his three most prolific wide receivers from the year before, without any real replacements in the hopper. Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell walked out the door this spring, and the cap-strapped Panthers had to scramble to replace them. The 12-4 Panthers finished 14th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted passing metrics, but that's almost certain to head downward in the short term. Gettleman selected Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin in the first round, but it's uncertain how much he'll help in the short term -- Benjamin is a dynamic red-zone target, but he is still learning to be a consistent player.
Gettleman also barely blinked when left tackle Jordan Gross retired, and when safety Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn departed in free agency. That's a lot of talent out the back door, so fans could be forgiven for wondering why the Panthers seem to be adopting a rebuilding approach when consistent success seemed to be right in view. Meanwhile, Gettleman talks about "unfinished business."
In truth, it's the business he inherited when he took the job in January 2013 that has tied Gettleman's hands to a degree. The Panthers have had to jettison several onerous contracts, and the short-term demolition, though not pretty at all, may be necessary. Gettleman could have handled the Smith release better, to be sure, so mistakes have been made on both sides. What does it all mean? In an NFC South that looks a lot stronger in 2014, Carolina looks like the odd team out.
Best acquisition: Jerricho Cotchery, WR
This illustrates just how hamstrung the Panthers are from a cap perspective. Cotchery, who has had one 1,000-yard season in his career and actually had a bounceback season with the Steelers in 2013 with 46 catches for 602 yards and a touchdown, signed a five-year, $8.015 million deal that's basically a two-year contract with three voidable years at the end. Cotchery will essentially replace Steve Smith as the team's aging slot receiver.
Biggest loss: Steve Smith, WR
Yes, Smith isn't the same player he once was. But this offense wasn't set up for a prolific passing game. Cam Newton threw the ball 475 times last season -- to give that a bit of perspective, Peyton Manning completed 450 passes in 2013. Taken in context, Smith's 64 catches for 744 yards and four touchdowns doesn't look so bad. More importantly, and as previously stated, the Panthers didn't seem to have a contingency plan for Smith's release.
“I want to make sure that whatever team I go to, they’re going to get the best, in shape 35-year-old guy they can get," Smith said before signing with Baltimore. "If that happens to run through Bank of America Stadium, put your goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”
The Panthers will play in Baltimore on Sept. 28. Get your popcorn ready.
Underrated draft pick: Trai Turner, OG, LSU (Third round, 92nd overall pick)
One thing the Panthers did right this offseason was to grab a later-round player in the draft who could be a first-year starter out of necessity, and a real asset over time. Turner was downgraded by some because he was thought to be a player in need of further development, but the tape shows a blocker with fierce determination and impressive strength. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Turner ran a 4.93 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, and he's a real road-grader on the field. He's not a tremendously agile guy -- more a phone-booth player -- but the Panthers don't generally ask their guards to move around a lot anyway.
Looming question for training camp: Can any of the new receivers step up?
Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl tried to put a brave face on all the losses, but it has to be a tough pill to swallow.
"As a coach and former player, you're happy for them because they had success and went and got paid," Proehl told the team's official site in early June of the departed receivers. "My job is to get them better and utilize their strengths to help our offense. They all made plays. It's kind of a catch-22. You hope as a coach that you can re-sign these guys, and the good thing is they all wanted to come back. That's where the financials come into play. You can't bring everybody back. It didn't work out, and we couldn't sign them."
Proehl, who played receiver for several teams from 1990 through 2006, led the scouting trips that led to the selection of Benjamin in the first round, and he's going to be happy with Benjamin's athleticism. He'll have Cotchery as a decent slot guy, and Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood as semi-proven veterans to work into his system. There isn't much left in the cupboard from a developmental sense, and it's a real longshot to imagine that this passing offense won't regress mightily.