Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) laughs as he sprints to a drill during practice for the NFL football team in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton
January 07, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) While some of Dave Gettleman's personnel moves haven't necessarily set well with Carolina Panthers fans, it's hard to debate the success of the team's third-year general manager.

The Panthers have won the NFC South in each of their first three years under Gettleman, including this season where they finished 15-1 and captured home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

In a rare in-season interview, Gettleman said Thursday he believes the Panthers are built for success - Carolina had 10 players selected to the Pro Bowl and quarterback Cam Newton is an MVP candidate - and likes the direction the team is headed entering the postseason.

''I've never seen a team with bad chemistry make the Super Bowl,'' said Gettleman, who won two championships as a member of the New York Giants front office before coming to Carolina in 2013. ''Let me tell you something, we have great chemistry.''

The Panthers have scored the most points in the NFL on offense and allowed the fewest on defense- a pretty good recipe for success.

''I just love our balance and our mental attitude and our approach to the game,'' Gettleman said. ''I love having as good a coaching staff as there is in the league.''

Gettleman inherited a team in 2013 that was $16 million over the salary cap and had a lot of dead cap money, which meant making tough decisions.

He parted ways with the franchise's career leading receiver Steve Smith and leading rusher DeAngelo Williams.

Offensive tackle Jordan Gross retired when it was clear the Panthers weren't going to make him a very big offer to return.

Gettleman took criticism for all of those moves, but others have stepped up and filled the void at those positions.

Gettleman found cheaper alternatives at wide receiver, signing Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery and drafting Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess.

He's added Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne to go work alongside Jonathan Stewart at running back.

He found an answer at left tackle with Michael Oher after many had given up on ''The Blind Side'' star.

''I know everybody killed me on that one,'' Gettleman said of the Oher signing.

But Gettleman said he has a philosophy of trusting the evaluation process and allowing players to develop.

''One of the things you have to do, you have to understand, is you can't always go from A to Z,'' Gettleman said.

''Sometimes, when you're evaluating players and you're looking at them, sometimes you can only increase incrementally. Michael has been a huge plus for us and settled us down. ... You see the confidence Cam has when he sets up behind those five hog mollies . It's a sight to behold. And Michael has been (a big part of it).'''

Gettleman is the first to acknowledge that former general manger Marty Hurney left plenty of solid pieces in place for him to build around.

In fact, eight of the team's 10 Pro Bowl selections joined the team when Hurney was still making the decisions, including core star players Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen and Stewart. Gettleman has recognized their worth, re-signing Newton, Kuechly, Olsen and Davis to long-term deals this past offseason.

He's also done a nice job filling in the pieces around them.

He bolstered the defensive line by selecting two mammoth tackles with his first two picks in 2013 - Kawann Short (11 sacks) and Star Lotulelei. He's regularly found quality free agents such as safety Kurt Coleman - players who agreed to low-level contracts in return for a chance to prove themselves and rejuvenate their careers.

''I mean 15-1, what more can you say,'' Davis said.

Still, there is always criticism.

Gettleman heard complaints from fans when he opted not to sign a big-name receiver when Benjamin, the team's leading receiver as a rookie, suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.

''When Kelvin went down, people wanted me to sign every 95-year-old wide receiver that ever put a pad on,'' Gettleman said.

But Gettleman's patient approach is paying off as Funchess is developing nicely alongside Ginn, Cotchery and Philly Brown.

And while to some they're considered little-known receivers, they're part of a group that helped Newton throw a career-high 35 touchdown passes.

Even with all of the talent he helped amass, Gettleman admitted he never thought the Panthers would go 15-1.

''Did I envision this? No,'' Gettleman said. ''Did I envision us playing well? I know that when I spoke to you guys before the season I said it was our strongest roster ever. But 15-1? Who expects that because it's so stinking hard to win games in this league. What Ron (Rivera) and his staff and the players have accomplished is special.''

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