Jerry Richardson, who turns 81 years old tomorrow, still doesn’t have a Super Bowl win as an owner. And it looks like that’s not going to change before he turns 82, after he fired the general manager who has overseen the most successful four-year period in team history.
On Monday, Richardson “relieved” Dave Gettleman of the general manager duties he had done better than most current NFL GMs in a move that shocked Panthers’ employees. The reasons are unclear, though it’s probable that Gettleman’s hard-line approach to contract extensions for Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen—two of Richardson’s all-time favorite players—played a role.
One Panthers staffer called it shocking and that “nobody expected this.” One prominent offensive player told me that he has “no idea what went on.” The Panthers had a GM ready in assistant GM Brandon Beane and saw him go to Buffalo this spring. Would-be candidates—like Tennessee’s Ryan Cowden, formerly of Carolina’s scouting staff—are literally days away from packing for their own training camps. It would appear the role will be filled by committee in the interim, much like the team’s president job has been since Danny Morrison resigned in February.
Richardson said that “while the timing of this decision is not ideal, a change is needed.” Frankly, with the Panthers set to report to training camp next week, the timing could not be worse. And it’s difficult to believe in on-field football reasons why a change must be made for a general manager who has the Panthers positioned for long-term success for the first time in the franchise’s two-decade-plus history.
Gettleman’s gruffness directly opposed Carolina’s commitment to be a family business. But it was also Gettleman’s steady hand that got the business booming in 2013. Gettleman (and the quarterback he inherited) got the Panthers into the playoffs three times after the franchise had made the postseason just four times in its entire history.
The first crack in the dam for Gettleman was small but still visible. When the team was in salary cap hell in 2013, Gettleman restructured left tackle Jordan Gross’ contract from a two-year deal worth more than $15 million to a one-year deal worth $5.5 million that would void at the end of the season. Gross had a Pro Bowl season but declined to come back in 2014.
“I didn’t like you very much last offseason,” Gross said when addressing Gettleman at his retirement press conference, “but I got over that.”
Gettleman sloppily mishandled Steve Smith’s ouster, using past-tense verbs when talking about the WR while Smith was still a Panther in 2014. Smith’s move to Baltimore worked out for both teams, but there’s no doubt that Richardson wishes that departure were handled better.
In 2015, Gettleman rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag in a move as shocking as the one Monday, but he had to get Richardson’s blessing before making such a move. Gettleman couldn’t spin the three rookie cornerbacks into gold in Year One, nor did he use the money he saved from Norman’s tag on a free agent or an extension for one of team’s top players.
This off-season, Davis and Olsen are publicly saying they want more money, and their play says that they’re worth it. Davis, having come back from three ACL tears, is the embodiment of Carolina’s “Keep Pounding” motto, which was coined by the late linebacker Sam Mills. Olsen is the first tight end in NFL history with at least 1,000 receiving yards in three straight seasons, and the J is his son T.J.’s name stands for Jerry after the team owner was so generous to the Olsen family as T.J. suffered from a heart defect.
But Gettleman needs to manage the team with his head and not try to appeal to the owner’s emotions. He clearly grappled with extending a 34-year-old linebacker with a similar first-round linebacker waiting in the wings in Shaq Thompson, even if Davis is still playing at a Pro Bowl level. He signed Olsen to a three-year deal worth $22.5 million in 2015 that the tight end has absolutely outperformed, but it’s the deal to which everyone agreed.
Certainly Richardson understands this. He used his 1950s NFL earnings to start a fast-food chain that made him his millions that he in turn used to bring an NFL team to Charlotte. He fired his two sons from high-level positions in 2009 in what was probably the most cutthroat move in Charlotte sports history. Richardson negotiated $87.5 million in taxpayer money to refurbish a uptown stadium already leased to the team for $1 a year in exchange for five free events for the city and a six-year hard tether to the city. This is a man familiar with tough deals.
Despite the flaws in Gettleman’s four-year tenure in Carolina, he managed to keep the core of the team built by former GM Marty Hurney—Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Davis, Olsen, Ryan Kalil, Jonathan Stewart—in tact, especially when NFL players are getting more money in free agency than ever before. He drafted Kawann Short in the second round, bet right on Michael Oher at left tackle (until last year’s concussion) in free agency and just drafted Christian McCaffrey a few months ago.
Richardson is a man who cares about his legacy. He has given Wofford College, his alma mater, millions of dollars and his team’s training camp, and in turn has his name on the school’s newest basketball arena, his wife’s name on the arts center and a larger-than-life statue on campus. Everyone inside the Panthers’ building and even some of Charlotte’s elected officials refer to him affectionately and respectfully as Mr. Richardson.
And this move will be part of his legacy. However the 2017 Panthers shake out two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, the narrative will always point back to this day—how things went right and everyone is happy or how the Panthers missed the playoffs for a second straight year.
Happy birthday, Mr. Richardson.
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