Normally, the season-ending post-mortem on an NFL team focuses on the list of expiring contracts and speculation on who will be back next season.
Certainly, there’s a concern about whether Star Lotulelei, Julius Peppers and the other Carolina Panthers free agents will re-sign with the team, but the team’s roster is far down the list of concerns facing the franchise at the start of the 2018 offseason.
Panthers fans likely have mixed feelings about the 2017 season. The team bounced back from a Super Bowl hangover in 2016 to tie for first in the NFC South and return to the playoffs. With one of the top defenses in the league, however, expectations were much higher than a wild card berth and first-round exit.
Off-field drama seemed to hijack the season, however, and, from the looks of it, the offseason will be no different, as the soap opera around the Panthers will continue to swirl.
The biggest off-field distraction was the revelation, late in the year, that owner Jerry Richardson was under investigation for harassment and workplace misconduct. A bombshell Sports Illustrated story broke in the middle of a game, and, by the time that Sunday was over, Richardson announced plans to sell the team following the season.
The good news for fans of the team is that there appear to be several legitimate local options. Of course, any plans to keep the team in Charlotte seem to mention the need for a new stadium. In other words, the future of the team is uncertain, at best.
“I hope that it’s somebody who’s willing to keep the team here,” coach Ron Rivera said of the team’s sale. “I think this is great area and we’ve shown that we can be supported, which we have been by the community. We give back to the community, and I think we have things in place that make this an ideal place for a football team.”
General manager search
The uncertainty doesn’t stop at the top of the org chart. The team spent the season with an interim general manager, after firing Dave Gettleman shortly before the start of the season. Former GM Marty Hurney spent the year at the helm, and he would like to remain in that position permanently.
Of course, the ownership situation overshadows any GM search, as the new owners may want to pick their own person to lead football operations.
“He knows us,” Rivera said of Hurney. “Even though he was removed for a few years, he still knows us and understands what this organization is about. He understands me and my philosophy, and I get his as well. Marty, knowing him and him knowing us, I think that’s what helps. We’ll see how things go.”
Rivera signed a two-year extension following the regular season, giving him some job security. Of course, the ownership search casts a shadow over this, as well. If the new administration brings in a new general manager, Rivera’s contract may simply serve to increase his buyout price.
More uncertain than Rivera’s status, however, is that of his staff. The team has already cut ties with offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey, firing both two days after the Wild Card loss.
The team also faces the likely prospect of losing defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. After a successful first season on the job, Wilks has generated a great deal of interest in head coaching jobs, most notably the New York Giants, who were interviewing him earlier this week and rumored to be sold on him as the frontrunner for the job.
“We have a few great candidates as far as that’s concerned,” Rivera said. “If it does come to fruition, I’ll have to go through that process again. If I lose guys to Steve going on, then I’ll have to look at those guys as well. I feel really good about the guys we have in place to replace Steve.”
Finally, there are the possible roster changes. Peppers, Lotulelei and defensive end Charles Johnson are the biggest names on the list of unrestricted free agents. Lotulelei, the standout defensive tackle, is the most likely to leave, as he’ll generate interest on the open market and should lead to lucrative offers.
“We have a number of guys that are veteran guys that are really neat people, and we’ll see how things go,” Rivera said.
The team will also look to upgrade at several positions, with wide receiver topping the list.
But long before any personnel moves are finalized, there’s plenty of other areas that will occupy the organization’s attention in what’s shaping up to be a postseason for the ages.