There’s one job an NFL front office has that’s paramount. It stands above the rest. Protect your franchise quarterback. Once you have been given the ability to actually feature a top-tier signal caller out there on a weekly basis, it’s your job to make sure he has everything at his disposal to succeed and remain healthy.
It’s an investment. Would you throw the equivalent of millions at a home without fire insurance? And once that home did burn to the ground, who would you blame for losing millions?
Protecting your franchise quarterback is just as important. It’s something we have seen teams focus on throughout the history of the league. With every great dynasty came an equally great offensive line.
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s wouldn’t have been a dynasty if it weren’t for the likes of Mike Webster and John Kolb along the offensive line. The same can be said for the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s and the modern-day New England Patriots.
Back in February of 2016, the Carolina Panthers entered Super Bowl LI against the Denver Broncos coming off a remarkable 15-win regular season. Cam Newton was just named league MVP the night prior. Everything seemed to be going in Carolina’s direction.
That’s when it seemed like the house that general manager Dave Gettleman and Co. built came crashing down like a house of cards built on a matchbook.
Newton himself was absolutely brutalized in that game by the likes of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. In the end, he succumbed to seven sacks in an ugly 24-10 loss to Denver.
This was just the tip of the iceberg. Despite Carolina’s success, one thing became readily apparent: It had not invested enough on the offensive line to keep its quarterback upright. On the field, this left the Panthers with a bitter taste in their mouth. It was also their way of building a house in the high desert with printing paper.
Mike Remmers was destroyed by Miller, who ended up earning the Super Bowl MVP award. Michael Oher, always a pedestrian offensive tackle in his own right, failed to do much of substance as well. It was the culmination of Carolina itself failing to protect its house.
Fast forward 13-plus months and the Panthers are coming off a disastrous six-win season. It was a year filled with concerns about Newton’s health and the protection he received up front. Oher himself missed all but three games after suffering a concussion. Remmers struggled mightily replacing the former as Newton’s blindside protector.
The season was defined by brutal hits on Newton, which began in the team’s season-opening loss Denver. It was so ugly that those committing self-masochism by watching the game were left wondering just why Denver did Newton so dirty (more on that here).
“Stop! Stop! He’s already dead.”
That’s what came to our minds as Denver laid the hammer down on Newton and Co. on that fateful Thursday Night Football Game. For the objective observer, we knew it was a sign of things to come. Within a month, the brutalized Newton would miss a game after suffering a concussion.
It wasn’t a shocking end result. It also led to a horrendous overall performance from Newton, who would go on to put up the worst statistical performance of his career.
An outlier of sorts for Newton, some wondered if the former No. 1 pick and league MVP just wasn’t right throughout the season. We got that answer on Tuesday when the Panthers announced that Newton himself had suffered a partially torn rotator cuff and would need to undergo surgery (more on that here).
Again, this didn’t seem to be too much of a surprise to the masses. Newton was sacked on nearly seven percent of his dropbacks last season. He was also hit at the third-highest clip of any starting quarterback in the NFL.
There’s one common denominator here. Carolina simply failed to do anything of substance as it relates to finding him plus-level protection upfront.
Heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, the Panthers have exhausted a total of zero Day 1 picks on the offensive line since Newton was selected first overall back in 2011. In fact, Carolina has spent one pick in the first two rounds over the past six years on the offensive line. That’s what we would call failure in the most apt definition of the term.
To the Panthers’ credit, they did dole out a huge sum of cash to a left tackle in free agency earlier in March. Even then, it seems to be their way of appeasing the masses with a necessary move, one that likely won’t pay off in the end. The deal was with former Minnesota Vikings top-10 pick Matt Kalil. It cost Carolina $55 million over five seasons with $25 million guaranteed.
It was also handed to a player in Kalil who has been among the worst left tackles in the NFL since he jumped on to the scene as a Pro Bowl performer back in 2012.
Before his season-ending injury, Matt Kalil was @PFF's 65th ranked OT (out of 79) in 2016. He finished as their 34th ranked OT in 2015.
— JR (@JReidDraftScout) January 7, 2017
So even as the Panthers made sure to address a need, they did so with one of the worst options on the free-agent market. Andrew Whitworth, an All Pro performer, took less for fewer seasons to sign with the Los Angeles Rams. Riley Reiff received a decent contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Both were much better options for Carolina. Instead, the team signed someone in Kalil who likely isn’t an upgrade from either Oher or Remmers.
More than that, the Panthers exhausted this capital on a player that is relegated to left tackle only duties. Kalil cannot play right tackle. He doesn’t have the build or athleticism for it. He’s too upright to move inside. That’s a concern teams had heading into the 2012 NFL Draft.
“There are some concerns surrounding Kalil’s ability to anchor and stall bull rushers, given his tendency to play upright. There were few examples of his anchor actually being an issue in college, but the limited level of knee bend he plays with could stand to be a concern,” an NFL.com report read on Kalil leading up to the 2012 draft. “He rarely snaps his hips through when blocking in the run game and is more of a mirror/positional blocker. He could have to work on his knee bend and flexibility to take on the more explosive ends in the NFL.”
This also limits Carolina’s options when it comes to finding more upgrades along the offensive line during the draft. Will it exhaust a first-round pick on a player that will only suit up at right tackle? If not, can any prospect taken further down in the draft be asked to perform at a high level out of the gate?
Panthers believe Cam Newton's March 30 rotator cuff surgery will sideline him about four months.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 21, 2017
With Newton now set to miss Carolina’s OTAs and likely not set to return until right up to the start of training camp, there’s huge concern here. This concern is more about Newton’s current health. It’s about the Panthers’ inability (unwillingness?) to give him everything he needs to remain healthy and be successful.
This leads us to the unfortunate conclusion that Tuesday’s news regarding Newton isn’t going to be a one-off. It’s not an outlier. Everything here is correlated. The Panthers have failed him at every turn, and it came back to roost big time.
One now has to wonder whether Gettleman and the rest of the Panthers’ front office will be feeling the heat. Their house is burning down. They didn’t buy insurance. And are they simply going to sit back and blame it on the inexperienced first responders for not acting in a timely manner?
We’ll surely find out soon enough.