Panthers’ GM: No major holes in team to fix

April 18, 2013 

The Panthers have a new general manager who likes the team he already has as he enters his first NFL draft with Carolina. And that’s an opinion I share with him.

Said Dave Gettleman Thursday to a roomful of reporters prodding him about the Panthers’ primary needs entering next week’s NFL draft: “Maybe you guys think I’m Pollyanna, but I don’t see any major hole here.”

No major hole? That’s going too far, but Gettleman’s central point is valid. I keep telling people that the Panthers are going to be pretty darn good in 2013. I see a 10-6 team hiding in that black-and-blue jersey, ready to scratch its way out.

Gettleman has watched enough tape on last year’s 7-9 team – which started 1-6, got former GM Marty Hurney fired but closed strongly enough to save Ron Rivera’s job -- to cement his beliefs.

Said Gettleman: “You have to be careful you’re not looking at fool’s gold. They [the Panthers] won five of their last six…. Is it real? Is it a mirage? After watching the tape and given the circumstance that team was in, for them to finish like that…. I don’t think it’s fool’s gold. I really don’t.”

That’s not to say the upcoming draft isn’t important. It is. The Panthers have only five picks to work with, but Gettleman said there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to find starters with their first- and second-round choices.

Gettleman calls the linemen of the NFL “hog mollies,” and he needs at least one new lineman who’s more hog than molly. The offensive and defensive lines both need another big-time player.

I mostly like the under-the-radar moves the Panthers have made in free agency. And any team with Cam Newton in the middle of the offense and Luke Kuechly in the middle of the defense has a fine upside.

Don’t believe it? That’s fine. Think I’m a homer? That’s your right. I will point out I picked the Panthers to go 6-10 in 2011 (they did) and 8-8 in 2012 (they were 7-9). The Panthers have only had four winning seasons in an often doleful 18-year history, but the fifth one is around the bend as long as one statistic changes.

Here’s the deal. The Panthers had decent talent the past two years, too, but were terrible in close games. If Rivera ultimately doesn’t work out as a coach in Charlotte, the final blow will be his record in games decided by a touchdown or less. He’s 2-12 in those through two seasons.

As Gettleman said Thursday: “You go .500 in those games and you’ve got two playoff teams.”

But nearly half of all NFL games are decided by seven points or less – winning those sorts of games is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Newton has not been a good enough quarterback in those situations, Rivera hasn’t coached well enough and the defense has allowed too many last-minute drives.

Gettleman can’t fix all that himself. But he can upgrade the personnel enough that the Panthers have a better chance at winning their share of close games. And he also cautioned that sometimes the answer is right on your roster already, like Victor Cruz was as a New York Giants receiver.

But if the Panthers can find someone half as good as Cruz at a couple of positions and do decently in this draft, they will be well-positioned this season for the sort of season we haven’t seen since 2008 – the last time they made the playoffs.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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