With the conclusion of the 2012 Carolina Panthers (7-9) final game, 'tis the season to look at what steps management should take to make the 2013 edition into a playoff team. Successive mediocre years with losing records means changes will be made, but should they be sweeping or is minor tweaking all that's needed?
The No. 1 question is, who should the Panthers hire as general manager?
Success in the NFL is making the playoffs more often than not. The Panthers have not made the playoffs in four years. Hiring a GM is the biggest personnel move in the off season and will determine whether the Panthers will become winners in 2013 and beyond. I don't know who the team should choose, but I can offer some advice. The Panthers should copy a successful NFL franchise like the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Giants who, through shrewd, consistent management, field playoff teams year after year (though oddly for both teams, not in 2012). These types of organizations make players interchangeable and therefore get more bang for their buck than throwing money at name players. These teams play their brand of football, which their organizations are built to accomplish, and the results are clear on the field. The Panthers hiring former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi as a consultant is a hopeful sign for a more successful future.
Decision No. 2: Decide on whether to trade DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart.
To free up salary cap room, the Panthers should trade one of their star running backs, but not the one everyone else says to trade. I would trade Stewart and keep Williams. During the season-ending Panthers four-game win streak, Stewart has been injured and Williams has excelled, rushing for an average of 5.43 per attempt, scoring two TD's running and two more receiving. Williams' 210 yards against the Saints - including his longest run of the year (65) and another run over 50 - set the team rushing record. The emergence of the running game has opened up the passing game and scoring is suddenly not a problem. Anything to lessen the pressure on Cam, which leads me to....
Give the damn ball to fullback Mike Tolbert!
Tolbert is a 5'9", 245-pound bowling ball of a runner and receiver, yet as graceful as one of the dancing hippos in Disney's Fantasia. He can bull through defensive linemen for a third down yard or catch a check down pass while pirouetting between defenders for more yards. Tolbert is effective and fun to watch. Yet he only had 54 runs and 27 catches this year. In 2011 for San Diego, Tolbert had more than double the runs and catches (121 and 54). On Sunday in the Big Easy, Tolbert produced three short touchdown runs. Whenever Carolina gets the ball near the end zone, I say, it's Tolbert Time.
Ron Rivera has coached the Panthers to wins in five of the last six games. Since Thanksgiving the team has improved offensively, defensively, on special teams and - most importantly to management - coaching. The players, coaches and management all have a chance to grow this organization into one that can win in 2013 and for many years to come. As I argued here, let's give Rivera a chance.