Dave Gettleman is key to Panthers' success

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
12:30
PM ET
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Chuck BurtonGeneral manager Dave Gettleman has pointed the Panthers in the right direction.
Dave Gettleman was passed over for the general manager's job in Kansas City in 2009. Then the director of pro personnel for the New York Giants, he was passed over for another GM position that year by the Cleveland Browns, who bypassed him twice overall.

Mistakes?

You be the judge.

The people who did get those jobs aren't with their clubs today. Kansas City fired Scott Pioli after an NFL-worst 2-14 season in 2012. Cleveland is on its fourth general manager since 2009.

Gettleman? He landed on his feet. After a year of stepping back in the Giants' organization out of frustration of being overlooked, he was hired as general manager of the Carolina Panthers in February 2013.

He hasn't gotten as much credit as head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton for Carolina's 12-4 record and first trip to the playoffs since 2008, but Gettleman's imprint is all over the team.

From the selection of what he affectionately calls "hog mollies" (defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short) with Carolina's first two picks of the 2013 draft, to taking the team from $16 million over the salary cap to more than $15 million under it, Gettleman has had as much or more to do with Carolina's resurgence as anybody.

Now he's at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, busy scouting college talent and talking to agents of the team's 21 unrestricted free agents to make sure the Panthers are in position to take the next step forward.

"When I saw the wave of general managers that got hired [in 2012], and a lot of them were in their 30s and early 40s, I started to get concerned that he would never get a chance at the age of 61," said former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who recommended Gettleman to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

"Thankfully, he ended up with a great job, a better job than any of the others that he was considered for."

Gettleman, now 62, doesn't like talking about himself, which is why you won't see comments about himself here. He'd like to keep it that way after spending more than 30 years behind the scenes, but the demands of a general manager require him to be out front.

He's what he likes to call a "grinder," with the work ethic he learned as a kid in Boston, helping his father install boilers in apartment buildings.

He's also one of the best in the NFL at evaluating talent, from college players to experienced veterans. That he has been a part of six teams that reached the Super Bowl -- including three that won it -- between Buffalo, Denver and the Giants is no coincidence. He helped each get there.

Now he's proving he can be just as valuable as the man in charge.

"He learned from good people," Accorsi said. "But you have to have something inside of you that sooner or later, when you have to make the call, you have to feel it. Eventually, it has to come out of your stomach.

"Sometimes other people in the organization don't agree with you and you have to hold your ground, and he's always been able to do that."

More importantly, Gettleman has done that without causing a rift in communication.

"A lot of people, if they get into a disagreement with a scout or their boss, it becomes somehow antagonistic," Accorsi said. "Never with Dave."

Gettleman will tell you that life is too short to get mad and hold grudges over differences of opinions. It's also a waste of time.

Gettleman doesn't have time to waste. Decisions he makes over the next few months will have a huge impact on Carolina as it moves forward.

Does he sign Newton, a player he acknowledges as the organization's franchise quarterback, to a long-term extension? Does he re-sign defensive end Greg Hardy, give him the franchise tag that will eat up about $12 million of the team's cap space, or let him move on?

Does Gettleman re-sign other key free agents such as safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn? Does the GM draft a wide receiver with the No. 28 pick of the draft to give Newton another much-needed weapon, or go with an offensive tackle to give the quarterback more protection?

With all this on his plate, Gettleman doesn't have 10 hours to spend evaluating players on film as he did in his former job. He can't tell you everything about the fifth cornerback for the Denver Broncos as he once could without looking at his computer.

Now he has a staff he depends on for that.

And speaking of his staff, Gettleman didn't clean house as many general managers do when taking over a losing club. He kept everyone, believing they had as much of a right to prove themselves to him as he had a responsibility to prove himself to them.

"I know whatever mistakes I made early in my career, I made because I knee-jerked too quick," Accorsi said. "You can't be patient to a fault, but you have to at least give everybody a chance."

Patience is one of Gettleman's great strengths. It's why he stuck with Rivera after a 1-3 start following consecutive losing seasons when many were wondering if the coach deserved to last through the season.

When an NFL Network report surfaced early in the season that Carolina already had begun looking at coaching candidates, Gettleman became incensed and said, "Unequivocally false."

That's significant because Gettleman doesn't do interviews during the season, but he made an exception for this brief comment. It's also one of the few times you could see the fiery side that exists in his otherwise laid-back demeanor.

Gettleman's support has meant a lot to Rivera. When the new general manager was hired, it would have been natural to wonder if this was the first step toward an overhaul in the coaching staff.

"Dave’s been very instrumental, obviously,” Rivera said late in the season. “A lot of the things that we’ve gone through this season, some things that he’s helped direct and put it into play for us, has been very beneficial and worked out very well.

"And quite honestly, the relationship that he and I have developed, the ones that he’s developed with our coaches and our players, have been tremendous.”

Gettleman just did what he does best, which is work hard to figure out how to put the best team on the field.

"He doesn't want attention," Accorsi said. "He just wants to work. ... He's just a worker and that's what is endearing about him."

Gettleman worked to convince stars such as running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, defensive end Charles Johnson, center Ryan Kalil, left tackle Jordan Gross and tight end Greg Olsen to play for less money to ease the salary-cap restraints.

He released veterans Chris Gamble and defensive tackle Ron Edwards to free up more cap room.

He went bargain shopping in free agency and found Mitchell, safety Quintin Mikell, linebacker Chase Blackburn, wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and defensive tackle Colin Cole -- and all played vital roles in the team's success.

He made hard decisions such as the one to trade popular linebacker Jon Beason to the Giants three games into the season.

He made brilliant draft decisions (Lotulelei, Short and linebacker A.J. Klein), which helped elevate Carolina to No. 2 in the league in defense.

He did many of the same things he did behind the scenes for the Giants but got little credit for.

"His record of being right was incredible," Accorsi said. "If you look at our free-agent signings, he didn't blow any."

Despite his new role, Gettleman hasn't changed. He's unpretentious, choosing to credit the coaches and players for success instead of himself.

"He is just doing his job," Accorsi said. "I knew how good he was. I knew what I had. I don't know why he didn't get a chance before this.

"He's just a down-to-earth person. One of the reasons he gets along with people is because he's a good person. People can see that. That's why they trust him."

The Panthers trusted Gettleman to turn around their struggling organization. They gave him the chance other teams passed on.

Mistake?

You be the judge.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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