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What Panthers GM Dave Gettleman learned before building Super Bowl team

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Dave Gettleman's early professional life was in education.

Armed with two master's degrees, he was a teacher and coach at a high school. He then took a postgraduate course in the NFL by taking an intern job in the Buffalo Bills' scouting department at the age of 36. He learned patience. That was rewarded with a general manager's job with the Carolina Panthers at the age of 62.

What he has done in three seasons should be an education to other front office executives trying to take good teams to the next level. With Gettleman picking the players, the Panthers have won three consecutive division titles and are now sitting at 17-1, about to face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.

As a teacher and student of the game, Gettleman offers the lessons other franchises can use in taking a talented team to the next level. Here are lessons learned from his actions with the Panthers:

Lesson No. 1: 'Big' wins.

"Tom Coughlin taught me a great thing," Gettleman said. "Big men allow you to compete. If you don't have big men, you can't compete."

Gettleman's first draft choice was 320-pound defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in 2013. His second choice was 315-pound Kawann Short. Their presence instantly improved the Panthers' run-stopping ability and eventually the team's ability to dominate the line of scrimmage. In 2014, Gettleman began fixing offensive line problems by investing a third-round choice on 320-pound guard Trai Turner and getting lucky with Andrew Norwell, an undrafted 325-pound guard.

Most of the top teams in the league get the big idea. Bill Belichick always does his best to get big interior defensive tackles. The Seattle Seahawks follow the same mindset. Much of the success of the San Francisco 49ers was due to the use of big defensive linemen.

Gettleman figured Lotulelei to be the mainstay of the line, but it turned out Short was the star. This year, Short developed into one of the most dominating defensive tackles in the NFL.

"Am I shocked he's done this well? No," Gettleman said. "He was the most natural pass-rusher of all the players in the 2013 draft. He has great hips and a great feel for the pass rush. His hands are good. He was at an advanced level for a college kid."

"Big" won the battle at the line of scrimmage for the Panthers this year.

Lesson No. 2: Assemble an offensive line that can stay together for 50 or more games.

Gettleman learned this during his days in the personnel office of the Giants. He watched Coughlin and the Giants' front office assemble an offensive line that set the stage for two Super Bowl wins in five years. No team has the luxury of investing five first-round picks on offensive linemen.

David Diehl, Rich Seubert, Shaun O'Hara, Chris Snee and Kareem McKenzie weren't household names. In many ways, they were considered overachievers individually. Together as a group, however, they were a force. By the time these five had been together for 50 games, the Giants line could beat anybody.

When lines are together 50 or so games, they work out the kinks and play as one. Communication becomes nonverbal because each lineman knows the others' tendencies. Efficiency grows as the unit plays together longer and longer.

Gettleman may have struck the same type of group in Carolina in what would be considered their formative years. He inherited Ryan Kalil from the previous administration; Norwell and Turner should flank him for years. Gettleman got lucky getting Mike Remmers at right tackle, a player who had been cut a half-dozen times. He got luckier with the signing of Michael Oher at left tackle.

The key to the success of the offensive line is line coach John Matsko. He has been coaching offensive lines since 1977 and has been just about everywhere. He's old school. For example, he makes his linemen drill with both hands on the ground, in a four-point stance, so they can show better leverage.

His toughest assignment was getting Norwell and Turner through the 2014 season. They were raw and inconsistent. The line had growing pains. The Panthers started 3-8-1 before winning their last four games. At that point, the line showed promise. Now it is evolving into one of the better groups in the league.

"We got a good room," Matsko said. "Remmers was the right fit here. He is good enough to handle rushers form the outside. Our guys work hard."

Matsko sees Kalil watching tape until 10:30 at night at times. He sees Oher lifting in the weight room or getting into the cold tub to refresh his body. The hard work paid off.

Lesson No. 3: Hit on cheap free agents.

The salary cap can be tough. In Gettleman's second year as general manager, the Panthers had cap problems and had to trim the salary structure. To fill holes outside of the draft, Gettleman had to find bargain free agents.

He succeeded.

"In our 12-4 season in 2013, we hit on Ted Ginn Jr., Mike Mitchell and others, and then the cap grabbed us and we had to retool," Gettleman said. "Last year, we had to remake wide receiver, secondary and the offensive line. We did it on the fly. We got off to that lousy start, but got the offensive line fixed."

Ginn was let go in 2014, but he returned this year and had a great season. Remmers and Norwell fit the offensive line. The Panthers got through most of the season with Charles Tillman at corner. Roman Harper helped at safety.

The job of a general manager isn't easy. Gettleman is constantly working on the puzzle of keeping players and finding replacements for problem areas.

Lesson No. 4: Be humble.

What Gettleman did isn't much different from what Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh did with San Francisco in 2011. The 49ers were loaded with talent but were average on the field. Harbaugh improved Alex Smith at quarterback and Baalke found key veteran free agents, leading to a nice three-year run by the 49ers.

Eight of the 11 current Pro Bowlers on the Panthers were drafted by Marty Hurney, the former general manager. Gettleman upgraded the receiving corps, offensive line and defensive line, and he is in the process of fixing the secondary.

"As I've said a million times, Marty left me some nice pieces, really, let's be honest," Gettleman said.

Gettleman's added some nice pieces too. Let's be honest.