Panthers, Seahawks, Packers battle drastic change as NFC power structure shifts
The NFC as you know it might look drastically different by the time 2018 rolls around
Year-to-year stability in the NFL is a rare occurrence; the league's success is predicated in large part on parity creating quick shifts in the overall hierarchy among the 32 clubs. The NFC has enjoyed a surprisingly long stretch of consistency among its top teams, but it all came tumbling down this year and a number of those teams are responding in aggressive fashion this offseason. How the Packers, Panthers and Seahawks emerge from what promises to be a tumultuous offseason for each team may well dictate the conferences future for years to come.
Seattle and Green Bay have scouting connections -- Seahawks GM John Schneider was born in Wisconsin and learned under Ron Wolf in the Packers organization -- but have approached their roster construction very differently. The Packers leaned on offense/Aaron Rodgers and eschewed free agency, while the Seahawks built their defense through the draft, snared Russell Wilson and took a lot of gambles with aggressive trades and cheaper free-agency moves. 2017 was the first year both missed the playoffs since 2008.
The Panthers don't have the same scouting connections, but they have been in the playoffs four out of the last five years. Under Ron Rivera, they won the NFC South three consecutive times, the only team to do so. Despite 11 wins this season, Carolina is prepared to undergo massive upheaval.
The three franchises, since 2010, have a combined 17 playoff appearances, 12 division titles, six conference championship appearances and four Super Bowl appearances (with two wins). Between Rodgers, Wilson and Cam Newton, these teams sport the cream of the crop when it comes to NFC quarterbacks.
And yet, all three are in the middle of a major offseason reboot. Oddly enough, each fanbase is pretty energized by the upheaval. The replies to the Panthers announcement was met with glee. Packers fans have been begging for years to get rid of their Super Bowl-winning GM and defensive coordinator. Seahawks fans went full Bowie and started dancing in the streets when Seattle dismissed longtime offensive line coach Tom Cable on Wednesday.
Let's look at how these teams might emerge from the maw of the unknown.
Look at the replies to the Panthers announcement on Twitter. There has been a hate-hate relationship with Shula for many Panthers fans over the years, wondering why he managed to retain his job despite the Panthers rarely finishing in the top half of the league in offense. Carolina had a breakout year with Newton in 2015 and led the league in scoring, but otherwise never finished higher than 12th (2017) under Shula. A change was due., only the second offensive coordinator ever to work with Cam Newton, was not met with displeasure from Panthers fans.
But change does not always equate to solution, and the offensive coordinator position is hardly the only spot where the Panthers could see change in the 2018 offseason. Let's start there though: Norv Turner has reportedly agreed to take over the coordinating duties for Carolina, which will mean a reunion between Turner and his old defensive coordinator in San Diego, Ron Rivera. Rivera has-- it was largely believed he dumped Shula to bring Norv back.
If you squint really hard at the Panthers' personnel, you can see a path to production. Newton can stretch the field vertically, Christian McCaffrey is the perfect type of pass-catching back for Turner's system, Devin Funchess is a big, physical No. 1 wideout (although he lacks the speed of a Vincent Jackson type) and Greg Olsen is the stud type of tight end that fits with Turner's preferred offensive approach.
Having said all that, it is pretty terrifying to imagine Newton taking a bunch of seven-step drops behind the Panthers offensive line. Turner's last stint in the NFL was with the Vikings in 2016, . He hasn't coached since. There are some red flags.
And it's hardly the biggest change for Carolina., giving him two years added onto his contract and $15.5 million. The security feels largely irrelevant , thanks to Jerry Richardson's decision to give up ownership .
It is largely believed the next Panthers ownership group will involve local businessmen. The Panthers are not going anywhere. But anytime an NFL franchise changes hands, everything is on the table. Rivera has a lot of wins for Carolina since taking over -- he has been to a Super Bowl and won three division titles. He is one of the better, more stable coaches in the league. But if you buy a $2.5 billion house, you are not afraid to throw away a $15 million piece of furniture.
So there is some pressure there and it is worth noting the pressure will be exacerbated by the fact that Rivera's franchise quarterback will need to spend the entire offseason learning a new offense for the first time since 2013.
There are issues on offense outside of the language and the playbook as well. Funchess emerged after the midseason Kelvin Benjamin trade, but Carolina needs a true No. 1. Jonathan Stewart appears ageless, but the Panthers running game stagnated a bunch this year when Cam wasn't running. He knows nothing is guaranteed. The wideout depth chart was asking too much of Newton by the postseason. Carolina has to improve the talent at wide receiver, but it has to do so while also improving the quality of offensive line play. Andrew Norwell leaving in free agency would be a major blow.
Defensively, Carolina could take a huge blow in the front seven. Julius Peppers played like an ageless wonder in 2017, but there's no guarantee he returns for his age 38 season. Star Lotulelei is an unrestricted free agent, who might be a luxury at this point.
Even GM Marty Hurney is still sitting on an interim label. The logical move by COO Tina Becker would be giving him an "extended interim" label, giving the Panthers an easy transition without saddling new ownership with another GM contract they didn't pick. But the whole situation is bizarre.
For as good as the 2017 was for the Panthers -- they won 11 games and came within a Week 17 win of securing another division title -- 2018 started off in a tough way, losing for the third time in a single season to the Saints. The rest of the year promises to be far more confusing, and it will shape Carolina's future under new ownership.
For years, the Seahawks and Panthers were NFC twins, teams built on power running games and physical defenses. They both found non-traditional franchise quarterbacks, albeit in different ways. Their paths are converging again, as Seattle finds itself in the midst of a massive transition.
Most notable were the moves on Thursday to Patriots, but these moves are about so much more than a single poor decision. They signal a sea of change coming for the Seahawks offense. The power running game that featured Marshawn Lynch is out the door and has been for a few years. Russell Wilson accounted for 97 percent of the Seahawks touchdowns last season. That is not a typo.and . Any story about Bevell is going to revolve around the disastrous goal line play call in the Seahawks Super Bowl loss to the
The new line coach will be responsible for actually protecting Wilson, while the new coordinator will likely be charged with building an offense that revolves around Wilson's skillset. The Seahawks offense only did that in the sense of having Wilson drop back, spin around three times and then pull a rabbit out of a hat. This will be the first new offensive coordinator of Wilson's professional career.
Defensively, Michael Bennett has , even though Seattle would save a minimal amount in salary cap space by cutting him. Based on what Pete Carroll said earlier this year, , 29, could . And Cliff Avril, 31, is at a crossroads too, per his head coach.. Defensive lineman
"Cliff and Kam are going to have a hard time playing football again," Carroll said.
After the Seahawks Week 16 loss to the Cowboys, safety Earl Thomas openly . Richard Sherman, who last offseason, will be . But wait, there's more: the Seahawks are likely firing defensive coordinator Kris Richard too.
Oh yeah, and their star tight end Jimmy Graham, who just led the team with 10 receiving touchdowns, is an unrestricted free agent too.
So to sum up: the Seahawks don't have an offensive line or a running game, are losing their top red-zone weapon, and they just fired their long-time offensive coordinator, presumably to create an offense around their quarterback, and they really better hope it works because there is a pretty good chance that at least a third -- and maybe more -- of the stars on their defense are out the door or injured when the season starts, and whoever is left will be working with a new defensive coordinator.
Like the Panthers, Seattle will be trying to rejigger its entire offensive structure in the course of an offseason where they are making a multitude of crucial decisions on the defensive side of the ball. This is a team that hadn't missed the playoffs since 2011 and just missed the playoffs for only the second time under Pete Carroll and John Schneider. The duo has been aggressive and consistently thought outside the box every offseason since they arrived in Seattle. There's no reason to think this year will be any different.
Having a franchise quarterback is a major plus, and Wilson is just that. He was the biggest threat to Tom Brady's MVP candidacy until the Seahawks fell out of the playoff race. The lack of talent around him was too much to overcome. 2018 could be even more challenging.
Green Bay Packers
As Brett Favre pointed out to me on the most recent edition of the Pick Six Podcast, there is a very tangible benefit to having Aaron Rodgers on the roster: you can keep winning amid significant change as long as he's healthy. Just like the Panthers and Seahawks, the Packers are in the midst of some serious turmoil after missing the postseason for the first time since 2008.
"As far as where they will go from here, obviously having Aaron Rodgers and having him healthy, makes all the difference in the world," Favre said. "If you have him and you have him healthy you have a shot to win. That won't change as long as they have him."
Favre's right, but there is clearly something afoot with the Packers. The franchise, which has been as steady as it comes in the topsy-turvy NFL,into a different role. Green Bay recently announced , which meant long-time personnel man .
Snuck about seven paragraphs into the release on Gutekunst's hire was the news that Gutekunst, executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball and coach Mike McCarthy would report to president/CEO Mark Murphy. It was quiet news, but it was also a major departure from the Packers traditional power structure.
"While we have enjoyed a lot of success, we need to improve. With that in mind, the head coach, general manager and executive vice president/director of football operations will report to me moving forward," Murphy said in a statement from the team. "While I understand this is a departure from the Packers' current structure, it will serve to increase the breadth and frequency of communication and collaboration. Ultimately, it will make the Packers better."
It would be perfectly fine if your radar was up on this one. It does appear the move to promote Gutekunst is a win for McCarthy, because there were rumors, courtesy of former Packers beat writer Bob McGinn ($ site), that Ball might be interested in getting rid of McCarthy if he was named GM.
The Packers Clay Matthews, or at least restructuring his deal; Matthews, who , would save nearly $12 million in cap space if he was released., which caused excitement among fans, but creates some havoc when it comes to defensive expectations in 2018. , which is a really nice, under-the-radar hire by McCarthy. It's not off the table that the Packers could end up cutting linebacker
Offensively, Jordy Nelson clearly looked slower down the stretch in 2017, and with Davante Adams signed for the long haul, he could save the Packers $10 million in cap space. Randall Cobb is a restructure/release candidate as well, although it's pretty unlikely both he and Nelson are cut loose., which might actually ease some of the transition issues on offense. And there could be some:
Rodgers isn't going anywhere, and he's going to get an extension in the near future. But the rest of the star-filled nucleus around him could be changing quickly.
Any NFL coach will tell you that each season is different. The construction of a team isn't some seamless move from one year to the next. But there has been some serious consistency with this trio of NFC contenders. Yeah, you'd see coordinators bolt and certain secondary pieces shift around. But for the most part, we knew what we were getting from the Panthers, Seahawks and Packers on a year-in and year-out basis for the last five-plus seasons.
It should come as no surprise that, with the Falcons, Rams and Vikings establishing themselves as viable long-term contenders in the NFC this season, that even more change than usual is coming. Atlanta caught fire late in the season after failing to be consistent; they could make a second Super Bowl run under Dan Quinn, and the pieces are there for them to be successful for the long haul, especially on defense. The Rams are set at quarterback (Jared Goff) and running back (Todd Gurley) and have a coach in Sean McVay who was born two years after Pete Carroll got his first NFL coaching job. The Vikings defense mirrors the Seahawks four years ago in that it's loaded at every level with homegrown talent and will keep them competitive for a couple of years.
The appearance of the NFC, and its overall power structure, is changing. The Panthers, Seahawks and Packers aren't going to fade into oblivion all of a sudden. But no one knows what this offseason will bring for the trio of power houses. There are significant roster changes and coaching changes and even ownership changes that could drastically alter the long-term plans of those clubs.
We don't have the answers to what the future holds, primarily because they don't have the answers for what the future holds.
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