Coach John Fox signs autographs this weekend at minicamp. (AP)
CHARLOTTE – For nearly two months the Carolina Panthers have been telling us the reason they purged their roster of so many veteran players this off-season is because they're confident the young kids behind those vets are ready to step up and start.
It' was billed as a youth movement.
But coach John Fox offered a different explanation on Sunday, indicating the personnel decisions go much deeper than that.
At the conclusion of Sunday’s three-day minicamp I asked Fox why the team traded strong safety Chris Harris, a three-year starter and key member of the secondary, to Chicago for Jamar Williams, a career backup linebacker and special teams player.
His response was interesting and refreshingly candid for a guy who normally says nothing.
"We've got a budget," Fox said matter-of-factly. "And that had something to do with it."
Ah, finally someone said it.
It’s about money.
Up until this point general manager Marty Hurney’s standard response to moves like cutting Jake Delhomme, Brad Hoover, Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu and Na’il Diggs and the decision not to re-sign players like Julius Peppers and Keydrick Vincent has been something like this: “I think the common theme is we have some young players who have shown the ability and potential to step up."
It’s not that Hurney is trying to hide the truth.
The Panthers really do like potential replacements Matt Moore, Everette Brown, Dan Connor, Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Tony Fiammetta and Sherrod Martin. And hey, it's not always a bad thing to restock with an infusion of youth. But the reality is all of these moves this off-season have been with a bigger picture in mind – to spend very little money and clear as much salary as possible from their books in an uncapped season.
Harris, for instance, was due $7.7 million over the next three seasons. Williams, his replacement, will make a fraction of that in 2010 ($1.176 million).
Another reflection of their fiscal belt-tightening has been the team’s decision not to sign any big-name free agents. In fact, the Panthers didn’t give out a free agent contract worth more than the league veteran minimum this off-season. Nor have the Panthers been quick to renegotiate long-term contract extensions with many of their core players already under contract.
So the big question is why the sudden change in philosophy, when owner Jerry Richardson has always been willing to write the check?
That’s an easy one.
You need look no further than the uncertain economic climate of the NFL. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know there’s an ongoing tug-of-war between the NFL owners and the Players Association over a new collective bargaining agreement and just how big of a piece of the pie the players should get.
NFL owners got burned in the last CBA and don't want it to happen again. Some even claim they're losing money, which is why they aren't spending money in free agency and taking advantage of the uncapped year to trim fat from the roster.
Some might call the decision not to sign free agents an attempt to "break" the players’ union and that theory might not be as far off as you think.
The hope of some owners is to convince players they aren’t going spend money. In so doing, they're expecting many of the NFL's middle class, who are getting squeezed out of jobs, push the union leaders to sign a new CBA, even if it’s not in the best interest of the players. The problem is not all of the owners are on board as some continue to spend freely, including the Chicago Bears.
The decision for the Panthers to play the 2010 season on a low budget may not be exactly what fans around here want to hear, but as you’ve noticed it’s indeed a reality. The way it stands now, the Panthers will have one of the lowest overall salary structures this season.
Hey folks, help isn’t on the way, I can assure you.
The Panthers aren’t suddenly going to sign a bunch of veteran free agents. They’re pretty much locked in to playing with what they have.
And while it may frustrate many you it has to be killing Fox, who has always built his team around veteran players.
"The league is all hard,” Fox said of the team’s salary-related roster moves. “Whether you have young ones or old ones, experienced guys or inexperienced guys… I don't look at this as any different of a challenge as some injury situations we've dealt with in the past where you have to rely on younger players.”
The Panthers are much younger.
Of the 86 players on the roster, amazingly 69 of them are 25 or younger. And, 46 have two years or less experience in the NFL.
Only nine players on the roster have been in the league for more than five years.
Fox refuses to dwell on the negative knowing there’s nothing he can do about the lack of veterans.
"We are young but we have a lot of energy," Fox said. "Guys are willing to work hard and I'm seeing that. Now we just have to mold it into a football unit… We've increased our team speed. We have a lot of youth and with youth comes energy, so that's the good news. We just have to direct that energy in the right way."
Tackle Jordan Gross, who at 29 years old is the sixth-oldest player on the team, said this minicamp felt like the start of a new era in Panthers history.
And it was tough to get used to.
“I break my leg and I come back and the team has all changed,” Gross said. “It takes some getting used to and it was hard for me because I lost some real good friends. It’s been different every year, but this year there were some big names released, more so than usual. You deal with it and get over it.”
But Gross said by the end of minicamp he was excited about the team’s future.
“There’s good energy and some good competition,” Gross said. “There are a lot more positives happening than if you just look at it on paper. Just because we didn’t sign any major free agents doesn’t mean the young talent we have isn’t any good. Everybody is playing fast. That’s what happens when everybody is 25.”
Linebacker Thomas Davis, at 27, is projected to be the second-oldest starter on defense, 11 days younger than cornerback Chris Gamble.
He said there’s a different feeling when he looks around the locker room at all of the new, young faces.
“You definitely get a different sense about this team,” Davis said. “You don’t have those older guys to start the season like we did last year. Some of the older guys that have been here have to step up and be leaders.”
The purge of veterans and the team’s unwillingness to restock with veteran players have left many fans wondering if it’s worth investing time in this team this season.
That, said Davis, is understandable.
But he thinks the Panthers, who play the seventh-easiest schedule in the league, might surprise some people.
“I think rightfully so people are going to wonder what kind of team we’re going to be because we have a lot of new faces and a lot of younger guys,” Davis said. “But I think we have the talent to get it done. I think we have what it takes. It’s about putting the pieces of the puzzle together and actually going out there and doing it.”