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Friday, May 16, 2008

Power Combination: Straight-Line Approach Succeeds

John Fox's success in Carolina separates him from his predecessors, and one reason why is the lack of a power struggle, as cited in this Pat Yasinskas article. Fox doesn't have ultimate control, and ultimade control unraveled both Dom Capers' and George Seifert's tenures.

Capers famously pulled the boneheaded moves of cutting Kerry Collins and sinking tons of money into Doug Evans and Sean Gilbert - and one of the most horrendous drafts known to the team. Collins, by then damaged goods, is a player that a guy like former GM Bill Polian could've marketed and sold off to the highest bidder (even though Polian himself couldn't draft his way out of a paper bag here). Collins had, after all, thrown for 1000 yards already; with an 8 TD to 5 INT ratio, the 4 game losing streak was unfortunate, but he'd shown he could still play (and in the new offense).

Meanwhile, the Evans signing was groundbreakingly expensive, and it followed with the Sean Gilbert fiasco. After spending so much to get a stiff DB in Evans, only to turn it into a meager third round pick for Tyrone Poole (when having him as a nickel did make sense), Capers spent huge to get Gilbert, a former terrorizing one-gap DT who'd gotten soft. Not only was it the largest contract ever signed (to this day, I believe it spans the same time and value that Julius Peppers' contract did, five years and two coaches later), it cost two first round picks. Capers pigheadedly didn't just surrender one first rounder - the 1998 pick. He surrendered two future picks, 1999 and 2000. And then turned around to draft yet another undersized one-gap DT in Jason Peter, who not only was a misfit for the 3-4 and a bust, but ended up using cocaine. Add in three more defensive line picks, and Capers was able to put 3 first rounders, two third rounders, and a 7th rounder into a 3 man line in a single year. Those five players combined for 21 sacks total, and only Gilbert made it past 2001 (he made it through 2002). And the 1998 DL helped the team finish 30th in yards.

Seifert, of course, would be better than that, right? Not so much. Unenamored by the idea of being a GM and coach, he saw it as a good opportunity nonetheless; it was a good organization, and he could retool it. He got his parts in, built a great offense, and then set aside to build a great defense. Which never came, a shame considering how brittle and fragile the offense had been. Saddled with high priced corners, Seifert added to the mess by signing Jimmy Hitchcock and drafting a project corner to play free safety in Rashard Anderson, following it up by another FS in Deon Grant (who would go on to be a solid player, a few years after breaking his hip that year). The oddball thing was spending huge to get really, really, really old (Chuck Smith was over 30 and had a bad knee; Eric Swann was, you guessed it, over 30 and had a bad knee; Reggie White was almost 40 and had already retired). A ton of excitement followed, and then the season started to awful results. While the output was a rise from rock bottom to 12th in defensive points, it finished a spot lower in yards while watching the offense break down, wth nothing other than money lost, no depth, and no future.

But, with all fairness to both gentlemen, let's give a large share of the blame to Jerry Richardson himself. Both Capers and Seifert were well respected men (it was hard to find a more respected coach in the market than Seifert at the time) and it was Richardson's idea to push both of them into total control. The moves that JR forced on Capers (GM, and notably pushing him into the West Coast Offense despite it being a horrid fit for Capers' style) were the reasons he hired Seifert (a defensive coach with the aptitude to run a total team, and with a heavy WCO background). The moves that forced Seifert to a new direction (the 2001 house cleaning) were in large part set in action by Richardson to pave the way for Fox. My own sources state that the Smith and White signings were keyed by Richardson himself (the Smith signing still made sense pre-microfracture, and Smith was going against team orders to receive the surgery), meaning there were heavy finger prints on the disastrous 1998 through 2001 seasons.

And why? It goes back to Polian. A guy that Mike McCormack found nearly impossible, and that JR himself barely tolerated toward the end, Polian showed that you could buy success if you had the right plan. But controlling a coach and a GM was too much for JR, and too much for McCormack; a less strong GM-coach tandem with ideals leaves occasion for the occasional tweak. For his own credit, JR has been very much hands-off. One could speculate that JR's hands have been on a few moves - Keyshawn Johnson still doesn't make sense coming from Fox or Hurney - but he's let the current duo have their own say.

Luckily, it's paid off. Giving a power base enough time to build something (and, in the last two years, rebuild) has been a big step forward for this franchise. This is how you build a team - you make smart decisions, you get the right players in the draft, and you put together a strong football team. Fox and Hurney have deviated and made some desperate moves (hey, you know what would be a great idea? Let Kris Jenkins get fat coming off injury and sign a guy just as fat and still play a one-gap defense in front of a MLB we should've already cut!), but they haven't killed their team or their chances. We'll see how far out there the 2009 draft pick situation hurts them, but for now if they can get through 2008 they'll have the ability to deal with the situation instead of reading about it.
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