MOBILE, Ala. – A lot changes from one season to the next. But general manager Dave Gettleman believes the successful franchises have a winning culture that withstands change.
The Panthers believe they are taking steps toward becoming one of those franchises. For the first time in team history, Carolina qualified for the postseason in consecutive seasons. The Panthers also became the first franchise to win consecutive NFC South division titles.
The challenge now is to sustain success and make postseason appearances annually.
"You can maintain that culture. Even though you are going to have roster movement every year, the culture you create in the locker room can be extended year to year to year," Gettleman said. "The teams that consistently win, they've got that culture. You can build that if your veteran leadership is strong and you bring in the right young guys.
"We are blessed with excellent veteran leadership. And we work very diligently on the young guys that we bring in."
Gettleman used defensive end Charles Johnson and center Ryan Kalil as prime examples of veteran leadership that is the foundation of winning teams.
When Gettleman worked for the New York Giants, he knew Johnson was talented. But it wasn't until Gettleman arrived in Carolina and watched the eight-year veteran on a daily basis for two seasons that he understood just how impactful he was.
"It's very different when you are inside, there is no doubt about it," Gettleman said. "You take Charles and the tough situation he had personally with his grandmother's illness and her passing the morning of the Seattle (NFC Divisional Playoff) game. For him to play the way he did and step us a veteran leader ... I've always respected him, but the level of respect has gone up the charts."
Johnson was the rock-solid veteran for a defensive line infused with youth, and the same could be said for Kalil, another eight-year veteran, who directed an offensive line that was in flux for the first half of the season.
"Ryan had a big load," Gettleman said. "Seven consecutive games with different people around him. The way he persevered – I told Ryan, 'You didn't get voted to the Pro Bowl, but you should have.' This was his best year – not only as a player, but as a leader."
Johnson and Kalil are veterans you want young players learning from and playing beside. They are the types of players that carry a winning standard into a new season.
"We had a player we brought in late in the year – a practice squad kid who had been with a couple other teams. He said, 'I've never been in a locker room like this. Other places I've been, the only time veterans talk to you is when you had to run an errand for them,'" Gettleman recalled. "Our place isn't like that. The proof is in the pudding when unrestricted free agents come up to you after the season and say, 'I really want to be here.'"
It's up to Gettleman and the Panthers' front office to bring in the right pieces each offseason.
"We thoroughly investigate," Gettleman said. "It's something that you can't shortcut."
It's an exhaustive process, but continuity during Ron Rivera's tenure has helped the Panthers refine their search for fresh talent.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have been members of Rivera's staff since his arrival in 2011. There's been little coaching turnover. With four seasons complete, the Panthers know what they want to be on both sides of the ball.
Having a clear team identity helps you identify what you need.
"Yes, it does," Gettleman said. "You have to stick to your plan. You have to identify what you want, and there is a patience factor there. You can't deviate from it. If you start making exceptions during the draft or free agency, you'll eventually be a team of exceptions. Then who are you? We've established an identity, and there are types of players we are going to look for."
After two salary cap-challenging offseasons, Gettleman feels a lot better about the opportunity to improve the roster in 2015.
"Of course we feel better," he said. "The fact is we've been able to fight through it. The last two years we've had to do some (contract) restructures. This year we don't have to do anything, and we are going to go in under the cap.
"That fact that we've done that and still been able to win is pretty darn exciting. We are making progress. We've got a younger club with critical veteran leadership."
And Gettleman feels good about where the Panthers are going.
"We've got a really nice mix right now," Gettleman said. "It's about the culture. We've worked on it. The key is that no one gets complacent. I really believe these guys won't."