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Week 7 notes: Carolina Panthers suddenly a model organization

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» The NFL's next international venture? Mexico City. And it could happen next year.
» Two must-see college prospects on the national stage this Saturday.
» Five reasons why the quality of NFL play is slipping in the season's early months.
And much more, beginning with the new model team for rebuilding in the modern age.

In an era where coaches and general managers jockey for control of "the 53" -- and power struggles threaten to tear contenders apart -- Ron Rivera could've felt, justifiably, threatened by the 2013 hire of Dave Gettleman.

It didn't take long for the new Panthers GM to disarm his inherited head coach. That happened over breakfast, on Gettleman's first day on the job.

"He told me he was gonna listen," Rivera said, from his office on Wednesday. "He wanted to know what we, as coaches, think, and how we do things, and what he could do for us. That sparked a good working relationship, just him telling me he was open to listening. And that's good, because right away, we got to the process of making roster renovations -- what he wanted, what we wanted. We agreed we'd collaborate. Every decision would be our decision, every one of them is a team decision."

It's been almost three years since the GM set that tone over eggs and coffee. Rivera has gone from coach-on-the-hot-seat to one of the league's most firmly entrenched leaders. Gettleman has gone from lifetime lieutenant and a widely-panned hire to the mastermind behind a consistent winner.

And with the Panthers now at 5-0, they've done it by creating a model for rebuilding in the modern NFL.

Nearly as quickly as Charlotte's new power couple got to those renovations, they've completed them.

As we established, today's NFL is a harsh place. In six of the last nine offseasons, a coach has been fired after just one year on the job. Coaches used to have a life expectancy of at least two to three years. Now, that's what general managers -- hired to make five- and 10-year decisions for their franchises -- are getting.

So absent exceedingly patient ownership (give Jacksonville's Shad Khan credit there), clubs can't bottom out like they could in the past, and build from the ground up -- which makes Carolina the new ideal.

The Panthers did, in fact, rebuild. It just happened so fast that you might have missed it.

One of the first things Gettleman -- who wasn't available for this story; his policy is to not speak publicly in-season -- was taxed with on the job was fixing the team's sideways cap situation. And that might be the one thing Carolina has actually slow-played under this regime.

The Panthers went 12-4 with a veteran group in 2013, silencing any questions about Rivera's status. And then came the bloodletting. Steve Smith was cut, and two other receivers bolted via free agency. Cornerstone left tackle Jordan Gross retired, and three other O-linemen followed him off into the sunset. The secondary was gutted, with Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell shown the door.

"Honestly, at the beginning of [2014], we were just trying to find a combination of offensive linemen we could play with, we're starting a rookie at receiver [Kelvin Benjamin] and we have another, in Philly Brown, who's gonna play," Rivera said. "All this stuff is in my head early in camp. It was crazy to see the turnover, but you always look at it like you have a chance. I kept telling the coaches, 'Keep telling the guys, take care of business, and we'll be fine.' "

Then, Greg Hardy's situation flared up leading into a Week 2 game against the Detroit Lions.

Then, the bottom really did start to fall out. Working with rookies and castoffs all over the place, the Panthers went through a two-month period where they didn't win a game. As it turns out, that was the team's rebuild. It lasted seven games.

"There was that time, we're playing young guys like [guard] Andrew Norwell, [guard] Trai Turner and [safety] Tre Boston, we're developing them," Rivera said. "Our mantra's always been 'Keep pounding,' and it really is to just keep working. At one point, we're 3-8-1, but it was knowing that if we got on a roll, we'd have a chance. The month of December gets here, and we have a crazy record in December since I've been in Carolina. Sure enough, we get on a roll."

That roll hasn't stopped. Since last December, the Panthers are 10-1: four wins to close the 2014 regular season, a win and a loss in the playoffs, and five wins to start this season.

Even better, this team, unlike the one Gettleman and Rivera rolled with in 2013, is built to last. Of the 22 players who started in the divisional playoffs that year, only eight are still in Carolina. Conversely, of the 22 players who started last Sunday's win in Seattle, only 10 were on the team in 2013 -- and that's counting Ted Ginn, who left and came back.

In the wash, the roster got younger. The Panthers have a lot of players in their early-to-mid-20s aboard with still-untapped potential and rookie contracts that keep the finances in order -- some of them high draft picks (like Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Turner), others not drafted at all (Norwell, Brown). And to stay competitive while those guys develop, Gettleman and Rivera tapped trusty, affordable vets like Peanut Tillman and Roman Harper, as well as in-their-prime values like Michael Oher to fill in the blanks.

Maybe the best display of all the growth: How the Panthers have ridden out the season-ending injury to budding star receiver Kelvin Benjamin and the shorter-term absence of Luke Kuechly.

And yes, having a grown-up Cam Newton certainly helps build margin for error. That much was apparent during Sunday's game-winning drive in Seattle, at points where the fifth-year quarterback threw up a stop sign with his hand to Rivera, managing the sideline chaos and taking matters into his own hands.

"It was very telling," Rivera explained. "Everyone's going crazy and trying to get in his ear, and he just said, 'I got this' and went to work. ... That's the thing that epitomized his growth."

But part of it, too, has been Newton trusting what's being built around him. In addition to wanting to become bigger and more ball-hawking on defense, Gettleman and Rivera established protecting their franchise QB and providing him with playmakers as non-negotiables. They found those guys, in some cases through drafting, and in others by turning over the right rock.

"I think we're gonna continue to grow," Rivera said. "We have to keep looking to get better, and we have to keep managing the cap, because it's set up so you lose guys you don't want to lose, and that's hard. [Star corner] Josh Norman is [a free agent] next year, and we'll hopefully find a way to keep him. You don't want to lose good players, and that'll be hard on Dave and his guys. That's the hard part. We've played a lot of young guys a lot and it's showing in their progress."

All that said, Rivera concedes he has thought to himself, "Man, we're in a real good spot." And as he's recounting that, he points out that in his office hangs this Harry Truman quote:

"It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

Safe to say, that's worked out pretty well here.

Four downs

1) Revis' return. There are plenty of reasons why Darrelle Revis chose to return to the New York Jets -- yup, finance was prominent among them -- but there was really just one closer on the franchise's side. That was Jackie Davidson, and not just because she was the lead negotiator on the deal. Davidson built a strong relationship with the all-planet corner before his departure from New York in 2013, and so she was counted on to vouch for Revis, since new GM Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles (despite both having heard good things) had no direct experience working with him. So with the Jets and Patriots meeting Sunday, Revis has, again, switched sides in this heated rivalry -- something that wasn't necessarily easy for him to do. Back in March, Revis was very amenable to the idea of staying in Foxborough. "Darrelle loved playing for (Bill) Belichick," said one source with knowledge of Revis' mindset. He liked, in particular, the way the Patriots coach challenged him intellectually, and saw the business-like culture was a fit for him. On the other hand, Revis felt connected to the Jets, since the organization had made such a huge investment in him personally over the years (starting with the draft-day trade-up), provided him with a chance to become a Namath-like figure in its lore, and sits in the shadow of New York City, a place he truly loves. In the end, if the money was close between the Jets and 30 other clubs, it was always going to be the Jets. If the cash was close between the Patriots and 30 other clubs, he'd have picked the Patriots. If the Pats and Jets were close? Anyone's guess. But it wasn't close. The difference in structure between Revis' deal and Devin McCourty's contract provides a good illustration of the difference in the Pats' and Jets' offers -- and so this decision became academic. Two loose ends to tie up while we're here. First, Revis might routinely get top dollar, but that doesn't mean he always clears the table of every dime. Two offseasons ago, there were two clubs, according to a source, willing to take on the $16 million-per-year the Bucs were paying Revis, and he took $4 million less in New England. Second, when the Patriots signed Revis, the team wanted a second year on the deal for cap purposes, so the player's camp asked that a roster bonus be built into in that year to force the club to cut him in time for the start of free agency. The team insisted it be an option bonus. Why? Because with an option bonus, the Patriots would be in line to take home a compensatory pick. With a roster bonus, they'd get nothing. Pretty smart, and it'll probably give the Patriots an extra third-rounder.

2) Mexico City on deck. The NFL's commitment to London will only get stronger as it works toward the idea of having a franchise there long-term, but the focus of its international efforts is about to splinter. Following next week's Lions-Chiefs game at Wembley, an NFL contingent will travel to Mexico City with reps from Populous (an architectural firm that works with the league in retrofitting stadiums for big events) to meet with Mexican officials and visit Azteca Stadium. "All the work we're doing in Mexico now is to determine whether the stadium can be ready," said Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president of international. "We don't have a definitive decision yet, but they're working hard to get (the stadium) there." Per Waller, there are three things the league will need to be comfortable with when making the final call, which has to come, for logistical reasons, in the next four-to-six weeks. First, the locker rooms are built for soccer teams and aren't nearly big enough to house an NFL team, and that's something the league wants a solution to. Second, the technical infrastructure -- as it pertains to elements facilitating coach-to-quarterback and sideline-to-booth communications -- needs to be upgraded. And third, more broadcast accommodations are needed and, in particular, more space for TV setup and the general media. If the league is satisfied that those issues have been properly addressed, it's pretty much a certainty there'll be a game there in 2016. "It'd be fantastic if we could do it next year," Waller said. As it stands right now, the likelihood is there'll either be that game and three in London, or four games in London in 2016, with Germany and its ready-to-go stadiums remaining an outside possibility next year (and a focus for the future). As for growth in London, chances are strong one team will play there in back-to-back weeks next year, and the league will play on three consecutive weekends in the U.K., to further test the market. As for this weekend's streaming broadcast, the NFL is actually using it to grow the game in the Far East. Waller said the league's eyes will be on China and Japan, where consumers already have started to move away from standard TV, with digital and internet content replacing it.

3) Welcome Matt. The Cowboys didn't make the switch to Matt Cassel expecting a savior. Nope, this was actually more about the other 10 guys in the huddle than anything else. What the coaches saw in Brandon Weeden was a player who struggled to evolve from the one-read, spread system he piloted at Oklahoma State. The talent was there. But being an NFL quarterback is about more than just having the ability to make throws -- remember, Jerry Jones praised Weeden's raw passing ability, and really nothing else. Cassel, on the other hand, played in multi-read systems for Pete Carroll, Norm Chow, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Todd Haley, Charlie Weis, Bill Musgrave and Norv Turner. And that dynamic is one reason why Weeden was so much better as a pinch hitter than he has been batting cleanup. In relief appearances during his two years in Dallas, Weeden is 13-of-15 for 193 yards, three touchdowns, no picks and a perfect 158.3 QB rating. Without the defense game-planning him, he could go out and simply make throws. When the defense has game-planned for him? Different story all together. In Weeden's four starts as a Cowboy, he's completed 82 of his 124 passes for 849 yards, two touchdowns, four picks and a 77.7 QB rating. Conversely, Cassel started 71 games for three teams over a seven-year period. He started 15 or more games on three occasions, and two of those teams got to double-digit wins. "Brandon did a great job as a pinch hitter," one Cowboys source said. "But he clearly hasn't won as a starter, and we have a guy here now that's won as a starter in the NFL -- he's a proven guy." And if you put this all together, he's also the guy who gives the other 10 guys a better chance to be at their best.

4) Dolphins' defense comes alive. Just before Joe Philbin was ousted two weeks ago, a number of Miami defensive players went to coordinator Kevin Coyle asking that he pare down a fairly complex scheme reflective of his background in Mike Zimmer's system. And when that became public, the meeting was considered a flashpoint as Philbin's seat went from toasty to ablaze. Coyle's gone now, too, and it's easy to link that change to a suddenly-feisty group holding the Titans to 10 points and sacking Marcus Mariota six times last Sunday. The truth? Well ... Simplifying the defense has actually been a process, and not an overnight one. Dolphins coaches started shaving off concepts in advance of the Bills game in Week 3, and cut more out of the defense ahead of the Jets game in London (Week 4). More came out of the defense last week, but it wasn't all that significant, as secondary coach Lou Anarumo took the coordinator reins following Coyle's ouster. There was tweaking, to be sure. One such adjustment was Miami being less aggressive blitzing, which helped the ballyhooed defensive linemen in two ways -- giving them a little more time to get to the quarterback, and allowing them more freedom in their pass rush. But the biggest difference? Probably the energy the defense had as a group, which is a credit to interim head coach Dan Campbell. As one Dolphins source said, it was apparent that the players were "feeding off Dan's energy and enthusiasm."

Three checkdowns

1) We've spilled a lot of (digital) ink in this space on the transition spread QBs have to make to the pros, and we'll get an interesting look at another one this weekend, with Landry Jones set to start for the Steelers in Kansas City. The coaches feel Jones, in his third season since being drafted out of Oklahoma, is just now getting over the hump with his personal overhaul -- something that included teaching him to go through progressions, drop, play-action fake from center, and flipping his footwork on its head. One thing they made a point of that should pay off now: Jones got more playing time than any quarterback in the league in the preseason.

2) One point raised to me by an ex-Ravens coach on Baltimore's struggles this year concerned the impact of losing Terrell Suggs, and he wasn't talking about losing the player. It was the person, and the identity of the team, and how much attrition there's been there since the last Super Bowl. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis were gone that offseason, and Haloti Ngata was traded this past offseason. That left Suggs as the strongest link to the club's glorious past. Now? The team is young -- in part, by design -- and trying to find itself. "It just feels different there now," said the coach. The record (1-5) itself certainly is different.

3) Washington's QB situation has become a hot topic of debate once again, so it's probably worth laying out the risk the Redskins would take in putting Robert Griffin III -- the apple of the owner's eye -- back in the lineup. His $16.155 million for 2016 is only guaranteed for injury, which means the only way Washington can't wiggle out of that commitment is if Griffin gets hurt seriously enough that he can't pass a physical next March. If that occurs, then he'll count for more than 10 percent of the team's '16 cap. And he'll be hurt. So it'd take a lot for the team to pull the pin on that potential grenade. The irony here is that the 2016 option being picked up back in April is actually hurting the player now. If the Redskins had declined it, there'd be no risk in letting him go back out there.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Miami S Deon Bush (vs. Clemson, Noon ET, ABC): Bush has caught the eye of evaluators not because of one thing he can do, but all the things he brings to the table. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, and with a 4.53 40-yard dash clocked for scouts in the spring, Bush has the physical ability to play all over the secondary -- and has shown himself to be capable of manning both center field and spots closer to the line. He's generally been regarded as a mid-round prospect, in part because of his average ball skills, but the senior has the kind of potential that could tantalize scouts as we get closer to April. One AFC exec said, "He's a big dude and good athlete who will hit you." An AFC college director was similarly intrigued, but noted medicals will be important (due to Bush's hamstring problems and a sports hernia at Miami): "He's a solid-sized safety with athletic ability, good speed, and he can match up with backs, tight ends and some receivers. But that injury history is a concern." This week, he'll get a heck of a test. Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson is one NFL teams already have their eye on as a potential first-round pick in 2017 or '18, with an arm to strike downfield, speed to burn, and an arsenal of fleet pass catchers led by star receiver Artavis Scott at his disposal. Bottom line: Bush will be tested in all facets by the potent Tigers.

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2) Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil (vs. Texas A&M, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN): After serving a seven-game NCAA suspension, Tunsil will finally make his 2015 debut on Saturday. And he better be ready to go, as he'll be facing Aggie sophomore phenom Myles Garrett, perhaps the most physically gifted player in college football. Even with Garrett out there, though, Tunsil may well be the top NFL prospect on a field loaded with them. One AFC area scout assessed Tunsil like this: "A big athlete and one of the more impressive players you'll watch. May be the most NFL-ready player to come out as a junior in a long time." Another AFC scout assigned to Tunsil's area added, "A top-10 pick, legit left tackle. And I think he's top-five. He's an elite athlete, can move in any direction, any way he wants. He's premier. Easy moving, quick, sudden, explosive, fast. All the athletic traits, he has them all." Tunsil draws comparison to Redskins left tackle Trent Williams, and might be the best prospect since Williams at the position. And for teams looking to copycat the Dallas model, this guy wouldn't be a bad centerpiece to start with. Because of the NCAA inquiry that sidelined him to this point, NFL evaluators are sure to turn over every rock on Tunsil. As for his athletic ability, there won't be many better tests of that than the one he'll get this week.

Extra point

Monday night's Giants-Eagles game seemed to raise the complaint a lot of recent prime-timers have:

Is the level of play in the NFL slipping? Is the product, particularly early in the season, not what it's been in the past?

Some NFL decision makers are asking those questions themselves, and most of the griping comes back to player development.

"You see it everywhere," said one AFC personnel exec. "Honestly, you look at the defensive line, and that's not hard to coach, so not as much there. But corners are getting drafted strictly off traits. Offensive-line play is terrible until Week 14 or 15, because you can't develop them and it's a harder position to do. And then you add in the speed-of-game difference from college to pro, holy ..."

So where's the problem? It's in a number of areas. Here are five:

Coaching turnover: Any coincidence that Belichick (16th year with his current team), Marvin Lewis (13th year), Mike McCarthy (10th year), Rivera (fifth year) and Gary Kubiak (first year, but with a veteran roster) are leading the league's undefeated teams? Or that all those teams have quarterbacks that have been there for, at a minimum, four years? Most players in those places, save for Denver, were developed in one system and under one staff. Now, look at Cleveland: A fourth-year player there, now at the end of his rookie deal, has had three different staffs. And if he plays offense, four different coordinators. So, naturally, those guys are gonna be behind.

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Coach/GM decision making: This plays right into job security. If a quarterback needs to sit for a couple years, is he gonna get that chance in this climate, or will he be rushed on the field for fear that the coach or GM is simply developing him for someone else? Are you building a group to play over a four- or five-year period or throwing something together for a year or two in the name of survival? Are you cheating a young kid by playing a vet because you need to win now? Coaches and GMs will always tell you they won't fall prey to making calls based on their personal situation. The truth is, it happens and it's hard to blame guys in those spots.

Practice rules: This has been the source of much complaining among football people for a long time. The league and union basically took a third of the spring away, eliminated two-a-days in the summer and got rid of, for the most part, practice contact in the fall. That stuff really shows up when teams start to sustain injuries, because backups haven't been developed. "I think it's fair to say depth is a problem across the board," a second AFC exec said. "And your depth guys, you hope, are upside or developmental guys you hope can grow and ascend." But that's hard when they aren't getting the work they used to.

In-game rules: This has less to do with development than the product itself, but the onslaught of new rules and penalties -- in the opinion of many football people -- has bogged the game down. "And when you start making the refs into public figures, instead of just a part of the game," said the first AFC exec, "then you're gonna get more penalties." The officials' response, of course, would be that the players need to learn the rules better. No matter how you see it, this has become an issue.

The players themselves: If you look at last year's draft, you'll see players like Marcus Mariota, Dante Fowler Jr., Brandon Scherff and Leonard Williams lauded for the way they carry themselves. And sometimes, they'll be pushed up draft boards because of it, largely due to the fact that it's harder to find guys who aren't, deep down, me-first than it's ever been. "We're getting more AAU-mentality guys as a result of the college recruiting business and the entitlement it brings -- and it will get worse," one AFC personnel director said. "Side effect of the new CBA is the focus on getting to the second contract."

So if you condense this down, you see more raw, self-centered players being drafted and coached by men fighting for their jobs playing a game that's officiated tighter than it's ever been.

Usually, this stuff works itself out over the season, and the best teams put on a fantastic show down the stretch and into the playoffs.

It's just that now, it seems like we have to endure more and more clunkers to get there.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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