After watching his newly-acquired NFL franchise finish with an 0–8 record, losing each of those games by an average margin of more than 16.8 points, owner David Tepper has gone out of his way during the 2020 NFL offseason to ensure that, whenever football turns to normalcy, we’ll see anything but your older brother’s Carolina Panthers.
Even if the organization doesn’t make a single move between now and opening day, consider what Tepper and the Panthers have done in less than four months worth of time:
- Dismissing a head coach with a .546 winning record, four playoff appearances — and three NFC South championships — in the last seven years, one of which included one of the two Super Bowl appearances in franchise history (Ron Rivera)
- Watching one of the three greatest players in franchise history suddenly and (mostly) surprisingly retire (Luke Kuechly)
- Releasing the greatest tight end in franchise history (Greg Olsen)
- Making virtually no effort to bring back their best pass rusher, who accumulated 39 sacks in the last four seasons, leading the team in sacks each of those years (Mario Addison)
- Trading away a very good — albeit aging — interior offensive lineman before he hits free agency next year, and potentially demands a lucrative contract extension (Trai Turner)
- Sitting out of any type of bidding war in free agency, to retain the services of their talented, homegrown cornerback who
- Avoiding a bidding war in for the services of a homegrown cornerback who probably wasn’t worth bringing back at the price the market would pay for him (James Bradberry)
- And, of course, outright releasing the player with the most passing yards, attempts, completions, and touchdowns as well as the most combined yards of offense in franchise history, and the only player in team history to be named the Most Valuable Player in the NFL (Cam Newton)
Borrowing from his past as a hedge fund manager: Tepper basically walked into Carolina, looked at his existing portfolio of assets, and decided he effectively needed to liquidate pretty much everything they had, and rebuild it his way: swiftly moving on any opportunity before the rest of the market got wise to it, and identifying distressed assets where he could maximize his return on investment.
Clearly, Tepper viewed the biggest opportunities available to him as being on the coaching side — a stark contrast to new owners of professional sports teams, who love to make national heads through splashy player acquisitions.
Instead, Tepper lured Baylor University head coach Matt Rhule away from taking the head coaching job with the New York Giants, even though Rhule — a New York native who was once employed by the same organization — would’ve almost certainly taken it, if offered. But while the Giants were too busy getting out of their own way to seal what should’ve been an easy deal, Tepper swooped in and sold Rhule on his enthusiasm and vision for what Tepper was trying to accomplish in Carolina.
While the rest of the NFL was too busy wondering whether 30-year old LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady was really “the next big thing” in coaching (or if his resume was simply padded by the prolific play of Joe Burrow), Tepper recognized that with one more year of dynamic play from the LSU offense, combined with Brady’s background of coaching under Sean Payton, the number of opportunities that Brady would get from NFL teams would explode — and some of them would potentially be head coaching gigs.
And thus, by hiring Brady sooner rather than later to be Carolina’s offensive coordinator, Tepper managed to add two of the hottest coaching candidates in all of football to Carolina’s coaching staff.
Tepper hasn’t gone “big game hunting” in nearly the same manner in free agency, though. Rather, as mentioned, the team appears set on identifying distressed assets having value they could maximize.
To replace Kuechly, Carolina signed linebacker Tahir Whitehead to a one-year deal (at a veteran’s minimum salary), banking on Whitehead’s motivation to perform on a “prove it” deal, coupled with the linebacker’s connection to Temple University (he played there while Rhule was a member of the coaching staff).
A similar story can be told about Robby Anderson. After the talented wide receiver was passed over during the first big wave of free agency (even the receiver-needy New York Jets didn’t try all that hard to bring him back), the Panthers signed Anderson to a palatable two-year, $20 million deal, reuniting Anderson with Rhule after the latter helped the former turn into one of the best wide receivers in Temple University history.
And at quarterback, after the market for his services didn’t turn out to be nearly as robust as many had projected, Carolina signed Teddy Bridgewater to a highly team-friendly deal worth $63 million over three years.
The average annual value (AAV) of Bridgewater’s contract actually puts him outside the top 17 highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL, and the Panthers retain the ability to either sign him to an extension during or after the 2021 season (when he’ll still be only 29 years old), or release him — and recoup over $20 million in salary cap space — if the deal turns out to be a dud.
Now, in fairness, a cynic would look at any of the moves mentioned above, and ask the question of whether any of these deals made the Panthers a better team. While the question is a fair one, it’s also rather shortsighted. After all, you don’t the value of an investment portfolio today is far less important than what the value of it will be tomorrow.
While one would presume that Tepper will be expecting a far better performance from his team than the 5–11 effort from last year, there’s no question he undoubtedly has one eye on the future as well — especially given the current state of the NFC South.
Drew Brees is firmly in the twilight of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career, and when he retires, New Orleans is going to take a sizable step back in the division (regardless of how much Payton is trying to sell us on Taysom Hill). Atlanta is coming off back-to-back losing seasons (and are a virtual lock to be the first team to fire their head coach in 2020), Matt Ryan will turn 35 years old before the season starts, and the Falcons have more holes in their lineup than their meager salary cap space will allow them to address.
And yes, that one remaining NFC South team happened to acquire a certain GOAT at quarterback within the past week. But even if you’re not concerned about pairing a quarterback (Tom Brady) who lost his fastball with a head coach (Bruce Arians) known for preferring flamethrowers at the quarterback position (full disclosure: I have mixed feelings about this partnership), how long can we realistically expect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be a true “contender” with a quarterback who turns 43 this August and a head coach who has one foot firmly pointed towards retirement?
Tepper and company have to be seeing the same landscape. And having identified a macro inefficiency in the NFL market (the pervasive NFL culture that preaches “football people with football experience making football decisions”), Tepper — like a true hedge fund manager — is using a combination of short-term and long-term “investment strategies” to stay (mostly) competitive today within the landscape of an always-volatile NFL market, while ensuring a positive absolute return over the longer-term. ■