Jordan Gross has a critical decision to make for Panthers

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Gross is the most important Panthers player nobody talks about, and now he's at the crossroads of his career.

Cam Newton stood at the Bank of America Stadium podium, eyes bloodshot, voice warbling -- asked to recount the details behind his team's loss. Reporters locked on the quarterback, just as they have for his first three years in Charlotte, hearing him explain the bittersweet nature of the season and attempt to be diplomatic in defeat, trained following years of criticism about his postgame demeanor.

A few walls away there was a far more meaningful conversation happening with another Panthers player, but without the formality. Veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross just completed his 11th NFL season, one of his best, and yet it seems possible Gross could be on the verge of giving it up. He spoke with Panthers reporter Bill Voth about what the next step could be.

Understanding why Gross would entertain retirement is a lesson in the left tackle's personality. He's a man defined publicly by his football career, but always seemed at odds with this definition. After restructuring his contract with the Panthers in March of 2013, there was no security left in Carolina, and he was scheduled to play on a one-year contract with free agency waiting around the corner.

It's presumptuous to call the change in contract "a wake-up call" or another labored phrase, but there was a shift in how Gross operated publicly. The normally private lineman became available and his occasional radio appearances became routine, which culminated in the formation of his own podcast "This is Gross," produced by the Panthers but left autonomous to be his private place to chat with teammates, talk about topics that weren't always football and generally show a very different side.

We're left with a veteran offensive lineman who found a passion outside of football, without a contract, needing to decide his next step. Suddenly his comment from Sunday takes on new meaning: "I plan on working here one way or another for a long time."

Gross might have found his "other."

Star-divide

The Panthers, like Gross, are at a crossroads. One year into the tenure of general manager Dave Gettleman, they need to build on the success from 2013 -- but that's easier said than done. A cash-strapped organization is facing its most difficult offseason in which the front office needs to find a long-term wide receiver to eventually replace Steve Smith, try to come to terms on a long-term deal for All-Pro pass rusher Greg Hardy and now juggle the possibility of losing the team's franchise left tackle.

It's not simply a product of "next man up," because there isn't anyone left on the roster. Bad drafting and neglect at the offensive tackle position has bred a scenario where there's nobody else who can fill the role if Gross retires. This is a unit patched together with undrafted free agents and converted defensive tackles. There's promise and projects at offensive guard, but tackle is a huge problem.

Carolina's ideal scenario would be to talk Gross into one more year. An opportunity to buy the team a season to draft a possible replacement to learn under the veteran for a year, but even that's unclear. The Panthers are under razor-thin salary cap constraints for 2014 and adding the veteran on another one-year deal might be too much for the financials to bear.

Gross is now the elder statesman on the Panthers roster. Only wide receiver Steve Smith predates him. Over that time he's blocked for nine different starting quarterbacks and run the gamut of the team's middling success. There's not quite a sense of finality from the team's veterans, but an air of impending actuality. It's a case of Carolina's window opening just as theirs is starting to shut, and that's the tragedy of being on a team in a perpetual state of building and rebuilding for the better part of a decade.

Much of the time, these problems with veterans tend to sort themselves out unless the sticking point is money, which isn't the case. The big issue is that the Panthers need Jordan Gross more than he needs the Panthers and the allure of football might not be enough anymore.

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