When Panthers owner David Tepper declined to extend the contracts of his football staff last offseason, the implicit message was clear: win ... or else.
Or else arrived Tuesday afternoon when the second-year owner fired head coach Ron Rivera and announced he would begin the search for a replacement who can bring old-school discipline and modern innovation to the position.
One former player with ties to the organization told me former Packers coach Mike McCarthy's name has been circulating within team headquarters for a while, but hiring him would be a curious move considering McCarthy was criticized during his final seasons in Green Bay for being overly conservative and not changing with the times to take advantage of a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.
Bottom line: Tepper has the right to fire and hire whomever he wishes, but I also believe Rivera should have been allowed to finish out the season, based on what he did for the team during his eight-plus years on the job. He won three division titles, made four playoff appearances, advanced to one Super Bowl, earned two Coach of the Year awards and finished as the franchise's all-time winningest coach with a 76-63-1 record.
Tepper said in a video released by Carolina that he made the move now to get a competitive advantage on teams who will be searching for new coaches in the offseason, and to be honest and up front with Rivera. But you have to believe this was as much an emotional decision as a pragmatic one. Yes, the Panthers have lost four in a row and five of the last six, but not all losses are equal. Some carry greater embarrassment than others, which was precisely the case Sunday in a 29-21 setback against visiting Washington.
Tepper showed surprising patience, if not uncharacteristic empathy for someone in his position, by not making a change after last season when the Panthers lost seven of their final eight games to finish 7-9. He acknowledged the coaches alone couldn't be held responsible for the collapse, in essence saying it would be imprudent to fire Rivera after star quarterback Cam Newton was injured over the second half of the year and unable to practice the majority of each week. But his decision not to extend the coaches' contracts was a clear sign that he was not all in with them long-term.
So, he informed Rivera at 2:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday afternoon that he was making a change. Fifteen minutes later he met with the staff to inform them that secondary coach Perry Fewell would take over as interim head coach, with offensive coordinator Norv Turner moving into a role as special assistant to the head coach. Quarterbacks coach Scott Turner was promoted to interim offensive coordinator.
"I came here two years ago. I wanted to show patience on the football side to see how it was going. On the business side we made vast and sweeping changes, and I didn't want to make those vast and sweeping changes on the football side. I wanted to take time and patience to see what could go and how it could go," Tepper said. "I just thought it was time given the way things have gone the last two seasons to put my stamp on this organization on the football side as we've done on the business side of the organization. As much respect as I have for Ron, I think a change was appropriate to build things the way I want things to be built."
Tepper said he doesn't want to lose general manager Marty Hurney, whom he credited with having sharp eyes for collegiate talent, but added that he will hire an assistant general manager and vice president of football operations. If I'm Hurney, I'm not feeling overly safe despite what Tepper said publicly. Because if the handling of Rivera shows one thing, it's that past success doesn't guarantee you a job.