The Carolina Panthers' decision to dismiss general manager Marty Hurney on Monday certainly caught me by surprise, but I see it as the first of many moves owner Jerry Richardson will make in an attempt to turn around a franchise that has fallen on hard times. Hurney had run the team since 2002. The Panthers have nine wins since the start of the 2010 season -- the lowest total of any NFL team during that stretch -- and haven't made the playoffs since the '08 campaign.
This is a shocking development for me to watch after spending four seasons (2003 to 2007) working for the Panthers as a college scout. During my tenure, Carolina made a Super Bowl appearance (Super Bowl XXXVIII) and reached another NFC Championship Game two years later, relying on a strong defense and a punishing running game. While John Fox set the direction for team as the head coach, he and Hurney worked together to build a roster that could compete for championships over the long haul. That roster was chock-full of homegrown talent, with Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Jordan Gross, Dan Morgan and Steve Smith drafted and developed by the staff. Hurney augmented that core with a few unheralded free agents, like Stephen Davis and Jake Delhomme, who performed at a high level during a sensational run. Although that team fell short of winning the ultimate prize, the franchise routinely contended over a five-year span.
Unfortunately, the team has failed to live up to expectations over the past few seasons and a decision was made to change the direction of the franchise. With this transitional stage in Charlotte, here are three questions the Panthers must address going forward:
1) Is Ron Rivera's job safe?
No. Whenever there is a change at the top of an organization, everyone in the building is under evaluation -- particularly the head coach. Rivera was handpicked by Hurney to turn the Panthers around after a 2-14 campaign in 2010, but the results have been underwhelming through a season and a half. The Panthers have won just seven of 22 games under Rivera and are one of the NFL's biggest disappointments this season.
The team sits in the NFC South cellar with a 1-5 record. The high-powered offense that was the darling of the league in 2011 ranks only 24th in total offense this season. Cam Newton has seemingly regressed in his sophomore campaign, and a potent running game that features a pair of high priced runners in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart has been underutilized, in my opinion. Defenses adapted to the explosive unit from last year, but the Panthers haven't been able to adapt back.
Defensively, the Panthers continue to struggle stopping the run, and an inability to close has led to concerns about Rivera's game management. Four of the Panthers' five losses have come by fewer than seven points, and the failure to get off the field in critical moments has been a continuing defensive theme during Rivera's tenure. Given those issues, Rivera must engineer a dramatic turnaround over the final 10 games to save his job.
If the Panthers opt to fire Rivera at season's end, Bill Cowher will be the obvious candidate for the job. He has strong ties to the area after starring at N.C. State during the late 1970s, and has lived in North Carolina since retiring from the Steelers in 2007. Although Richardson has scoffed at the notion of giving a head coach complete control of the franchise in the past, the growing murmurs from a fan base desperately seeking a winner could lead him to hand the keys of the franchise to Cowher.
2) How will the change impact Cam Newton as the face of the franchise?
Newton has clearly regressed in his second season, but his status as the Panthers' franchise quarterback is not in jeopardy. He enjoyed the best rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history, and his immense talent and potential will encourage ownership to hire a competent general manager with a plan to build around Newton. This will require candidates for this job to have a blueprint for building a roster that provides Newton with enough weapons to succeed as a playmaker. From a clear draft strategy to an effective plan for free-agent acquisitions, the top candidates must show ownership that they will create an environment that will allow the former No. 1 overall pick to succeed in Charlotte.
In addition, Richardson will also quiz the candidates on potential coaching changes that could help Newton flourish as a player and leader. While it is possible that answers are already in the building, the new general manager still will be tasked with providing a clear plan for getting Cam back on track.
Given the impact of quarterback play on the odds of winning a Super Bowl, the new general manager's game plan must begin and end with Newton in mind.
3) Will this alter daily operations in the Panthers' personnel department?
Hurney's departure undoubtedly caught the Panthers' personnel department by surprise, but it should not immediately affect the daily job responsibilities of scouts. College scouts will continue to criss-cross the country evaluating the top prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft. They will continue to operate under the standards and directives established by Hurney, and utilize the same grading scale to slot players on the draft board. This will allow the team to maintain some continuity through the end of the season, until a new general manager comes on board.
From a pro personnel standpoint, Carolina will continue to evaluate and acquire players through the waiver system with the goal of upgrading the bottom third of the roster with improved depth. While the Panthers likely will hold off on making major moves at the trade deadline without a permanent general manager in place, the team will continue to function like any other personnel department in the NFL, albeit without the ultimate leader in place.