Firing season is officially here in the NFL. The Carolina Panthers gave their general manager Marty Hurney the boot on Monday morning following the team's fifth loss of the season, a 19-14 loss to a struggling Cowboys team where the Panthers watched a fourth quarter lead evaporate in front of a home crowd.
Hurney has been on the job since 2002. Under his tenure the Panthers made one Super Bowl appearance during the 2003 season, and have made two more trips to the playoffs. Those three seasons were the only time during that stretch the Panthers had a winning record.
Expectations for the Panthers were raised after Cam Newton's debut season in 2011. Carolina was the NFC South pick for smart people, or at least pundits who wanted to look smart. This year was supposed to be different, and it became worse very quickly.
That Hurney lasted as long as he did is a textbook example of why franchises struggle for so long, looking for incompetence in all the wrong places. Hurney and owner Jerry Richardson – who will be forever remembered as the hardest of hardliners from the player lockout of 2011 – offered up John Fox to the football gods following a 2-14 season in 2010.
Fox was hired by Hurney in 2002. He's now doing just fine with the Denver Broncos. Coaches have a much easier time landing on their feet than outcast general managers, and all you have to do is look at Carolina to understand why that is.
Hurney left the team in a lurch for quarterback in 2010, a year after signing Jake Delhomme to an oversized contract that paid him more than $10 million to play in Cleveland that year. For help, he turned to Jimmy Claussen in the 2010 NFL Draft, a second-round pick. Hurney had dealt away the team's first-round pick the year before to draft Everette Brown.
He used first-round picks, what few the Panthers had over the last seven years, to draft running backs or cornerstone players like offensive tackle Jeff Otah. Hurney lucked into a Cam Newton last year, which ended up buying him another season.
Newton came into the league at a fortunate time for the Panthers. Sure, they needed a quarterback, but a new collective bargaining agreement made it a much cheaper proposition to get one with the first-overall pick. Had the same system been in place that allowed the St. Louis Rams to spend $78 million on Sam Bradford the year before, it's fair to wonder if Carolina would have dealt that pick away, not realizing the kind of opportunity that had fallen into their lap.
The question now is whether or not anyone else gets the axe in Carolina. Coach Ron Rivera looks vulnerable, shouldering as much of the blame for the Panthers' offensive struggles as a Hurney for the team's overall failings. Carolina has a trio of well-compensated running backs – another gift from Hurney – to go with Cam Newton. Yet, Rivera seems lost at the idea of how to play to his team's greatest strength.
Two years isn't much time for an NFL head coach, even by today's impatient standards. Rivera has 10 more games to make his case. If he does get another chance in 2013, he needs a general manager that understands just how important the draft is.
Firings happen because expectations were left unmet. Carolina will not magically ascend to 10-6 this season with Hurney watching the games from home. Rivera and other vulnerable staff members have officially been sent a message from ownership.
The real turnaround for the Panthers starts with the next general manager. Whoever that person is has to do better in the draft, further laying the team's foundation to grow alongside a gifted young quarterback.
Prior to the draft, whichever new suit is calling the shots in Carolina has some larger decisions to make to start unwinding the mess left by his predecessor. Carolina has more than $8 million committed to three running backs in 2013, and that total increases a year later. The Panthers have even more than that committed to Jon Beason and Thomas Davis next season. This year's first-round pick, Luke Kuechly is starting in place of Beason. Defensive end Charles Johnson is in the second year of a $76 million contract; he has 3.5 sacks that all came in one game, a loss.
At one point in his career Marty Hurney was a sportswriter, a journalist who took a job in Washington's public relations department and parlayed that into one of the longest running general manager jobs in recent NFL history. When Carolina writes the next chapter in the team's history, Jerry Richardson would be advised to find someone who understands player personnel and economics, letting the story write itself.