Panthers look to future with GM Hurney firing

Marty Hurney never called a defensive set, a play to run, filled a depth chart, ran or threw the ball, made a block or tried to make a tackle.

But Monday, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson cut professional ties with his decade-long general manager, perhaps making Hurney the scapegoat for a season quickly swirling down the drain.

Some observers around the Queen City may say this was long overdue, that Hurney should have been shown the door when former coach John Fox was following a 2-14 season in 2010. After all, Hurney got the job in 2002 and the team made the playoffs just three times during that span.

Today, it comes as more of a surprise. The timing is rather odd, as the Panthers are just six games into the season and there’s little a GM can do to reverse the team’s course right now. But it was also unforeseen given the presentation put forth by the franchise’s brass in the offseason that was one of strength and unity.

They were all in this together.

Hurney remained employed when Fox was let go, so certainly he was in for the long haul with second-year coach Ron Rivera. After all, they shared a vision and spoke in great detail about how they went about choosing linebacker Luke Kuechly with the ninth overall pick in last April’s draft, why they used a second-round pick on an obscure offensive guard from Midwestern State and why they didn’t address the team’s most pressing need of secondary help in the first round.

It just so happens that Cowboys’ cornerback Morris Claiborne haunted the Panthers yesterday with his play, which included an interception. Claiborne could have been a Panther. Claiborne was drafted three spots ahead of Kuechly, which begs the question that wasn’t really answered at the time: What efforts, if any, did Hurney make to move up to get a player that would have filled a greater need?

Kuechly could become a star, but linebacker wasn’t a problem area for the team. And since making the playoffs was the stated goal of every person associated with the organization going back to last winter, drafting for immediate need would have made more sense.

There’s also the Cam Newton factor.

He was the obvious top selection in the 2011 draft and was brilliant as a rookie last fall. But Newton hasn’t been the same this season. His numbers are significantly down, ditto his spirit.

Newton accepted responsibility for mistakes last season, but in a much more optimistic manner than he is these days. He’s coming off as much more aloof, perhaps refraining from being critical of teammates and his body language following Sunday’s 19-14 loss to the Cowboys was terrible.

Newton acknowledges he’s leader of the offense, but came across Sunday more like a disenchanted teen ready to wave the white flag than a highly-paid NFL quarterback. He’s even resorted to speaking in the third person of late using his full first name, Cameron, which may be a sign of distancing himself from the air beginning to envelop the franchise.

Asked about the team’s struggles running the ball and if that’s why three consecutive passing plays were called inside the 5-yard-line at one point versus the Cowboys, Newton paused and replied, “I’m not the play-caller.”

The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner obviously needs more guidance than he’s received, or at least from a different source. A head coach doesn’t have the time to deal with it, but a GM does. Tight lips around the franchise won’t reveal what, if anything, they have tried with Newton, whose press conferences are sometimes as puzzling as his decision-making on the field.

But Newton’s the face of the franchise, the player around which the team is being built, and yet he’s becoming distant from the rest of the team. Or so it seems.

The same thing happened to wide receiver Steve Smith several years ago and Hurney mishandled that, basically allowing Smith to call the shots. Perhaps Richardson saw the same thing looming with Newton and made this move, in part, to reverse that course.

Or maybe Richardson, 76, finally came to the realization that it isn’t working and a change was needed as soon as possible.

Hurney helped get the Panthers to a pair of NFC title games and the Super Bowl in 2003, but otherwise the team hasn’t even put forth consecutive winning seasons in its history and has the worst record in the NFL dating back to the beginning of the 2010 campaign.

Richardson won a Super Bowl as a player. The man is supremely competitive, yet loyal, as evidenced by hanging with Hurney for so long. But he’s never had a talent under center quite like Newton, and maybe he believes now is the time to strike and Hurney isn’t the man for the job any longer.

Regardless, whatever finally triggered the decision doesn’t really matter anymore. A change was made, and that’s all that matters.