Fowler: With Hurney gone, everyone is on the table

October 23, 2012 

If I’m Ron Rivera, I’m pretty nervous right now.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson abruptly fired general manager Marty Hurney Monday morning, a day after Carolina dropped to 1-5 with a home loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

More changes are coming. Richardson met with Rivera Monday morning and while Rivera wouldn’t reveal much of that conversation, it’s apparent that everything is on the table. Rivera said he will coach like his job is at stake over these next 10 games.

Richardson, 76, isn’t known for his patience and is tired of losing like everyone else. If he will fire his close friend Hurney – and remember this is the same owner who had a fallout with his own two sons that ended up with Mark and Jon Richardson “resigning” from their high-profile roles with the team in 2009 – than anything is possible.

I asked Rivera Monday if he thought his job was safe.

“Yeah, I do,” said Rivera, who is in the second season of a four-year, $11.2-million contract. “I mean I’m here. And so I’m going to continue to work and do the best I can and we’ll go from there.”

But Rivera also said in response to another question about whether he felt like he was coaching for his job: “I always feel like I’m coaching for my job. It’s just like when I was a player. I was drafted in the second round in 1984. For nine years, I came into that facility in Chicago, wondering if I was going to get cut. This is no different. I come to work like I did as a player, and that’s to do the best I can.”

Everyone in the organization except for Richardson himself has to feel the pressure now, including Rivera. Richardson has never pulled the plug on a coach after only two years, But he let George Seifert go after three years and Dom Capers after four. John Fox, the outlier, lasted nine.

Or it may be that Rivera is told he can stay but that he better change his coaching philosophy or alter his staff or players. Given several opportunities to declare that he wasn’t going to fire any assistant coaches Monday, Rivera wouldn’t do so. “This is a process that we’re going to go through as far as an evaluation and we’ll see how things go,” Rivera said of possibly changing some of his assistants. “If that’s what has to happen eventually, then yeah – maybe that’s what happens. Do we cut players? Yeah. If we have to, maybe that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Hurney had been GM since 2002. His departure was sudden, but not completely unexpected. He has shepherded a team that has won only nine games since the beginning of 2010, the fewest in the NFL in that time period. Since making the playoffs in 2008, the Panthers have not had a winning season.

“It’s a nasty part of this business,” Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said Monday. “People get hired, but also people get fired.”

In an interview over lunch several years ago, when things were still going well with the Panthers, Hurney told me that most NFL general managers get to hire only one head coach in their career – and that they usually last as long in their own job as that head coach does.

Hurney was fortunate that he got to hire two. He and Fox had a good run together until the last couple of years, and then he got to stick around and pick Rivera to replace him.

But Rivera is 7-15 in his first 22 games as a head coach and Hurney is gone. It was certainly a bad day for Hurney. But it wasn’t easy for Rivera, either.

“I had a great working relationship with the man,” Rivera said of Hurney. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for who he is as a person … I’d like to be able to say he became my friend … I talked with him this morning and we had a great conversation and in his fashion, he was more concerned about me. And that’s who he is as a person.”

Hurney was classy about his departure. In a conference call with several other reporters Monday, he praised Richardson and said he understood that it “can’t continue to go this way.” He said that the Panthers have “an atmosphere that really has become a losing environment” and that he realized change was needed.

But how far will the changes drill down? Hurney locked enough players into expensive long-term contracts that you can’t just fire them all without killing yourself under the NFL salary cap. And saying his firing should serve as a wakeup call to the players is just too easy. As Smith noted: “If you need another man to get fired to understand what your job is, I think you’re kind of missing it a little bit.”

It has always been easier in the NFL to change coaches or general managers than an entire locker room. It always will be. Rivera knows that. The GM has left the building, and all the coaches are now skating on thin ice.

And Hurney is right. There’s a losing culture that is wrapped around the Panthers like a shroud.

And either that losing culture is going to change, or a whole lot of other things are.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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