Panthers' problem: Who will say enough is enough?

jperson@charlotteobserver.comOctober 25, 2012 

panthers0910_23

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera looks out onto the field as quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks back to the sideline against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL on September 9, 2012. Tampa Bay won, 16-10. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

After he’d been fired Monday, former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney questioned the makeup of the team’s locker room, saying the team needs more leaders willing to step up when times are tough.

Wednesday, the Panthers’ two longest-tenured players – wideout Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross – did not necessarily disagree with Hurney’s assessment.

“Any time you’re losing, it’s hard to stand up and be somebody to say, ‘Look at me. Lean on me. Follow my lead,’ ” said Gross, who will set the team record with his 142nd career start Sunday against Chicago.

“Everyone’s wired a little differently as far as what they’re comfortable saying,” Gross added. “We’ve had a lot of speeches and a lot of words. I agree with what Marty said about guys having to step up at all different levels.”

The Panthers (1-5) have lost four games in a row – the past three by six points or fewer. In two seasons under coach Ron Rivera, Carolina is 1-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Hurney said teams that lose close games usually continue that trend throughout the season.

“So somebody’s got to step up and say enough is enough,” Hurney said. “Because when it comes down to those games and it comes down to those plays, I think it’s a matter of confidence.”

Smith, who has spent each of his 12 seasons with the Panthers, said he had spoken with Hurney recently.

“If that’s what he feels, that’s what he feels. Things are said for a reason, and it’s not all just to say (it),” Smith said. “He’s right. But because a guy steps up and does or doesn’t say anything, that still doesn’t change what our record is. We’ve got to play better and do things better.”

Hurney pointed to Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and New England quarterback Tom Brady as effective leaders. Panthers safety Haruki Nakamura, who played four years with Lewis in Baltimore, said the Ravens’ locker room was full of leaders.

“The place I came from, it wasn’t just one person. It’s a whole organization. It takes everybody,” Nakamura said. “And as a team, we’ve only got one win. That’s everybody’s responsibility. It’s not one person’s. It’s not one person to say, ‘Hey, all of a sudden we’ve got to start winning.’ ”

With his demeanor on the sideline and after losses, second-year quarterback Cam Newton’s leadership skills have been questioned. Newton called himself a “bad teammate” during the offseason, and said Wednesday that Hurney’s comments “hit the nail on the head.”

“For a competitor, you don’t start looking out and saying, ‘Who is he talking about?’ ” Newton said. “You take on the challenge and say I can improve a lot more on my leadership just like this particular person, that particular person, this position, that position, that coach, whoever you are.”

Defensive end Charles Johnson is the Panthers’ highest-paid player after signing a six-year, $76 million deal before the 2011 season. But Johnson is a reluctant leader, at least vocally.

“I don’t consider myself a leader,” Johnson said. “I’d rather show my stuff on the field and lead by example. I lead by example instead of words.”

Johnson said that when he joined the Panthers in 2007, there were a number of leaders, including defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Dan Morgan and quarterback Jake Delhomme. As the roster changed, so did the locker room dynamics.

But Johnson said there are current players who are willing to speak up, from Gross and Smith to linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, the team’s union rep.

Hurney believes there are players capable of taking on more leadership responsibilities. Rivera pointed to injured center Ryan Kalil – with his preseason Super Bowl ad in the Observer – as someone “willing to step up and put it on the line.”

Even with his team’s slow start, Rivera liked the message Kalil sent.

“I said, if you don’t have 52 others who share that sentiment then something’s wrong,” Rivera said. “Maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe that thought process isn’t where it needs to be right now. And it’s my job to find out.”

Gross, drafted by Hurney in the first round in 2003, said he wishes there were words that would have helped Hurney keep his job.

“If I could have said something differently to make the record not be 1-5, I would have been happy to have said it,” Gross said. “There are a lot of reasons that he’s not here. And a lot of them have to do with the players. And some are probably leadership and some are probably performance.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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