CHARLOTTE — For the second time in three seasons, the Panthers could be on the verge of blowing up their football operation.
Owner Jerry Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney last month. And unless the Panthers (2-7), who face Tampa Bay today at Bank of America Stadium, begin to “trend upward,” coach Ron Rivera and his staff could be next.
It’s not what Richardson or anyone expected less than two years ago when the Panthers hired Rivera and drafted quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick in a four-month span.
But after going 6-10 last season with a dynamic offense, the Panthers have taken a step back this year. The next seven weeks will be critical to the future of both Rivera and the franchise. While the Panthers try to string wins together, behind the scenes former New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi will look hard at the organization as he works as a consultant on the GM search.
Five issues that will shape the Panthers’ future.
Fresh start with a new general manager
After nearly 11 years with Marty Hurney making the key personnel decisions, the Panthers will have a new GM with fresh ideas and a different way of looking at things.
Richardson hired Accorsi to consult on the search, which league sources believe will cover a broad spectrum of candidates – those with GM experience, as well as assistant GMs and scouting directors.
Because of Hurney’s business-side background — he managed the Panthers’ salary cap before becoming GM — Richardson might be looking for someone with more scouting experience.
Given Accorsi’s history with the Giants — as well as Richardon’s ties to the Mara family — Giants scouting director Marc Ross is expected to receive consideration.
Three young executives with scouting experience — Dolphins assistant GM Brian Gaine, Minnesota assistant GM George Paton, and Tennessee vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson — all interviewed for the GM position at St. Louis last year before the Rams hired Les Snead.
New vision on the sideline
Should the Panthers stay on their current trajectory and finish the season with four or fewer wins, the odds are against Rivera remaining.
Combine one of the NFL’s worst records with a regression from last season and a new general manager coming in, Carolina may be looking for its fifth coach in franchise history.
The hottest name is Chip Kelly. Oregon’s head man has led the Ducks to a 44-6 record (through games of Nov. 10) since becoming the coach in 2009, due in large part to his high-octane spread offense that seldom huddles and shows little mercy on the scoreboard.
The marriage of Kelly and the Panthers looks more appetizing with the stable of running backs and one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league in Newton. Kelly has experience with Newton, coming within a field goal of handing Newton his only loss as a college starter in the BCS National Championship Game.
Tough personnel decisions
The next GM will have to make some critical personnel decisions. The Panthers have nearly $130 million committed toward next year’s salary cap, according to ESPN.com.
That figures to be at least $5 million over the still-to-be-determined cap and does not include salaries for next year’s draft class and any free agents the Panthers might sign — outside the organization or their own.
Whoever replaces Hurney undoubtedly will have to cut a couple of high-priced veterans and restructure some other contracts.
The potential of another top-10 pick
The Panthers have the NFC’s worst record and are tied with Cleveland for the third-worst mark in the league, behind Jacksonville (1-7) and Kansas City (1-7). Carolina’s trip to Kansas City next month could go a long way toward determining the top of the draft.
Even if the Panthers get hot, it looks likely they will wind up with a top-10 pick for the third year in a row.
And though ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. believes there are not as many elite, top-10 prospects in this class as in recent years, the Panthers will have a chance to get an impact player or trade the pick.
Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is No. 1 on Kiper’s board. Jones is an edge rusher who would seem to fit better in a 3-4 scheme. But if the Panthers fire Rivera, who’s to say his successor won’t run a 3-4?
A major stadium renovation
Since Bank of America Stadium debuted in 1996, almost every other NFL franchise has moved into a new stadium or had a major renovation done on its arena.
The Panthers will soon join that list.
The onrush of technology has created the demand for bigger, better video boards and more ribbon boards for stats and advertisers. The NFL is putting an emphasis on enhancing the at-game experience for fans, fighting back against the ease of staying home with easy access to replays and action around the league.
The Panthers upgraded their video boards four years ago but they don’t match many screens now in stadiums.