An NFL Tuesday is full of possibilities. There’s the option of sleeping in, playing golf, watching a movie, or engaging in anything that is a pointedly non-football related activity.
But there’s another possibility. There could be a phone call that day, too. We all know the unspoken rules applied to the call that comes in the middle of the night. It’s the confirmation of something awful. The only thing worse than the violent ring which renders a peaceful state of slumber to a distant memory, is the specter of what will be confirmed on the other end.
The Tuesday call isn’t so nearly dramatic or life changing. But it’s a downer. A general manager is summoning you to his office in order to cut you. Your visit comes in the afternoon, after your replacement has been selected after a day of workouts. I’ve observed Tuesday from all angles.
I always knew when I would be getting that call. I suspect Marty Hurney knew it, too. Of course his came on a Monday, because if it was Tuesday, he was the one dialing.
Marty Hurney didn’t look happy at last February’s Combine. It was early in the morning at a hotel ballroom where he and three other general managers—Miami’s Jeff Ireland, Kansas City’s Scott Pioli, and Seattle’s John Schneider, were assembled to flip some coins to determine their order of selection for the upcoming draft. Miami and Carolina had finished with identical 6-10 records, so they had to break the tie to determine who picked 8th and 9th respectively.
Maybe it was the time of day, or maybe it was the process, but Hurney was dour throughout the morning. Scott Pioli noticed and tried to lighten the mood. “Marty has his game face on,” said Pioli. This garnered no response from Hurney.
The Dolphins won the toss, which meant they chose 8th. They took quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Panthers chose 9th. With that pick, they drafted Luke Kuechly, a linebacker, who has been an unquestioned bright spot in a season of disappointment.
The recurring injuries to linebackers Thomas Davis and John Beason have severely hurt the Panthers linebackers, who, until recently had been the strength of the Panthers defense. But the addition of Kuechly is a home run. Wasn’t enough though.
After a 1-5 start, Marty Hurney was fired. This one is rare, a general manager getting fired in midseason. I’m not sure what it’s meant to accomplish. I suppose it’s intended to be a message. It tells the fans that the problem is talent and that by firing the talent scout steps have been made to rectify the problem. It tells the fans that the season is over and that there's one less person in the front office.
GoogleNow that Hurney is gone, Panthers coach Ron Rivera is on his own.
The firing sends a message to the team that the guy who chose them really sucked and that by association they too suck in a most obvious way.
Problem is that’s not really true. In addition to Kuechley, Hurney’s picks include De Angelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Ryan Kalil, and of course, Cam Newton. The most conspicuous name not mentioned is one Julius Peppers. He was a member of Hurney’s first draft class, and coincidentally, the turning point in Hurney’s tenure.
If Hurney had been awaiting that last phone call, his angst began in 2009. Jake Delhomme was in the final year of his contract and was scheduled to count more than $11 million against the cap, but Hurney signed him to a five-year deal worth $42.5 million with $20 million in guarantees.
That same year, Julius Peppers brayed when the team offered him the franchise tag. He said that if the Panthers tagged him he would demand a trade. Fair enough. But when Peppers claimed that he wanted to play in a 3-4 defense and that he wanted to be an outside linebacker, there was no chance at an honest discussion.
It’s funny, in corporate America, we’re always told how we’re “replacable,” and we watch as the company goes out its way to prove it. But in an actual sport, on an actual team, the goal is win games against actual opponents. When the best player wants out, it’s common knowledge that the company does what it can to make the player happy. That didn’t happen in Carolina.
Peppers wanted out. But his demand to play outside backer turned out to be nothing more than a dramatic exit ploy. Now in Chicago, Peppers is a rich man. He’s still a defensive end, too.
In these parts, the biggest critique of Hurney is the money he allotted De Angelo Williams Jonathan Stewart. Everyone in the league is adopting a dual running back system. There’s a case to be made that Carolina does this best. In Williams and Stewart, the Panthers have a seamless rotation of backs who share the same skill set. Neither carries the ball more than 200 times a year, which will allow both increased longevity.
There’s also some symmetry there. Stewart and Williams entered the league two years apart, and their size and style of play are complimentary, like brothers. It only makes sense they share everything, like siblings do.
After giving Williams a five-year $43 million dollar deal, like a little brother, they signed Stewart to a five-year, $36 million dollar deal. But last Sunday against Dallas, both brothers were largely invisible, like they had been all afternoon. With two minutes left, on fourth and one, neither was called upon, so neither delivered.
That meant more was expected from Cam Newton. Ah, yes the one who takes losses too hard and because of that is ready-made for the gallows. The one who was great last year is the one who sucks this year because that can be the only conclusion.
I know much has been made of the read option that Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has used to transition Newton from Auburn to Carolina. Last year, it was deemed a great thing. Now that the Panthers are struggling, it’s being called a “college play.” It’s actually the same play RGIII is running to perfection in Washington. When Griffin hits that inevitable rough patch we can all reconvene to talk about how much he sucks. It’ll be a snarky good time, I’m sure.
In the meantime, the read option is a nice changeup. On one play in the second quarter, Newton attacked Dallas defensive end De Marcus Ware, kept the ball and gashed the Cowboys for 24 Yards. In the fourth quarter, Newton gave it to Stewart and Ware stuffed it. Right play, wrong decision.
Of course you can’t make a steady diet off the read option. You can’t make a steady diet off of any one play. The one element missing from the read option is a pass play off the same action.
None of this has anything to do with Marty Hurney.
I'll tell you what does. In August I wondered aloud if the Panthers would pursue Deion Branch. Turns out after the Patriots cut him, they really had no desire to let him go. But the sentiment remains the same.
When a play breaks down in Carolina—and it happens often, Newton would be greatly assisted by one more veteran receiver. Steve Smith is still doing it well. But another guy who comes back to the ball would be a splendid addition.
Hurney is gone, but someone needs to make that call.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter @ AlanGrant_NFL