For the second time in three seasons, the Carolina 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 on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, begin to trend upward, coach Ron Rivera and his staff could be next.
Its 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 overall 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.
1. The possibility of a 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 NFLs worst records with a regression from last season and a new general manager and Carolina may be looking for the fifth head coach in franchise history.
The hottest name in all of coaching is Chip Kelly. Oregons head man has led the Ducks to a 44-6 record (through games of Nov. 10) since becoming the coach in 2009, in large part because of his high-octane spread offense that rarely huddles and shows little mercy on the scoreboard.
The marriage of Kelly and the Panthers looks even 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.
The leap from college to pros this offseason seems inevitable for Kelly. Last year he was a signature away from becoming Tampa Bays head coach before deciding that he had unfinished business at Oregon, which is now ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings and is poised to return to the title game.
With the exception of George Seifert, the Panthers have picked an up-and-coming coordinator as a head coach ¯ Dom Capers, John Fox and Rivera. Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell could field interviews in the offseason. Fewell, a Cramerton native, interviewed with the Panthers when Rivera was hired, and has won a Super Bowl ring since then.
Names of former head coaches Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden will go through their yearly cycle of being tossed around, and Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid appears to be a lame duck with the Eagles.
But the Panthers have tried a long-tenured NFC coach with championship game experience before, and that ended up in a 1-15 season.
2. Tough personnel decisions
The next GM will have to make some critical personnel decisions right from the jump. The Panthers have nearly $130 million committed toward next years 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 years 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 other contracts. The Panthers heard from teams interested in running back DeAngelo Williams who will count $8.2 million against next years cap at the trade deadline, but didnt get much in the way of offers.
With Riveras staff committing to Jonathan Stewart as the starter, Williams seems like an expensive complementary piece. But the next staff if Rivera is fired might have a different vision for the backfield.
Cornerback Chris Gamble has a cap number of $10.9 million next year and will be coming off shoulder surgery. Though the Panthers are not well-stocked at corner, Gambles age he will be 30 before next season and cap number make him a prime candidate to be cut or restructured.
Linebacker Jon Beason is in a similar position after missing most of the past two seasons following surgeries. The difference: Gamble has two more years left on his deal, Beason ($9.5 million cap figure in 2013) has four.
The next GM will have to take a long look at the contracts of linebacker James Anderson ($4.4 million), left tackle Jordan Gross ($11.7 million), receiver Steve Smith ($5.7 million) and defensive tackle Ron Edwards ($3.3 million) and see what direction he wants to go.
The Panthers face the cap crunch in large part because of their spending spree following the lockout in 2011, when they re-signed six of their core players with contract extensions totaling $152 million in guaranteed money.
But with the Panthers starting over in some respects, that core is aging and will have to be reconstituted.
A new GM looking to build a perennial playoff contender can build around Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, Stewart, receiver Brandon LaFell, center Ryan Kalil, tight end Greg Olsen, defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, cornerback Josh Norman and safety Charles Godfrey.
Smith, 33, the Panthers longest-tenured player, said hes uncertain where he fits in the future plans.
Im just working on today. Whats going to happen in the offseason, your guess is as good as mine, Smith said. Is it a concern? Is it a thought? We all think about things. Im an older guy. Its part of the game.
At some point Im going to be fired whether I want to or not. That day is generally going to come sooner than later. Ill handle that when the time comes.
3. The potential of another top-10 pick
The Panthers (2-7) have the NFCs worst record and are tied with Cleveland for the third-worst mark in the league, behind Jacksonville (1-7) and Kansas City (1-7). Carolinas 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. Hurney nailed the last two with Newton and Kuechly.
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 still will have a chance to get an impact player or trade the pick.
This draft class is not as good. But there are some star players who would be highly rated in any year, Kiper said last week. It is a case where you dont see the quarterbacks. You dont see the running backs. You dont see the wide receivers this year in the top 10, top 12 overall. Those are positions right now that are very questionable.
Other than receiver, those are not positions where the Panthers have a need.
The Panthers could use a cornerback and a safety. But in Kipers estimation, Theres no elite, shutdown corner in this draft (and) no elite safety.
But there are as many as six defensive tackles who project as first-rounders, led by Utahs Star Lotulelei, a 6-foot-4, 325-pounder who is the No. 3 overall prospect in Kipers current rankings.
The defensive tackle position for Carolina could be the area where it falls that they may be able to address, Kiper said.
There are a number of quality defensive ends in the draft. But Greg Hardys emergence this year, coupled with Charles Johnsons strong play, makes defensive end an unlikely first-round target.
Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, No. 1 on Kipers board, is an edge rusher who would seem to fit better in a 3-4 scheme. But if the Panthers fire Rivera, whos to say his successor wont run a 3-4?
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo is No. 2 on Kipers board. But the Panthers selected an inside linebacker in April who looks like hell be one of the franchises cornerstones for years to come.
4. 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 Hurneys business-side background he managed the Panthers salary cap before becoming GM Richardson might be looking for someone with more scouting experience.
Given Ernie Accorsis history with the Giants as well as Richardsons ties to the Mara family Giants scouting director Marc Ross is expected to receive consideration.
Ross, an all-Ivy League receiver at Princeton in 1993-94, spent three years in Buffalo before the Giants hired him in 2007. In the five drafts overseen by Ross, the Giants have selected former North Carolina receiver Hakeem Nicks, cornerback Prince Amukamara, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and left tackle Will Beatty.
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.
After several teams inquired about Baltimore assistant GM Eric DeCosta last offseason, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti restructured DeCostas contract and told the Baltimore Sun he expects DeCosta to succeed current GM Ozzie Newsome. DeCosta, 41, was named one of the top young stars in the sports industry in 2005.
Panthers interim GM Brandon Beane, who was Hurneys right-hand man, could command an interview if the team finishes strong.
Among former GMs, Bill Polian told the Observer last week he was not interested in returning to the Panthers. Polian has been working for ESPN since Indianapolis fired him in January.
Former Cleveland GM Phil Savage is said to be interested in the job, according to a league source. The Browns went 18-30 in Savages three-year tenure from 2006-08. Savage, a former Browns assistant under Bill Belichick, is the executive director of the Senior Bowl and Alabamas color analyst.
5. 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.
The Panthers will soon join that list.
Planning is under way for a substantial updating of the 73,778-seat stadium. Details and costs are still being evaluated, but an overall upgrade of the facility will come sooner rather than later.
There comes a time in the life cycle of a stadium where you have to do a major renovation for the next 10 to 15 years, Panthers president Danny Morrison said. Were going through that process.
The Panthers brought in four groups to study the stadium and offer their thoughts on updating it. The consensus, Morrison said, was that Bank of America Stadium has great bones, meaning the classic bowl-shaped facility wont need to be redesigned.
The most significant changes will be installing escalators to carry spectators from ground level to seats in the upper decks. Morrison said the 55-year-old who bought PSLs when the franchise was young are now 70-year-olds facing a long, uphill climb to their seats.
Movement through the main concourses is not an issue, but what Morrison calls vertical movement will be a priority.
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 dont match many screens now in stadiums.
Technology continues to be more and more paramount, Morrison said.
The other big question is how much the project will cost. That, Morrison said, is still being evaluated.
The privately financed stadium cost $190 million when it was built. As a point of comparison, Kansas City spent $375 million in 2007 to renovate Arrowhead Stadium, which was built in the 1970s. The Panthers project is not expected to be as costly.
City officials recently toured MetLife Stadium, home to the New York Giants and New York Jets, to get a look inside what is considered one of the NFLs state-of-the-art facilities. There has been discussion about the city contributing to the cost of updating Bank of America Stadium, but no agreement has been reached.
Ron Green Jr.
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