Jerry Richardson is keeping the band together as long as he can.
In what figure to be among his final moves as the Carolina Panthers owner and founder – although as the past two months have taught us, expect the unexpected with this franchise – Richardson rewarded head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney with new contracts.
If the next owner wants to blow up the front office and coaching staff, he or she will have to buy out their contacts. And what’s another $20 million or so for someone shelling out $2 billion for the team?
The Hurney deal was finalized Wednesday, although the development has been inevitable since that strange week last July when Hurney was named interim GM a couple of days after Richardson abruptly fired Dave Gettleman.
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Terms of Hurney’s contract were not disclosed, although deals for GMs typically span at least several years. Rivera received a two-year extension in January that will pay the two-time NFL Coach of the Year a total of $15.5 million over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
No matter what a new owner decides, Rivera and Hurney will get paid.
When he was reintroduced in July, Hurney danced around the topic of whether he’d want the job permanently, and the Panthers initially said he’d help hire the full-time GM.
But anyone who knew of Richardson’s loyalty and Hurney’s desire to return to the NFL could predict this would be Hurney’s gig, as long as the Panthers made the playoffs last season.
Carolina checked that box, and Hurney was generally praised for his roster decisions, most notably dumping big and slow No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin in a Halloween day trade with Buffalo.
But there were a couple of obstacles.
As soon as the Panthers fulfilled the Rooney rule requirement by interviewing three minority candidates, Hurney’s ex-wife requested a temporary restraining order and claimed she’d been the victim of harassment.
A district court judge refused to grant the order, Jeanne Hurney withdrew her complaint. The NFL – like the local judge in Charlotte – failed to find evidence of domestic violence.
Hurney, who’d been placed on administrative leave for two weeks, was reinstated Friday. Five days later, he’s again the Panthers GM, Version 2.5.
‘Open and honest’
Hurney praised Richardson and chief operating officer Tina Becker for being “open and honest” with him throughout the process.
Becker, who took over the day-to-day duties from Richardson in December a day after he announced he was selling the team, said Hurney “did an exceptional job in the interim role this past season.”
There were no quotes or statements from Richardson in the release.
But the Big Cat still has a big say in what happens at Bank of America Stadium, and he clearly wanted to take care of Hurney as he did Rivera (who endorsed Hurney after the playoff loss at New Orleans).
Hurney has been a loyal soldier through two stints with the team.
When the Panthers got off to a 1-5 start in 2012, Hurney and Richardson mutually agreed to part ways, a move that might have saved Rivera’s job – and certainly saved the job of one or more of Rivera’s assistants.
While Carolina became a perennial playoff team under Rivera and Gettleman, the Panthers did so behind the contributions of many of the players Hurney drafted (Cam Newton, Ryan Kalil, Jonathan Stewart, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Josh Norman).
Meanwhile, Hurney bought a sports talk station in Charlotte, got remarried, started a new family and hoped for chance to get back in the business.
Fans and critics
That opportunity came in July, a week before the Panthers reported to Spartanburg.
The 2017 season provided too small of a window to evaluate the calmer, gentler Hurney, who vowed to be less emotional in his decision-making.
There are several big decisions looming, including one on Stewart in what could result in an ironic twist.
Fans and critics dumped on Hurney for paying two running backs (Stewart and DeAngelo Williams) at a time when most teams were devaluing the position.
Williams is out of the league and Stewart will be soon enough. It will be up to Hurney to decide whether it’s worth keeping Stewart for another season versus creating $3.7 million in salary cap space by cutting him.
Releasing defensive end Charles Johnson seems like more of a no-brainer, given Johnson’s diminished skill set and the $3.3 million in cap savings (with no dead money) the Panthers would realize.
Loyal to a fault
But then, Hurney has often been loyal to a fault.
“I gained a lot of perspective being away and then back in an interim role last season,” Hurney said in the release. “I feel that I am the best person to help Ron and this team moving forward. We have a really special core of players in place, and I’m extremely excited about the direction we are headed.”
That direction could change if the next owner has a different view of things, and there could be big changes ahead.
But for now, the gang’s still together at 800 South Mint Street.