Carolina Panthers players packed up Monday, moved their gear out of Bank of America Stadium and prepared for the most significant offseason in franchise history.
For all the talk on move-out day about pending free agents, another defensive coordinator possibly on the move and Marty Hurney’s future, they paled in comparison to the day’s biggest news:
The Panthers are officially for sale.
Hours after a Sports Illustrated article was published that detailed allegations of sexual and racial misconduct involving Jerry Richardson, the Panthers’ owner and founder announced Dec. 17 that he would sell the team at the end of the season.
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The end came Sunday when Saints linebacker Vonn Bell sacked Cam Newton, securing New Orleans’ 31-26 victory in an NFC wild-card game at the Superdome.
Richardson, 81, made his way around the locker room afterward, hugging many of the players he’d grown close with and closing his 23-year tenure as the team’s majority owner.
Tight end Greg Olsen has been close with the owner since Richardson flew Olsen and his wife to Boston on a private jet when Kara Olsen was pregnant with a child with a fetal heart condition.
“It’s going to be an interesting offseason. See how things work out. See how things materialize,” Olsen said. “None of us have really been through something like this, of course. It doesn’t happen often in the NFL.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence that the people in charge will make the right decisions and do things in the best interests of the organization going forward. All you can do is put your faith in that.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera agreed this is going to be a different offseason.
“It’s going to be weird, to be honest,” he said. “And the thing that you hope as we go forward is that we’ve done enough, we’ve done some really good things, that the next person coming in will take a look at us and see how we do things.”
The NFL is investigating Richardson, a probe the Panthers initially tried to handle themselves.
A league official said last month the NFL had no knowledge of the reported financial agreements the Panthers made with four former employees to settle claims of sexual harassment and, in one instance, a racial slur, by Richardson.
Richardson turned over day-to-day duties of the club last month to chief operating officer Tina Becker. He did not address the allegations in his announcement he was selling the team, and recently declined comment when approached by the Observer.
Strong on the field
Richardson is selling a franchise that has been strong on the field in recent years. The Panthers joined Green Bay and Seattle as the only NFC teams to make the postseason in four of the past five seasons.
Carolina rewarded Rivera, a two-time NFL Coach of the Year, this past weekend with a two-year contract extension through the 2020 season.
Interim general manager Marty Hurney, who returned to the Panthers in July when Richardson fired Dave Gettleman, said Monday he’d like the job full-time.
“I enjoy it. I’m having fun. I do think I’ve got a different perspective the second time around that’s helped me,” Hurney said. “But I just get up every morning excited to do my job.”
Hurney came close to tears Monday when asked about Richardson.
“It’s more emotional. Anytime, the finality of losing a playoff game is always hard to take. And then when you have all these other things, it’s hard,” he said.
Rivera said he hopes Hurney gets an extension, in part because of their familiarity with each other.
Hurney hired Rivera in 2011 and interceded the following year when Richardson was considering making staff changes after a slow start the following year. Instead, Hurney and Richardson mutually agreed that Hurney would leave.
“Even though he was removed for a few years, he still knows us. He still understands what this organization’s about,” Rivera said. “He understands me and my philosophy and the way I look at things, as well.”
Rivera: Keep Panthers in Charlotte
Rivera also has ties to Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates, who is part of a group that wants to buy the team from Richardson. Rivera says he hasn’t talked about the sale of the Panthers with Sabates.
But Rivera hopes whoever buys the team keeps it in Charlotte.
“I think this is a great area. I think we’ve shown that we can be supported, which we have been by the community. That we give back to the community,” Rivera said. “And I think we have things in place that make this an ideal location for a football team.”
Including winning, as Olsen noted.
While Richardson begins taking offers from perspective buyers, Olsen said he believes the Panthers have a strong core of players in place to sustain success.
“I still think this is a team that is in its window to compete at the highest level and win this thing,” Olsen said. “We need to learn our lessons from this year of where things went wrong and moves that need to be made and find ways to improve.”