By the 12th game, they knew.
It was spring of 2011 in Charlotte. Newly hired head coach Ron Rivera and longtime general manager Marty Hurney were buried in a pile of film, trying to decide who they would pick No. 1 overall in their first NFL draft together.
Hurney had been instrumental in hiring Rivera just weeks earlier, so the two were finding their rhythm. There was trust to develop. But how?
It was Rivera’s first head coaching job, and Hurney was trying to put the franchise back on the right track. So that No. 1 pick, their first major joint decision, would be huge. And naturally, there were disagreements.
But that day in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium, after they went through Auburn quarterback Cam Newton’s tape, they paused.
They let the silence simmer around them a moment.
Then they looked at each other, and said at the same time:
“You know, that Alabama game. ... The way he took that game over. ...”
It was the 12th game in Newton’s lone season at Auburn, against Alabama, and a comeback from 24 points down for a one-point victory ultimately preserved a national championship.
That tape, full of Newton’s trademark bullet passes and tackle-shaking shimmies, cemented his future in Carolina. It also set the high mark for the level of trust Rivera and Hurney expect from each other.
Rivera laughed while recounting their evaluation of Newton way back then.
He knew. Hurney knew. And they knew they knew. You know?
“Two weeks before the draft, we looked at each other and said the same thing without saying it,” Rivera said. “We said, ‘You know, we each need to go down there and meet with (Newton) and his family individually, which is what we did.”
Hurney went to Atlanta first, then Rivera. Each met Newton’s entire family – Grandma included – and came away with a feeling of stability.
“And it really helped us, I think, in terms of coming to a decision that he was going to be our first pick,” Rivera said. “We both walked away a minute and did it our (own) way, and then individually.
“We trusted each other enough in that moment to say, ‘Hey, you need to go do this by yourself.’”
He and Hurney approached the decision first from a shared perspective, and then separately.
That process delivered their franchise quarterback.
It also laid the foundation for a relationship that now will be tested.
Rivera’s contract, extended in January, runs through 2020. Hurney, who spent five years away from football before he was rehired in an interim role last summer, got the full-time job again in February, also through 2020.
So their window to win is shared.
After that, who knows?
Actually, before that, who knows?
Panthers owner and founder Jerry Richardson announced in December that he would sell the team. That news came on the same day an explosive Sports Illustrated report that detailed allegations of racial and sexual workplace misconduct, including four substantial financial settlements, became public.
The NFL is investigating the organization. The sale will happen in the coming months. And the big question is, will the new Head Billionaire in Charge clean house?
Rivera admitted last week in Indianapolis that he feels the pressure.
Who wouldn’t? Every move he and Hurney have made and will make in the next few weeks will be bullet points on their resumes, presented to whoever purchases the Panthers.
“We’ve got to go out and show that we are very capable of what we do, that we continue to have sustained success,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to be on the top of our game. It does add a little bit of pressure, but you know, that’s the nature of the game. It really is one year at a time as far as whether you get next year.”
Their contracts brought a sense of stability, for Rivera and Hurney as well as the organization and public. But what can pieces of paper really do?
They are not as important, in many ways, as Rivera and Hurney’s relationship, their process. In a turbulent time, those are the true anchors for the organization.
And for those around them who do worry, that relationship might serve as a lifeline.
Agree to disagree to agree
That’s not to say Rivera and Hurney don’t argue. They do.
Every single day, Hurney said wryly, sometimes multiple times a day.
“Ron and I have a trust factor, a respect factor, a communication factor that I think benefits the whole organization,” Hurney said in Indianapolis last week. “We have the ability to disagree, to take different viewpoints, but to talk things out and come out of the room and be on the same page.”
Can you imagine the debates? Hurney embellishing every point with a wave of his makeshift cuspidor; Rivera stern and square, arms folded tightly, mouth a straight line.
“We also come to an agreement every day,” said Hurney. “We make the best decision that we think is possible for the organization. And everybody feeds off that because they see that there is direction in the plan that we have.”
To Hurney, that’s the biggest strength the organization has, amid the chaos.
“Our ability to look at each other (despite disagreements) and to make good decisions that are best for the organization ... (being) on the same page philosophically and making good decisions, I think helps you win football games,” he said. “That’s all anybody in this business wants.”
Hurney said the relationship has a trickle-down effect.
“I think it’s kind of contagious. I think it carries over to an attitude that everybody works together for a common goal,” he said. “The way the coaching staff and personnel department get along, and then you go to the locker room and the locker room is cohesive, that doesn’t just fall out of the sky.
“If you’re asking the locker room and players to do one thing – be unselfish, work together, do what you have to do to win games – well, that’s got to start with the general manager and head coach and go through the coaching staff, through the personnel department.
“And I think that’s one of the things that we really feel good about.”
Hey, their relationship brought them Cam Newton.
It may also get them through the chaos ahead.