Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper remembers what general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera ordered when he took them to dinner in New Jersey earlier this month, as a part of a multiple-day series of meetings about the future of the team.
“I took ‘em to Nero’s, a nice Italian restaurant, which they really enjoyed,” said Tepper on Tuesday afternoon, as he met with a small group of reporters at Bank of America Stadium.
“Ron actually got seafood diavolo. And Marty got an Italian chicken special.”
But much more important than the food Rivera and Hurney ate at Nero’s was what they discussed at Tepper’s New Jersey offices, where he continues to run Appaloosa Management as he splits his time between there, Miami and Charlotte.
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It was about their own future with the organization, and where it must move forward.
“We had very good meetings,” Tepper said. “We talked about philosophy, coaches, players. We were pretty much all on the same page.”
There was also a post-mortem conducted on the 2018 season, which started 6-2 and ended, after a seven-game losing streak, at 7-9.
What went wrong?
A source told the Observer that Tepper expressed his confidence in Rivera before the season ended, despite the team being on a seven-game losing streak at the time. Rivera also took over defensive play-calling in the Panthers’ Week 13 loss to Tampa Bay, and will continue with that duty in 2019.
Rivera indicated that he had Tepper’s confidence after a 33-14 victory against New Orleans at the end of the year, though said at the time he said he would not put words in Teppers’ mouth.
In Tepper’s own evaluation, there were some issues with coaching in 2018.
“We probably should have done some things earlier on defense when it appeared that we had some problems,” he said. “Some of those problems were probably coach-related problems and changes were made that could have been made earlier. We didn’t make them earlier, so that was that.”
But those weren’t the only problems.
“(I believed before the season) the defense was a lot better than it was,” he said.
Tepper added that age became a factor on the defensive side.
“Some of the other issues were, I think, that we might have gotten a little older faster than we thought we were at the beginning of the season — than anybody in this room thought we were,” he said. “That happens. That’s football. ...
“That type of football, I’m not a rookie on. You’ve seen it before. You hate when it happens to your team. But it happens to a lot of different teams.”
On offense, Tepper said the line “looked like a disaster” and that the health of quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder eventually became a factor in the success of the team. Newton was limited in practices with shoulder soreness starting in Week 8, after shoulder surgery and rehabilitation in 2017.
“Obviously as Cam’s shoulder got worse, that made it much harder to win,” Tepper said. “I don’t know what coaches can do about that, to be quite honest.”
Tepper said he saw “some really good” offensive calls when Newton was healthy in the beginning of the season. He also took heart in rookie undrafted free agent quarterback Kyle Allen’s performance in the 33-14 victory at New Orleans in the Panthers’ season finale.
“When we can stretch out the field a little bit, I think we caught a team off-guard that is not a bad team,” Tepper said.
“And I heard tell that the yelling in the halftime locker room (the Panthers were up 23-0) could be heard around the whole stadium in that New Orleans game, and that wasn’t yelling from our locker room.”
Tepper also indicated that he is confident in Rivera continuing to call the defensive plays in 2019.
“When you saw all of the changes that were made, and you saw the result of those changes, and vast improvement in the defense, it gives you hope that you have the right (coaching) personnel in there,” he said.
“Ron is a very, very good defensive coach. And he has his hands on the reins again, and that’s how it should be.”
Continuing to evolve, inside and out
On the outside, changes made to the franchise will be very visible. That, according to Tepper, will start with a practice bubble constructed over the turf practice field behind Bank of America Stadium. Two connecting fields are natural grass and will remain uncovered.
“There is no fan of Carolina that doesn’t want that bubble,” Tepper said. “People told me that it doesn’t rain here. That was not true, it rains so frickin’ much here. We missed so many practices. ... That hurt this team. We have two teams that we play every year that have indoor facilities. We should be preparing indoors and on turf every year.
“Then we’ve got that crazy rain we’ve had. That hurts you too. From a football perspective, you really want to have an indoor option and you’d like to get it as soon as possible.”
The Panthers had to adjust their practice schedule several times this season because of record rainfall in Charlotte in 2018, and even had to practice in a ballroom at the nearby convention center near the end of the year.
That seemed to be an embarrassment to Tepper, who inherited the lag in facility upgrades from former owner Jerry Richardson.
“When you have to practice in a ballroom, that’s crazy to me,” he said.
Carolina will also upgrade its weight room and cafeteria, which currently cannot hold the entire team at one time.
Tepper also said he will expand the Panthers’ ring of honor, which currently holds two members.
But other changes are internal.
On the front office side, Tepper hired Kristi Coleman as the team’s new chief financial officer. He mentioned her name alongside in-house mental health clinician Tish Guerin and chief internist Nancy Gritter, both hired this season, and cited a previous lack of females in leadership roles when he first took over the franchise.
“I just happened to mention three women because that was the issue when I came in the door,” he said. “By the way, these people weren’t put into position because they’re women. They were put into position because they’re good. Full stop.”
On the football side, Tepper said he has discussed the idea of a “game management” position with the football staff, for example — someone to handle or assist in decision-making of time outs, situational analytics and the like.
“I think there (is) some sort of evolution that should be happening here,” he said. “I’ve talked about analytics before. We’ve talked internally about a ‘game management position’, a coach of some sort.
“Listen, you want to do everything you can do give (yourself) every edge you can on that field.
“Some of the ‘edges’ are easy, that we can do. We talked about the bubble — that’s not easy, we have to spend money and get that done — but some of those things are direct no-question. .... Some things get done down the line.
“When you look at football, you look at three different phases, right? You have to have the right players. You have to have the right coaches. If you don’t have the right players and the right coaches, all this other stuff doesn’t matter. ... So once you have that, the right players, the right coaches, you have to have the right management, the right management processes, then you have those other things. Some of the analytics, and beyond.
“But you better have a football to play with, and you better not be practicing in ballrooms to start with.”