Last week, the Carolina Panthers search for a new general manager ended where it began, with the rehiring of longtime organization fixture and current interim GM Marty Hurney.
This marks Hurney’s second official tenure as GM, although in many ways it feels like he never went away. During his first stint on the job, from 2002–12, Hurney by and large proved an astute talent evaluator, and much of the Panthers’ hard-nosed physical identity mirrors the executive’s preference for teams built around stout defense and a run-heavy offense. Hurney has proven particularly effective at the top of his draft classes, snagging future Hall of Famers Julius Peppers, Luke Kuechly, and Cam Newton as well as stalwart contributors Jonathan Stewart and Thomas Davis as first-round selections.
Even when Hurney was briefly deposed as GM and replaced by Dave Gettleman in 2013, his imprimatur lingered, as many of those players became the backbone of the 15–1 team that won the NFC in 2015. After Gettleman’s surprise firing following the 2017 season, Hurney was a natural fit to resume his previous duties. He did so, though with the interim contingency.
The removal of the interim tag and his rehiring on a full-time basis is a gesture toward continuity for an organization very much in flux. With new coordinators on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, the Panthers appeared to be at least flirting with the notion of expanding upon the bland but effective tactical pallet that has characterized the team’s identity for nearly all of its three-plus decades. For better or worse, Hurney’s ascension figures to slow that process, all but guaranteeing that the product on the field won’t look radically different next season than it has over the course of recent campaigns.
Off the field, Hurney’s hiring is more complicated. Earlier this month, Hurney was briefly suspended and then reinstated following accusations of harassment by his ex-wife. The specific nature of the charges was somewhat opaque, and a league investigation ultimately discovered “no evidence to support an allegation of domestic violence or similar conduct that would constitute a violation of the personal conduct policy.” Nevertheless, for a franchise still reeling from the disgraceful accusations against former owner Jerry Richardson, the timing is hardly propitious.
The assumption on some level is that the Panthers must have this one right. Between repugnant lowlights ranging from Richardson to Greg Hardy (whom Hurney drafted in 2010), the organization has zero margin for error with respect to harassment and domestic abuse issues. I can’t pretend to know the realities of the Hurney situation, but I will stipulate that the next transgression of this nature by any person involved with the team will represent the last Carolina Panthers football I will countenance going forward. I beseech the Panthers and its current decision makers: don’t screw this up.
Back between the lines, Hurney’s first real challenge in free agency and the April draft happens to be the one area that has bedeviled him through the years. As we’ve previously detailed, Cam Newton desperately needs help, particularly with skill position players on the edge. Not coincidentally, wide receiver is an area at which Hurney has consistently whiffed, to the extent that he has paid any attention to it at all. He seems to have little feel for the position, with journeyman Brandon LaFell numbering as the only serviceable receiver the GM has ever drafted (and serviceable is about the highest praise one can possibly ascribe to LaFell).
Having traded away Newton’s number one target, Kelvin Benjamin, during the season, and with passing guru Norv Turner having been brought in to remake the Panthers’ offense, Hurney can’t afford to allow this trend to continue unabated. The 2018 draft class appears thin at receiver, and free agency looks to be a boom-or-bust proposition with injury-prone potential stars Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson leading a group that figures to be expensive and risky.
With a perennial MVP candidate at quarterback and a still formidable if aging defense, the Panthers are built to win now. However, a shortfall of offensive playmakers has long been the one factor keeping this organization from realizing its championship potential. Hurney couldn’t solve the problem for ten years, nor could erstwhile successor Gettleman. The league year starts in roughly three weeks, and for Carolina’s new, old general manager, there will be plenty to prove.