Cam Newton's words in the wake of Carolina's 19-14 loss to Dallas on Sunday sound rather ominous now:
"This taste, this vibe -- I'm not buying it, man," a disgusted Newton lamented. "And I don't know what it is, but something's going to have to change. Something's going to have to change real fast."
Less than 24 hours after those comments, the Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney, who has run the show in Carolina since 2002. Hurney delivered three playoff berths, two division titles and a Super Bowl appearance in that time, but Carolina is a combined 9-29 since 2010 -- and, worse yet, all of 7-15 since committing the franchise to Newton as its quarterback.
"This was an extremely difficult decision," Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said in a statement.
Figuring out the next step might be even harder.
Chalk Newton's deflated tone Sunday up as whining, if you want, but he has a point: Carolina's current approach is not working, and part of the problem is that it's nearly impossible to figure out exactly what the Panthers want to be.
They used the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft on Newton and, since then, have handed huge contract extensions to both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Last year, Newton almost single-handedly took the Panthers to a 6-10 mark; in 2012, he looks indecisive while the run game, on the books for about $80 million, often has become an afterthought.
Barring a miraculous 9-1 or 10-0 finish, this season stands as a lost one for the Panthers when it comes to competing for a playoff spot. That means two years of letdowns in the Cam Newton era.
This is far from all Newton's fault, mind you -- the Panthers might not have won more than two or three games in 2011 without Newton's breakthrough rookie season. But if you compare Newton to some of the other quarterbacks drafted in the past two years, it's a troubling situation for Carolina.
The Colts have reestablished competitiveness with Andrew Luck at the helm, Robert Griffin III played for first place in New York on Sunday and Ryan Tannehill's Dolphins sit just a half-game back in the AFC East. Even third-round pick Russell Wilson is right in the thick of the playoff race; and Andy Dalton, a second-rounder in 2011, put a playoff trip under his belt last season.
Then, there's everyone else. Unfortunately for the Panthers, from a team-success standpoint, the second list includes Newton, right alongside guys like Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and (for now) Brandon Weeden.
Maybe it's unrealistic to expect rookie QBs to step in, especially for teams bad enough to hold the No. 1 pick, and ignite an immediate turnaround. The Panthers are looking at two lost seasons with Newton at the helm, though, making it vitally important that they figure this out by 2013.
Hurney's dismissal caught a lot of people off-guard Monday morning, but as Newton said, something has to change in Carolina. This team is no closer to being a playoff contender on Oct. 22, 2012 than it was on April 28, 2011, when Newton's name was called at Radio City Music Hall. And it's hard to expect that a new GM will bring instant success in 2013, either.
Franchise quarterbacks are hard to come by -- hence, all these teams using high draft picks to try to find one. If the Panthers are convinced that Newton is their best chance to win the NFC South and, eventually, a Super Bowl, then they need to go quickly back to the drawing board and find a new way to build around him. The clock is ticking, and two seasons worth of Newton's NFL career have gone down the drain already.