No longer a low-profile job, hot seat burns for GMs now too
It has always been the case in the NFL that losing too many games leads to losing a job, so on that front there was nothing too shocking about Marty Hurney's early dismissal on Monday in Carolina. But the Panthers giving the boot to their longtime general manager just six games into the season serves as a fresh reminder of how the GM position has become more of a death-defying high-wire act every year.
It's not just coaches who live life on the hot seat any more. Hurney beat the odds just by making it into his 11th season as Carolina's general manager, with a streak of three consecutive non-playoff seasons that looks destined to grow to four, thanks to the Panthers' dismal and disheartening 1-5 start.
Hurney was the first domino to fall in this year's NFL firing season -- unless you count Mike Holmgren's long-expected demise as football czar in Cleveland last week -- but Hurney will be far from the last top club executive to be asked to vacate the premises before this season's Super Bowl is played in New Orleans.
As October winds down, the pressure is building in a number of NFL locales, with general managers like San Diego's A.J. Smith, Buffalo's Buddy Nix, Kansas City's Scott Pioli, Miami's Jeff Ireland, Cleveland's Tom Heckert and Jacksonville's Gene Smith all in danger of having their tenures ended by another season that fails to satisfy their team's frustrated fan bases and/or ownership. (Clearly the underachieving AFC is no place to be in 2012).
Add those names on the endangered list to the plentiful turnover at the top that has already unfolded in the past year in NFL front offices: Bill Polian and Chris Polian being shown the door in Indianapolis after a record-breaking run of success finally ended in 2011, Chicago axing 11th-year GM Jerry Angelo, St. Louis parting ways with general manager Billy Devaney, veteran Philadelphia team president Joe Banner departing and then quickly re-surfacing in Cleveland as the Browns change ownership, Denver firing general manager Brian Xanders in favor of consolidating John Elway's power, Tennessee elevating Ruston Webster to the GM role and Oakland finally joining the modern age by naming Reggie McKenzie its first general manager of the post-Al Davis era.
Unless you're Jerry Jones or Ozzie Newsome, job security and longevity at the ultra-pressurized general manager level seems to be a dying concept. Some long-term success stories out there -- Pittsburgh's Kevin Colbert, Green Bay's Ted Thompson, New Orleans' Mickey Loomis -- come quickly to mind. But these days you can pretty much count that contingent on one hand, or two at the most, if you care to include the likes of relative long-timers like Houston's Rick Smith, the Jets' Mike Tannenbaum, Arizona's Rod Graves and the Giants' Jerry Reese. The turnover rate is prolific, and there aren't any Tex Schramms in the pipeline in today's NFL.
"Years ago, the coaches used to say they'd get the team press guides every year and only the coaches picture would change; well, that's changed,'' said Ernie Accorsi, the former Colts, Browns and Giants general manager who retired after the 2006 season. "The GM job has become much more high-profile than it ever was, and that guy is hired to be on the hot seat right away. That's something that's developed basically in the last 20 years or so.
"It's a different world now. There's been a lot of turnover recently. Marty Hurney went to a Super Bowl (in Carolina) not all that long ago (2003 season). And Bill Polian went to a bunch of them. But with the salary cap's effect on all personnel decisions now, and with the draft being so big and turning into a 12-month-a-year job, there's tremendous interest and coverage, but also scrutiny and pressure.''
Like many of his peers, Hurney was known for agonizing his way through NFL game days, dying a little bit more with every Panthers defeat and merely surviving to fight another day when Carolina won. And that meant he was mostly in pain of late, given the Panthers were an NFL-worst 9-29 since the start of the 2010 season. Given those dreadful bottom-line results, and the state of disarray that seems to prevail in Carolina at the moment, even Hurney said Monday he could understand the rationale behind his firing. That said, the dismissal of a club's top personnel decision-maker is fairly rare in midseason, given the lack of impact roster moves that can be made once the season kicks off.
"With the general manager position in football, I don't think there's a job with more pressure and less control, because once the game starts, you might as well go home because you have no influence on the outcome,'' said Accorsi, whose nine-year stint as Giants GM preceded Reese taking over the post in early 2007. "You're under the same pressure as the head coach, but you're not calling any of the shots during the game.
"It's not a heck of a lot of fun given the scrutiny, and it used to be fun. The losses become so painful and the victories are not as joyful. They're only a relief. You win a game and you're exhausted. I used to be a mess on Sunday morning at 9 o'clock knowing the next 12 hours were going to be absolute misery. If you won, you breathed a sigh of relief and allowed yourself Sunday night to feel good. But by Monday morning the pro personnel guy would come in and start telling you how great the next opponent is, and then you're worried for seven days.''
It can't be much fun to be Pioli in Kansas City about now, with fans paying to fly banners overhead during games at Arrowhead Stadium, demanding his firing. San Diego's Week 6 collapse at home against Denver in the Week 6 Monday night game ratcheted up the win-or-else edict that surrounds both Smith and Chargers head coach Norv Turner this season. And both Ireland in Miami and Nix in Buffalo have borne the full brunt of the long-building fan frustration in their markets.
Given the record-setting popularity of the NFL and its lucrative brand, the GM job is more of a lightning rod position than ever. It's a position that demands constant ball-juggling, and as one former NFL general manager told me recently, he went to work every day mindful that five different entities could "sink his ship'' at any point: His coaching staff, the media, his players, the players' agents, and team ownership. Each day, a certain amount of due diligence had to be done to ensure he kept the peace with those five constituencies, knowing that if any one of them went south, he had a full-blown problem on his hands -- and maybe a job-threatening crisis.
In Carolina, Hurney was apparently dealing with a lack of coordination between the coaching staff and the personnel department, in that the Panthers roster was constructed with a heavy financial emphasis at running back -- in the form of big guaranteed dollars to DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert -- yet the team ranked only 23rd in running plays. That lack of establishing an offensive identity, combined with Cam Newton's total regression as a second-year quarterback, served to doom the Hurney era even before Halloween had arrived.
After Newton's spectacular rookie season in Carolina last year, and four wins in the Panthers' final six games of 2011, there were greater expectations, pressure and scrutiny on the franchise this year. And those went overwhelmingly unfulfilled in the season's first seven weeks, leading to the scenario that created Monday's dramatic change at the top. Hurney won't be the last general manager in the NFL this year to lose control of events in his own backyard. He was merely the first.
"When you lose games, you lose credibility,'' the former NFL general manager said. "If nobody feels any hope, then you're done. And there's something to that. That's just the way it works. If you don't win, you'd better be able to weather the storm. You'd better be getting better and creating some hope. You've got to get it going, and be creating hope all the time. Because if you're not winning, you're on the list, and your time is coming.''