Ron Rivera certainly didn’t expect to spend the final Wednesday before the start of training camp like this—showing and explaining his roster to a new general manager, and catching him up on all that’s happened over the last four years in Charlotte.
It helped that the guy who was literally a few hours into the job, interim GM Marty Hurney, also happened to be the old general manger.
Given how coaches seek routine as things ramp up, it was undeniably strange. And yet, as the old colleagues (Hurney and Rivera worked together in 2011 and ’12, before Hurney was fired in October of ’12) went through this crash course, a funny thing happened.
The coach wasn’t just teaching. He was learning.
So while they’re just one day into this unusual arrangement … so far, so good.
“It was a great exercise,” Rivera said over the phone, as he came out of the meeting. “His comments, his objectives, his perspective, here’s a guy that did it for as many years as he did, and he was out, but still an observer from the outside looking in. There are a lot of guys he has no attachment to, and some of his comments were pretty blunt, some of it was surprising.
“Most of it, he saw like I did, but there was probably 10% of the guys, seven, eight, nine guys, that he had a query on. And he’d ask, ‘How about this?’ It was a really good exercise.”
In some cases, Hurney suggested moving a player from one position to another. In others, his assessment diverged from Rivera’s. And at the end of the session, Rivera gave Hurney more to watch—specific guys in specific games from last year, and specific moments from the spring that’ll help the interim GM get up to speed.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll dive into the Cowboys’ challenges with Ezekiel Elliott, the Redskins’ future with Kirk Cousins, the next quarterback to bust a budget, how the Steelers see Le’Veon Bell, and why comparing NBA contracts to NFL contracts is idiotic. We’re starting with the story of the week—and this NFL summer’s second firing of a GM who made the playoffs three times in four years.
So why is Dave Gettleman gone and Hurney back to steer the ship to the shores of next offseason? As I understand it, and as a few of us reported this week, it was as much about clashes with players in contract negotiations (and how some within the personnel department felt about his tough manner) as anything. Internal speculation about the future of the team past Richardson’s ownership didn’t help either.
Whether Gettleman deserved his fate is certainly open for debate. To be sure, Rivera was plenty surprised when he was called to owner Jerry Richardson’s office on Monday—just back from vacation and with his training camp plan in tow (he figured that’s why Richardson wanted to talk)—and told Gettleman was gone.
But what he didn’t have in the aftermath was time to ponder why it went down. This is where he and the Panthers are now.
And so there he was watching film with Hurney on Wednesday, and thinking about how he’d address this second elephant in the room—the other one, of course, being the team’s 6–10, Super Bowl hangover of a 2016 season—when his players report to training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. on Tuesday.
The good news is the message he was planning to deliver, to put the ’16 downturn to bed, ties right into dealing with this newfound organizational tumult.
“I have a friend who recently had a heart attack, and I called him and said, ‘I’m so sad that this happened to you,’” Rivera said. “And he said, ‘Ron, it’s not really what happened to me, it happened for me,’ basically telling me that he had to change, there are things he had to alter. Well, it’s the same thing for us. The way he put it to me made me realize 2016 didn’t happen to us, it happened for us.
“It was a humbling experience, and an experience to learn and grow from. And I feel really good that we’ve grown and learned from it.”
And that’s where Rivera can pivot to what’s ahead in 2017, and how he plans to get the team back to where it seemed to be coming out of 2015, with an ascending core that Gettleman reworked and made younger around foundational pieces left over from the Hurney Era.
Part of that is assessing the damage of ’16, and in going there, Rivera will start with the start, and how the team had to relive its Super Bowl loss to the Broncos for much of the summer as they prepared to play Denver in the opener, and how the Panthers would lose that opener in heartbreaking fashion.
“I heard Bruce Arians talk about the impact of losing that first game,” Rivera said. “Well, believe me, the impact for me was huge. I know there are people that’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re gonna blame it on opening up against Denver.’ Yeah, I am. That’s part of it. It’s not the whole reason, we could’ve righted the ship, but that took a lot of the wind out of our sails. That was a punch in the gut again.”
Just as Arians said that the Cardinals lost their swagger in Week 1, the Panthers showed every sign they’d lost theirs, too. They went 2–6 in games decided by three points or less. They lost left tackle Michael Oher and blew a lead against the Vikings in Week 3, setting off a four-game losing streak that sent Carolina into its bye at 1–5.
A midseason surge gave way to a 2–4 finish. Cam Newton got beat up behind a beat-up line. The defense lost its way as injuries hit the linebacking corps. And as Rivera discusses everything that went wrong, he reiterates the message he plans to give his team Tuesday: “Last year was very difficult. But it didn’t happen to us. It happened for us. If we don’t learn from it, it’s a wasted opportunity.”
So here’s where the hope is now. Rivera is optimistic his young corners will build on their strong finishes, that Matt Kalil’s presence and improved health will stabilize the offensive line, that his linebackers will avoid injury, that a focus on getting the ball out to his playmakers quicker (with rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel) will help Newton avoid hits, and that the defensive line will be the strength he thinks it is.
And going through all of this with Hurney reinforced that. As Rivera sees it, Hurney left a team on the verge in 2012. He’s back with a group that’s fully evolved.
In the nearly five years since Hurney’s departure, Rivera’s place within the organization has moved forward too. And given that the team has lost its president (Danny Morrison), GM, director of player personnel (Brandon Beane) and defensive coordinator (Sean McDermott) since the first of the year, he knows it’s now on him to be a stabilizing force in choppy waters.
“What it forces me to do is to show everyone: This is business as usual,” Rivera said. “As far as the players are concerned, this is business as usual. For the players that don’t know Marty, this is business as usual. That’s the biggest thing. I really believe he is the right guy at the right moment, because of his background with us.”
Of course, there are only 10 players left (11 if you include the returning Julius Peppers) that Hurney acquired, and there’s almost no precedent for this sort of change on the eve of camp, and that means there are blind spots ahead. And when there’s a move like this, there’s always the lingering question of who might be next.
But if Rivera’s taken anything from this week, it’s that there’s not much time to waste energy dwelling on what just happened—a lesson he hopes his players learned no just over the past week, but over the last year.
“It does get everyone’s attention, but let’s be honest, you’re always on notice in the NFL,” said Rivera. “The thing we all have to understand is that we’re in a production-based business. We’re here to produce. And at the end of the day, if you’re not producing, things have to happen.”
FIRST AND 10
1. As a housekeeping item: I asked Rivera if Newton will be 100% healthy going into camp. His answer: “I wouldn’t say that, but he and the running backs and tight ends and receivers went up to Baltimore to do their getaway and work out for a couple days, and they threw it around. And I know he’s been throwing it. I’m not sure how much he’s gonna throw. He’s talking to the trainers about what that should be. I’m just pleased that there’s an opportunity for him to start off and start off on the right foot.”
2. It’s worth repeating: Anything that the Cowboys get from 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith while he’s still wearing a customized Richie brace (a brace he’s worn for the last year that serves the same purpose as an AFO) to support his foot is gravy.
3. WR Mike Williams’ back issues were no secret before the Chargers took him seventh overall, a risk similar to the one Buffalo took on DE Shaq Lawson in 2016. It’s interesting, too, considering the wide-spread injury problems that torpedoed ex-coach Mike McCoy’s final two seasons.
4. Cardinals RB David Johnson told colleague Andy Benoit that he hopes to help change the way guys at his position are paid. Then, he told SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio he wants 30 touches a game. Memo to Johnson: Putting the miles on your legs won’t help you accomplish the former.
5. One leftover from my analytics piece of late June: Advanced statistics insist that reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack, based on his 2016 pressure numbers, should easily top the 11.0 sacks that he posted last year.
6. It seems to be slipping under the radar that Saints QB Drew Brees is not only in a contract year, but he also has a clause in his contract preventing the team from franchise tagging him in February. It’ll be an interesting year in New Orleans.
7. Ditto for Minnesota. It’s still too early for the team to know what it’ll get, if anything, from the rehabbing Teddy Bridgewater. Coach Mike Zimmer told me: “He’s still got a long way to go.” And Sam Bradford’s in a contract year.
8. Brandon Williams’ comments that this year’s Ravens D could rival the 2000 Baltimore group is a bit much. But in the spring, team decision-makers, who spent two years drafting to get more athletic on that side of the ball, saw that athleticism start to come to life.
9. I’ve mentioned him before, but file away Bucs WR Chris Godwin’s name (you’ll see him on Hard Knocks). He’s mature, has impressed with his speed, strength, hands and concentration, and has shown the NFL isn’t too big for him.
10. It’ll be interesting to see where the learning curve for new Chiefs GM Brett Veach is. He’s spent most of his career as a road scout, and generally there’s an adjustment to working out of, let alone leading, an office.