The Cam Newton decision for Panthers' David Tepper is more complicated than firing of Ron Rivera

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

As Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney accurately noted months ago about his job: “There is pressure.”

Pressure to win. Pressure to produce. Pressure to direct a franchise to success despite being maybe 75 percent into a retooling project.

At some point, under all that duress, an ownership-driven fracture was inevitable. And that’s why head coach Ron Rivera is without a job today. New team owner David Tepper saw a part of the franchise that wasn’t recovering to his expectations, so he broke it again in hopes of mending it in the fashion he believed was necessary. Now Rivera is gone while Hurney remains — albeit with a limited vote of confidence from ownership for his contributions.

Two decisions are in the books, with one significant move left.

What will Tepper do with Cam Newton?

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Cam Newton expressed regret over the firing of head coach Ron Rivera on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Cam Newton expressed regret over the firing of head coach Ron Rivera on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

Why fire Ron Rivera now?

After speaking to a handful of league sources on Tuesday who are familiar with Tepper, Rivera and Hurney, I believe urgency is one of the reasons that led to Rivera being let go in early December rather than at the end of the season. Not because Tepper doesn’t like Rivera — indeed, Tepper has a great deal of respect for his contributions — but because the owner knows that time is going to be of the essence over the next month.

As one source put it: Tepper became a hedge-fund wizard because he was adept at staying ahead of his field by addressing need, opportunity and the winds of change before it became obvious to everyone else.

That’s what he’s doing now, surveying an NFL that is going to get more competitive in January, when as many as six additional franchises could join the Panthers in the head coaching market (see: the Dallas CowboysWashington RedskinsNew York GiantsAtlanta FalconsJacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns). This collection of teams doesn’t take into account the league’s tendency for producing an unexpected entrant into the field, a la the Tennessee Titans after the 2017 season.

Tepper knows he’s got to get to work. And once it became apparent that Rivera wouldn’t be retained, waiting to make a break would allow sentimentality to interfere with renovation plans. To the outside world, it feels like a brand of cold calculation that robs Rivera of the dignity of finishing out the 2019 season. To Tepper, it’s sensible business. He’s got to get a jump on his coaching search — and now he doesn’t have to do it behind Rivera’s back.

Doing it in secret would have been disrespect. Lying about what was coming … that would have dishonored Rivera. Making the move as soon as he knew it was time was Tepper leaning on the instincts that made him a self-made billionaire over the expanse of his 62 years. This is the type of thing absorbed after surviving multiple failed investments, a stock market crash and a housing bubble that decimates securities.

As one league source familiar with Tepper said on Tuesday, “I would bet he’s the smartest owner in the NFL at diagnosing how stress and recovery works in the financial [sector]. To him, a team is still a basic business enterprise — you sort of have leaders at every level of an organization, and you can make educated changes in that leadership to move things forward. As long as you’re deliberate and smart about the decisions, I’d argue if you’re a bright guy you’re going to make more good moves than bad ones.”

How is David Tepper reshaping the Panthers?

The source added this is how Tepper has operated with the Panthers since taking over the team in the summer of 2018. He knew his strengths were going to lie in reorganizing the business end of his franchise. So that’s what he spent the balance of the past year doing. All the while, he took his time learning about the football side — how the Panthers were operating, the strengths and weaknesses in the personnel and coaching department, and perhaps most important, what Hurney and Rivera brought to the table.

That patience had some interesting moments over the short span of Tepper’s ownership. By December 2018, there was a ribbon of the personnel community that believed Tepper was positioned to make a sweeping change in the organization last January. General manager candidates were literally freshening their resumes and reaching out to league advocates in anticipation that Tepper would make a move early in 2019. But something unexpected happened: Tepper didn’t do anything at all.

He decided to stay the course with Rivera and Hurney. Why? According to sources familiar with Tepper, it was because he wanted to get the business structure right first and take his time grasping the football end of the franchise. And when the time presented itself, he’d make changes he believed were necessary.

That opportunity ultimately came this season. While only Tepper knows the granular aspects, sources told Yahoo Sports that the owner has talked eagerly since last summer about revamping several parts of the personnel organization — most notably a move to create a hybridization of the long-held fundamentals of NFL team building with deeper data-driven analytics. It was the kind of change that would tweak how the Panthers scouting department might evaluate or value players, as well as how the coaching staff and front office would work in unison to stay ahead of the field in salary-cap management, schematic trends and roster development. This is why there will be some expected changes in the personnel and scouting staff forthcoming. And it’s also the context for the statement Tepper released Tuesday, when he gave a respectful nod to Rivera, but also a qualified vote of confidence to Hurney for his ability to spot talent.

“Our vision is to find the right mix of old-school discipline and toughness with modern and innovative processes,” Tepper said in a statement. “We will consider a wide range of football executives to complement our current football staff. One change that we will implement is hiring an assistant general manager and vice president of football operations.”

He later referenced Hurney in a statement to the team’s website: “Marty Hurney is one of the best recognizers of college talent in the nation. Period, OK? I don’t want to lose that. And he’s also not a bad manager.”

As one source framed it Tuesday, Tepper wants to flatten out some tiers of the organization and inject additional smart people who can help make the best informed decisions possible. He’s OK with creating a bigger room with more voices, so long as everyone understands what their role is and then acts accordingly. For Hurney, the priority is going to be evaluation. For the scouting staff, it’s going to be going out and getting the players who fit precisely what the coaching staff wants to execute — similar to how the New England Patriots operate, with a single-minded vision to find smart players who can integrate seamlessly and flexibly into a scheme. For the head of football operations, it’s going to be organizing aspects of management that don’t interfere with Hurney’s time evaluating talent. And for a newly minted assistant general manager, it’s going to be learning and grooming toward a seamless transition when it’s an appropriate time for Hurney to retire or move elsewhere in the organization.

That’s a lot of moving parts. And it’s a lot of expectation that can get complicated quickly — particularly if something breaks down in the middle of the operation. But it’s part of a broader plan that Tepper is just getting started with. All preceding the next phase of hiring a head coach who makes sense in the grand scheme, and an assistant general manager who is earmarked for a long run with the organization, one that includes a promotion and eventually working side-by-side with the coaching hire.

Given the nature of that undertaking, it makes more sense why Tepper would choose to get things started four weeks early rather than four weeks late. And none of this even speaks to what will happen with Newton, because that decision will be something weaved into the next head coaching hire and how the front office wants to build for 2020 and beyond. It’s not that Tepper doesn’t want to get to some kind of decision with Newton. It’s that there are multiple steps ahead that must be completed first. And making some kind of declarative decisions about the future of the quarterback spot does nothing but limit options — which is the exact opposite of what Tepper has in mind.

How Cam Newton factors in this change

It would be wrong to assume Tepper doesn’t have an idea of what he’s going to do with the biggest star the Panthers have ever had. It would also be wrong to assume that he isn’t going to allow his hopes and opinions shape the hires of a coach and assistant general manager who should be in the organization long after Newton plays out the final year of his contract in 2020. Ultimately, the decision is going to be one more likely to consider the next 20 years rather than the next 12 months. If that equation determines Newton is a benefit in the immediate future and even beyond, he’ll be in Carolina. If it doesn’t, he’ll be the next painful departure of succession, following Rivera out the door.

It’s worth remembering where Tepper cut his teeth in the NFL. For nearly nine years, he spent time inside a Pittsburgh Steelers organization that had a significant long-term tip of the spear in the front office: general manager Kevin Colbert, who has spent 20 years as a valued high-level front-office personnel man. At the same time, he became familiar with how the Rooney family established continuity with brilliant coaching — with three head coaches in 50 years. And he saw how important continuity could be to success when you had the right head coach working with the right personnel executives for decades.

Like most NFL team owners, that’s what Tepper is seeking. Whether he achieves it will rely on whether he can replicate the kind of vision he has had in his business life: Diagnosing the stress, prescribing the recovery — and determining whether the right people are in place to make that happen. He has been more patient with Rivera and now Hurney than some thought he’d be. Time will tell if the next coaching staff extends that grace to Newton.

Whatever happens now, at least one of the remaining questions was resolved Tuesday: when Tepper was going to transition from fixing the franchise business to revamping the football fortunes. We’re here, Rivera is gone, and after a lot of measuring, that’s just the beginning of what’s next for David Tepper.

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