Is heavy lifting already done for Panthers interim GM?

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – It stings for the Carolina Panthers to be called a cautionary tale. The foreboding chorus from pundits droned with these familiar tunes: the franchise never recovered from the Super Bowl 50 loss to the Denver Broncos; it regrettably let a top-tier defensive player go; and quarterback Cam Newton went off the tracks. It didn’t help that general manager Dave Gettleman was suddenly and unceremoniously booted out the door eight days before training camp – for reasons that still haven’t been made entirely clear.

By most NFL standards, this isn’t a speed bump. It’s an unraveling. It’s a serious reason for concern. This is what is on recycled interim general manager Marty Hurney’s plate – showing that the 15-1 franchise crest of 2015 wasn’t an outlier, and that last season’s 6-10 flop wasn’t a regression to the mean. That’s what he thinks about every day: the slight course corrections he believes are necessary for the Panthers rather than a 180-degree turnaround.

“The bulk of the work has been done,” Hurney said from training camp earlier this month. “You look at this depth chart and they’ve done a very good job. Not just with playmakers on the front line, but with depth in key positions.”

Cam Newton took a beating in 2016. Carolina hopes better protection will lessen the pain this year. (AP)

It’s not often you hear the next general manager say that. Especially in a soap opera situation like this. Hurney spent 10 years as the Panthers’ GM (from 2002 to 2012), only to be fired for Gettleman. And when Gettleman was fired, the Panthers went right back to Hurney, the familiar friend who was never further away than a phone call.

That twist has left Hurnery invigorated and thankful, which he should be since he’s taking over a roster that is largely still intact from the 15-1 season of 2015. More often than not, new GMs find themselves in a spot like John Lynch with the San Francisco 49ers, laying the foundation for a multi-season roster churn. Or they’re Brandon Beane with the Buffalo Bills, stockpiling draft picks in exchange for talent. In any other normal situation, the new personnel man is staring at a list of problems that stretches from end zone to end zone, and trying to figure out how many calendar years the fix will take.

Hurney waves a dismissive hand at all of that. To him, the 2017 season is about health and maintenance. Most specifically, the health of Newton, and the positional maintenance around him that will largely determine the difference between a continued slide or a rebound to prominence. That’s what is balancing on Newton’s healing throwing shoulder.

Some of that will hang on – yet again – keeping Newton comfortable in the pocket.

“Quarterbacks are going to get hit in this league,” Hurney said. “Cam is a big target. He will tell you that when he runs the ball, he can avoid hits more than when he’s in the pocket. Obviously his mobility is very good. But it’s not ever just one piece to the puzzle. There’s a lot of different pieces that come together. It’s receivers getting open underneath, giving him weapons. [It’s] having weapons like Christian McCaffrey and Fozzy Whittaker. It’s guys getting outlets. Guys he can get the ball to quickly when he’s getting pressure. But this is also an offense that goes down the field a lot as well. When you’re taking five-step drops and you’re holding the ball more to get the ball downfield, obviously the offensive line has a tougher job protecting and you’re going to get hit sometimes.

“I think everything [has to] kind of come together. You don’t just point to the offensive line or the quarterback or the receivers or whatever it might be. Everything has to come together.”

So what is that harmony supposed to look like for the Panthers? Hurney has an idea, and it will be pinned together by some of the personnel.

First, the team feels very good about the left tackle addition, Matt Kalil. The personnel department believes Kalil is an anchor left tackle and will prove it again this year now that he is finally healthy and playing with a more improvisational quarterback. Thus far, the returns for Kalil have been far more positive than many expected after several rough seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

Second, the Panthers see wideout Kelvin Benjamin playing confident again. Elements of the front office and coaching staff believe Benjamin’s mindset was a vastly underrated part of last season’s up-and-down year. His numbers certainly weren’t terrible, but Benjamin displayed a lot of inconsistencies and weight struggles coming off a knee injury in 2015. Thus far, what the Panthers have seen in preseason film and practice tape is a guy who is once again using his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame to win battles in the secondary.

Christian McCaffrey was the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. (AP)

Finally, Carolina’s staff is already certain it drafted a star in McCaffrey, who has constantly popped on practice tape and in preseason games. If he can stay healthy, he could end up as the featured running back by a wide margin, although the touches will come in a multitude of ways. The possibilities with McCaffrey might have the Panthers more excited than any other player on the roster. Second-round pick Curtis Samuel is still someone the staff hopes could also play a lightning-in-a-bottle role, but a lingering hamstring issue has made that far less certain at this stage.

Of course, Newton makes it all go. And we may find out as early as Thursday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars whether his recent “ramp-down” in activity was merely the pre-determined shoulder rest that Hurney insisted it was.

“Cam wants to get out there as much as he can, but we all have to be smart as far as listening to the doctors and trainers,” Hurney said. “He’ll throw more and get back into a groove. Nobody is overly concerned. There is a natural process you have to follow when you go through a surgery like this and just be smart.”

Just be smart. That’s what Hurney is trying to do with this team. He knows it’s not a tear-down. And he believes it’s not even a major mechanical fix. Instead, he looks at the roster in his office and sees the majority of fixes in place to dial the franchise back to a lofty 2015 standard. According to the guy with the interim title, there’s nothing interim about that success. And he doesn’t see that changing.

“You don’t make interim decisions,” Hurney said.

To the new (recycled) GM, Carolina is still built for the long term. For Hurney, the only cautionary tale here is for the critics who doubt that.