The Carolina Panthers announced Monday that general manager Marty Hurney was informed he would not return for the 2021 season. The on-again, off-again GM was re-hired by the team on an interim basis to clean up the mess left by Dave Gettleman, but never jived with the long-term direction of the franchise. Now, if we read between the lines, it’s clear Carolina is putting their full faith in first year head coach Matt Rhule, and continuing to build the entire organization around him. What happens next will be one of the most fascinating experiments in the league.
The NFL tends to be a “prove it” league. Coaches need to get along with front office personnel and work together to build a team, then the relationship either leads to success, or something’s got to give. Traditionally we see coaches get axed first, but there are times when general managers are cast aside and a coach is given control. Bill Belichick has had control for years, Jon Gruden essentially has it in Las Vegas — but these are guys with proven Super Bowl track records.
Then there’s Matt Rhule.
Rhule was one of the hottest coaching candidates entering the NFL last season. Numerous teams were interested in the former Baylor coach, but he chose Carolina because, well, they threw a boatload of money at him, but also promised something unprecedented: An entire analytics facility, built to his specifications. From there Rhule hand-picked the staff around him, with Carolina freely dishing out cash to get former LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady to come to the Panthers, and rounded it out with Phil Snow, Rhule’s defensive coordinator at Baylor.
It was an aggressive approach that showed complete and utter faith in a first year guy, especially one who has been largely unproven. Still, there remained one major sticking point: Marty Hurney. A decidedly old-school football guy, Hurney’s thinking was light years ahead of Gettleman’s propensity to treat football like it’s still 1979, but still antiquated compared to the modern NFL. While Hurney has been directly responsible for drafting some of the best players in team history, he’s also made plenty of errors in overpaying the players he personally drafted, and couldn’t really build a consist football team. He believed in getting a “feel” for players, without much statistical or analytic background — which is why the marriage of Hurney and Rhule was destined to fail.
In discussing the decision to move on, owner David Tepper made it clear that the inability to blend these styles was a core reason the team felt the need to make a change.
“Basically, with discussions, it seemed like Marty and I had a little bit of difference in philosophy. He leaned toward more traditional techniques versus a more data-driven, analytical process, but I think some marrying of that would be more in line.”
Tepper stopped short of saying that Hurney didn’t want to go this route, but kept reinforcing the terms “analytical” and “data driven,” both terms that Rhule has used numerous times in discussing his approach to football.
We now begin one of the most fascinating chapters not only for the Panthers, but perhaps the rest of the NFL. For Carolina it’s a huge roll of the dice on a still unproven coach. They will hand pick a GM that directly aligns with Rhule’s sensibilities. On top of that Carolina is set to draft in the top five, where an analytics-based approach could drastically influence who the team selects.
It this fails the team will be set back years. If it succeeds the Panthers could become a road map for the next chapter in the NFL. If a head coach can come from college, installing a college staff, running college schemes and running ops in a divergent way from traditional thinking, we could see more teams in the league follow suit.
One thing is certain: Whatever happens next won’t be boring, and what happens to the Panthers will be something to watch for ever fan in the NFL.