Carolina Panthers Football: Just How Deep Do the Problems Run?

DJ BatchlerCorrespondent ISeptember 29, 2010

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 26:  Head coach John Fox of the Carolina Panthers watches on in the rain against the Cincinnati Bengals during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 26, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When a certain segment of fans question one aspect of an organization for several years most people write it off as frustration. However, when the majority of fans jump on the same complaint, that complaint is finally justified, and that certain segment of fans is begrudgingly vindicated.

It doesn't mean one segment is smarter, it means one segment digs deeper. That digging though will finally reveal the root of the problem for all to see. The root of the problem for the Carolina Panthers is at the apex of the organization. That complaint has always been there. Now it has been realized by the majority. Now it has been revealed as having always been the problem.

The coaching has been an issue since 2004. The Panthers made it to the Super Bowl, and seemingly were content to rest on their laurels. The general manager was an issue likely before that, and still is. The coaching though, exposes the moves the general manager makes. Those problems in turn expose the man behind the curtain. A nod to the great and powerful Oz, who pulls the strings, yet doesn't want to be held accountable. That man is Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

There have been knocks on Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson for years. He isn't a public figure. He doesn't respond to the fans that pay for his franchise. He imposes his will on them with rules that make the experience of attending games at his stadium, that they paid for, less enjoyable. He also refuses to make change to benefit the on-field product of his franchise. 

There is also the way the Kerry Collins situation was dealt with when the Panthers were still a young franchise. Kerry Collins had an alcohol problem. Instead of Jerry Richardson helping Collins, sending him to rehab or even suspending Collins, Richardson instead decided to release the first "franchise player" they ever had and wash his hands of the situation.

Then there is Bill Polian. If that name sounds familiar it is because Polian is the man who as general manager built the Indianapolis Colts into one of the best franchises in the history of the league. Polian isn't a big user of free agency, but he gets who he needs, when he needs them. Richardson didn't feel the need to do what he could to keep the man who built a second-year organization into a 12-4 team, that went to the NFC Championship game.

Inside the league he is a completely different person, one who is respected and revered. He's considered one of the top three owners by those within the league, who like it or not, care about making money, not about making fans happy. They want to keep fans, but keeping fans, and keeping those fans happy is completely different.

During the offseason league meetings Jerry Richardson addressed the owners with a fiery, impassioned speech, which was said to include some profanity to further drive home how emotional he was. He spoke to them about taking their league back. A league that, yes, they do own. A league filled with teams that are funded by ticket sales, PSL sales, but most visibly jersey sales. Jerseys with players' names on the back, not the owners. The owners do deserve respect, and a CBA should be reached, but the owners need to put an emphasis on the fans. No such thing will be done, but I digress.

John Fox was hired on the recommendation of late New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, which gave Fox pretty impressive company. Mara had only recommended two coaches before that: Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. Since that hiring in 2002 the Carolina Panthers haven't put together back-to-back winning seasons.

Fox has had success, inlcuding a Super Bowl appearance in his second year, an NFC Championship game appearance in his fourth year, and a 12-4 season and playoff appearance in his sixth year. However, notice that the peak was early. It has been a slow erosion ever since. 

There is a common thread to consistently good teams: turnover. General manager Marty Hurney and head coach John Fox have a unique coach/GM relationship in that most roster moves are made as a unit. Good teams build through the draft, which Fox and Hurney have attempted to do. Great teams build through the draft and free agency. Fox and Hurney have gone out of their way to neglect the free-agency signing period.

The two most notable signings in the Fox-Hurney era have been an over-the-hill Keyshawn Johnson, and aging former Panther Muhsin Mohammad. However before the 2010 season in the midst of the "youth movement," any wide receiver with experience, two hands, and two legs would have been a smart move, though no such acquisition was made. The management was too happy with their draft choices.

Arrogance is a word that fits in every aspect of upper management in Carolina. Everyone realized that 2010 and possibly beyond will be a rebuilding year. Rebuilding is a dirty word in the NFL, and there is an outright refusal to use that word. Don't however parade the fact that this season should be clicking on all cylinders, or at least most of them, when quite frankly very few things have the ability to click.

The Panthers made the decision to be a young team. That is fine, especially when there is an eye on the future. However this is supposedly the final year of John Fox's tenure in Carolina. One would think Fox and Hurney would be a package. The underlying key to all this is that Marty Hurney was supposedly signed to an extension prior to the 2010 season beginning. We don't know for sure because the Panthers don't make those types of things public.

One would think Fox could go to a different location while Hurney stayed in Carolina, or vice-versa. The flaw in that logic though is that John Fox and Marty Hurney have been attached at the hip since their arrival together in 2002. They make their decisions together and Jerry Richardson views them as a team, rightfully so.

If 2010 is the final year for Fox or Hurney, then the Panthers draft picks—most notably Jimmy Clausen—the building blocks for the future were chosen by a lame duck coach? Why would he be allowed to build for the future? Does that mean the next head coach Jerry Richardson hires will be of the same mindset? (Though that is not an implication that Bill Cowher will be the next coach of the Panthers.)

Going back to the building blocks of the future for this franchise. Things are handled a certain way in Jerry Richardson's organization. One thing that is heavily noticeable is the lack of high-profile, media darlings. There have been on-field, high-profile players. There haven't though been players doing the car wash (making an appearance on every show) at ESPN. Sure local media gets interviews with players, and occasionally Marty Hurney, but nationally it's nearly impossible to find a Panther interview that receives press. That's just how Richardson likes it. He lives by the adage, "Walk softly and carry a big stick."

In the 2010 NFL Draft, the Panthers didn't have a first-round pick because management traded it away, which they do quite freely actually. Draft picks sent on a whim for players that take a few dozen meaningful snaps for the Panthers.

With the second-round selection the Carolina Panthers selected the antithesis of everything they stand for: Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Yes, that Jimmy Clausen. The one who showed up to Notre Dame in a white Hummer limo packed with family and friends, one of whom is his agent now. The Jimmy Clausen who in five days as a Panther has gotten more media time than Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore, Frank Reich, Chris Weinke, and Rodney Peete combined it seems. The Herd on ESPN Radio, the Dan Patrick Show, various others, and these are just appearances after he was named Panthers starting quarterback for Week 3.

Jerry Richardson has also been hesitant to sign players with off-field incidents, or bad attitudes, with the exception of Steve Smith. Clausen, outside the limo debacle, had two notable incidents at Notre Dame though neither involved arrest.

It's just startling to see a team so set in its ways change to draft a quarterback who has as many faults as clear-cut positives. Panthers players noticed it as well. DeAngelo Williams responded to a training camp question asked to him by a reporter about Clausen, saying that there were a lot of questions being asked about Jimmy Clausen.

Predicting the future for the Carolina Panthers is nearly impossible. DeAngelo Williams is in a contract year and if the team looks like it won't be ready to compete, or even have a head coach, look for him to test the free-agency waters and go where there's money. Williams doesn't seem like a money player, so expect him to go where there is hope of a championship ring.

The NFL is a win-now league, not sit back and wait for the future. Look at the turnover of head coaches in the time Fox has been at Carolina. Some have been fired again, some have gone to the Super Bowl, and some have won it. All the while the Panthers sat back and played "good year, bad year" and refused to change. Change is now here, but sometimes, change is too little too late.