Cam Newton’s injury sets up defining point for new Panthers owner David Tepper

Nearly six weeks ago, when Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney was standing with a visitor on the edge of a training camp practice field in South Carolina, he ran down the mental checklist for his roster. It was faster. More experienced. Well-coached. And it had the goods, too, arguably the most talent the franchise had fielded since the Super Bowl run in 2015.

Just as Hurney got to the threshold of predicting that better days had arrived, his words withered.

“We have some guys who look like they’re ready to take the next step,” Hurney said. “But ... ”

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Hurney’s voice trailed off. He shrugged and gave a knowing grin. With a team that warranted solid expectations this season, he wasn’t going to raise the stakes on his own.

“We’ll see how we do as we go,” he said. “You just don’t know. I don’t want to jinx it. I’m always cautious about that.”

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 12: Cam Newton (1) quarterback of Carolina during a NFL football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers on September 12, 2019, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Cam Newton will be a spectator at Panthers games for an indefinite amount of time (Getty Images)

Looking back, the apprehension was warranted. Within 10 days of that conversation, Hurney’s starting quarterback and franchise centerpiece — Cam Newton — would suffer a foot injury that would drastically alter the season’s outlook. So much so, that approaching the end of the first quarter of the 2019 season, this Panthers’ brain trust is sitting at 1-2 and staring at some potentially franchise-altering games ahead. Not just for Newton (who is sidelined indefinitely with his troubling foot issue) but also for Hurney and his coaching staff.

Make no mistake: Three games into a pivotal season, Carolina is heading into a telling stretch. What happens next without Newton could set the franchise on a different course in 2020 and beyond under new owner David Tepper. Hanging in the balance? Newton’s future, for one. The continued prospects of head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, for another. And maybe even the future of Hurney, whose roster beyond Newton will play an immense role in whether this season sinks dramatically in the coming weeks.

From this moment forward — with Newton shelved — we could finally be seeing the pivot point that we have been waiting for under Tepper. The one that transitions the Panthers from being a lingering creation of previous team owner Jerry Richardson and puts it onto a track where Tepper transforms Carolina into whatever his football vision will be in the next decade and beyond.

Nobody is sure what Tepper’s football vision looks like. And that’s largely because nobody has enough data to judge Tepper on that side of the ledger. Instead, for the better part of his 15 months at the helm, Tepper has been busy mapping out the financial and operations structure of the Panthers. From a planned relocation of the team’s headquarters and practice facilities to an overhaul of the franchise’s brand management and executive leadership, Tepper has been attacking what he knows best: The Panthers as a business.

Now we’re going to see how he handles (or doesn’t handle) the Panthers as a football team. One way or another, sticking with the status quo or shaking up some of what Richardson created on the field is going to say something to the rest of the league. And Tepper should have no illusions about that. He has to know that even in the midst of their own affairs, the rest of the NFL is watching Carolina now.

Indeed, the Panthers franchise has been a curiosity to other NFL power brokers since Tepper’s hire. Partially because he was a somewhat unknown commodity outside of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise, where he held a 5 percent minority stake. But also because Tepper retained both Hurney and Rivera this offseason, when some in the league anticipated that he’d begin to reshape the football end of the team.

Once it became clear Tepper was keeping the coaching and front-office remnants put into place by Richardson, some consistent questions started to orbit Tepper. Things like ...

Would the hugely profitable hedge fund founder be a hands-off owner, cut from the cloth of previous Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen? Is his ownership of the Panthers going to be one small part of his $12 billion financial portfolio? And if he’s not going to remain largely disconnected from the day-to-day operations, at what point will he start actively managing parts of the football product?

Quite a few league personnel figures have been asking these questions over the past few months. And for good reason. They see a hedge fund founder who has spent more than a year streamlining his business ties so that he can focus his energy entirely on his football team. They see a Panthers roster that has some intriguing talent. They see a potential exit point with Newton on the horizon. And they see a general manager and head coach who were chosen by the previous team owner.

In the football world, that’s a set of circumstances that presents a possible clean break for an owner. Most especially one who has patiently remained out of the wins and losses side of the ledger.

But in the NFL, clean breaks usually come after some kind of change agent enters the picture. And there is no bigger change agent than wins and losses. That takes us back to this moment for Carolina. Sitting at 1-2 and with what appears to be a modestly difficult schedule the rest of the season, how the Panthers weather the storm (or potentially thrive) without Newton will likely weigh heavily into the equation Tepper is staring at. And whatever answers he arrives at will speak to the future of the three pillars that shape the organization: General manager, head coach and quarterback.

Hurney knows this pressure exists. In fact, he knew it back in August — before Newton’s injury and the 1-2 start that has ratcheted up the stakes.

“There is pressure,” Hurney said in August. “There’s pressure to win. There always is. But it’s sort of what motivates you in this job. You have to like that in order to do this. You know, we have improved our roster. But when you go through every season, you also know how many variables there are and how things can change.”

No truer words could be spoken about the Panthers at this moment. The football variables have arrived. Things have changed on the field. But how deep that change runs through the rest of the organization will depend on the next few months — and an owner that has been watching and waiting for the right time to step into the side of the ledger where wins and losses mean everything.

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