The Panthers trusted ‘The Cam Newton Process’

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

Two summers ago, Marty Hurney was sitting in a private area of the Carolina Panthers training camp complex in South Carolina, quietly laying out the plan that would eventually make him the team’s full-time general manager. The design didn’t have a name, but Hurney joked that it might as well be called “The Cam Newton Process” – even though it had more to do with getting the ball out of his quarterback’s hands than asking him to do even more.

“Protection,” Hurney said. “Protecting Cam and also protecting Cam from himself. Doing that consistently.”

Looking at this Panthers offense now – the quicker tempo, the emphasis on mismatches, the expanding flexibility – the roots can be traced back to the summer of 2017. This is when the Panthers began a fix that suddenly looks perfectly suited for Newton. A time when Hurney took over the team and had an opportunity to do what most recycled general managers often do if they get a rare second chance in the NFL: Press the reset button and retool the roster in a way that allows them to take full credit for any newfound success. With that in mind, a visitor pressed Hurney with two fundamental questions.

Would he drastically change the direction of the franchise? Had his fired predecessor Dave Gettleman left him with a rebuild?

Cam Newton and the Panthers have won three straight and are 6-2 heading into Thursday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (AP)
Cam Newton and the Panthers have won three straight and are 6-2 heading into Thursday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (AP)

“No, no,” Hurney said. “I don’t think there’s a drastic makeover [in store] or anything like that. … The bulk of the work has been done. 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.”

For interim general managers – which Hurney was in the summer of 2017 – it was a gracious and eyebrow-raising statement. Particularly from a guy who had been unceremoniously fired by the Panthers less than five years earlier. Given the opportunity to throw some shade at the glaring mistakes of Gettleman in his triumphant return, Hurney chose a different tone. One that suggested that, hey, things in Carolina were actually very fixable. And some of the parts were already in place.

With that in mind, Hurney spent some time expounding on what was already in place. And what he suggested in that summer meeting has played a large part in shaping a 2018 Panthers offense that has fit perfectly into the “The Cam Newton Process.”

Ron Rivera? Hurney said he had total faith that Rivera was the right head coach. Wideout Devin Funchess? Hurney believed he was ready to take a fundamental step forward. Christian McCaffrey? Hurney said the 2017 first-round pick was every bit the centerpiece back Gettleman believed he could be. Greg Olsen? Hurney insisted he still had plenty left in the tank and was a player he wanted to re-sign in the coming year. And Curtis Samuel? Hurney called him “a rare skill set” that – if developed properly – could create a multitude of mismatches in the right scheme.

Hurney’s point in all of these evaluations was that important foundational pieces already existed and needed only some coaching, development and a few other complimentary parts to speed along “The Cam Newton Process.” A process that was basically a move toward getting the ball out of Newton’s hands quickly and letting some other versatile players do more of the work. In Hurney’s mind, that would do two things: Spread around some of the punishment that Newton was taking when he tried to shoulder most big-play moments; and create situations where a defense was forced to diagnose a flexible offense, rather than simply hammering Newton as he ran the ball or waited in the pocket for plays to develop.

To Hurney, this was protecting Cam from Cam. The Panthers couldn’t do that unless they were younger, more versatile and more capable of creating quick options for Newton.

But even in that summer, there were going to be tweaks. The offensive line would need additional development – something Hurney believed should happen every offseason, not just until a starting five was cemented in place. Wideout Kelvin Benjamin needed to show that he could slim down and play with confidence. And then-offensive coordinator Mike Shula had to show he could augment his scheme to protect Newton while the rest of the pieces were being fitted into place.

Some of it happened. Some of it didn’t. The most obvious being Benjamin not fitting the pace or versatility of what Hurney wanted at wideout and Shula never scheming in a way that got the ball out of Newton’s hands quickly and consistently. Which is how the next offseason, Norv Turner became an offensive coordinator priority endorsed by Rivera and wideout D.J. Moore became a draft priority.

Those two moves alone may have showcased something Hurney had learned in his time away from the Panthers: A willingness to take in information, process it and make a thoughtful decision, rather than reacting on emotion. That was especially the case in the hiring of Turner – who didn’t appear to be a fit for the quick-paced and versatile offense that suited “The Cam Newton Process.” If anything, Turner’s past had suggested he would want a classic pocket quarterback who would hold on to the football and patiently let plays develop in front of him.

But Hurney proved in the Turner hire that the coordinator could be a newer, more thoughtful and analytical version of himself. So he listened to Rivera, who said that he believed one of Turner’s best gifts was styling an offense to the pieces he had available to him. Rivera believed Turner could use flexible pieces and create mismatches, while speeding up the scheme and encouraging Newton to let some other players help with the heavy lifting. Put plainly, his mind was open to something that wasn’t readily obvious.

As he said at the start of The Newton Process, “I thought if I ever did get another shot at a [general manager] job, I’d be better than I was last time around. And I feel like you’ll see that I am, because I have the perspective to know what I did wrong before. Being able to take a step back from not only the mistakes you made the first time but also the things you did well, that teaches you some things. I’m less reactive now in the way I approach problem-solving.”

Fundamentally, it was Hurney’s lack of reaction last offseason that got this Panthers team on track. He didn’t take his interim opportunity in 2017 and start blowing up parts of Gettleman’s work just so that he could start applying his own fingerprints. Instead, he saw a project that was partially finished. He saw steps forward and acknowledged that they had been taken before he got there. And he knew that sometimes, what makes something come together is not taking it all apart again.

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