An hour and a half after it was announced that the Carolina Panthers were moving on from general manager Marty Hurney, team owner David Tepper sat down over Zoom and talked with the media about the decision.
One of the questions he was asked was if giving running back Christian McCaffrey a historic four-year, $64 million contract extension contributed to the decision to move on from Hurney.
“Well, nobody knows how any players are going to be injured or not,” Tepper said. “But I don’t think specifically if you want to point to one thing or another, it’s just a general, it may be a general process, how a process is done or not done and, some very good things we do and some other things we may not do, sort of things like that.”
Not exactly a no. This week was the second time that Hurney was fired by the Panthers organization (also in 2012) and both came after he gave out one (or two) big contracts to running backs.
Coincidence? Maybe, Hurney was not fired because just months after McCaffrey becoming the highest paid running back in NFL history, he will play in a minimum of two and a half games due to three different injuries — high ankle sprain, AC joint separation and a quad injury.
The history of giving running backs big contracts, however, has not been kind.
Proven his worth
For a player who hadn’t missed a game in his professional career prior to this season, it could very well be a one off and McCaffrey will go on to have a healthy and consistent career and prove he deserved that contract. Head coach Matt Rhule has reiterated the 2019 All-Pro’s desire to get back on the field, but his injuries have prohibited him from returning.
“He wants to play, he’s dying to play, but he’s just not quite there yet,” Rhule said Thursday.
Re-signing the running back made sense as he is the face of the franchise, a leader and arguably the best running back in football in large part because of his skills as a receiver. The Panthers view him as more than just a typical back because of his multifaceted abilities. He is one of three running backs in NFL history to have 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in a single season. In the three games he played this year, he scored two touchdowns in all of them. Replacing him just hasn’t been realistic.
He’s such a weapon that his lack of time on the field has limited what the 2020 Panthers offense can do — to an extent.
“When your best football player’s not out there, there’s obviously a difference,” offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. “You see the production he had last year and since he’s been in the league. When he’s on the football field, defenses have to know where he is at all times. He brings such a unique ability both in the pass game and the run game that it is something that they have to focus on.”
The compensation was justified for a player who had never missed a game.
Past Panthers history
The alternative, however, also exists. Could the injuries become a theme? Does paying running backs ever work out? Two months after signing Jonathan Stewart to a five-year extension in 2012, Hurney was let go. Different owner, head coach and running back, but months after the McCaffrey deal this year, Hurney was fired by the Panthers for a second time.
History has shown Hurney’s willingness to give players he has drafted big extensions, including running backs, something he acknowledged when he was re-hired in 2017. He was initially brought in as interim GM after then-owner Jerry Richardson moved on from Hurney’s successor in 2012, Dave Gettleman. In his final draft in Carolina, Gettleman selected McCaffrey eighth overall.
“I look back at some of the mistakes, it might have been that loyalty, the emotional part of my brain — and that’s when I’ve got in trouble in my life. I have a big mouth sometimes,” Hurney said in 2017. “When the emotional part of my brain takes over, that’s not good a lot of times.”
DeAngelo Williams received a five-year extension worth $43 million that included $21 million in guaranteed money in 2011. He did agree to a reworked contract in 2013, along with other Panthers.
Stewart signed that extension worth $37.8 million with $23 million guaranteed in 2012, just a year later. Fullback Mike Tolbert was also brought in during the 2012 offseason on a four-year, $10 million contract with $4.2 million guaranteed. The three backs combined for $89 million on the books at one point.
Paying them that much didn’t really work out. From 2012-14 when all three were on the team, Cam Newton was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 1,865 yards. Newton also led the group in yards per carry (5.5), was second in rushing attempts and had seven more rushing touchdowns than any back. Tolbert was a factor in the receiving game with 66 receptions over three seasons. All three backs dealt with injuries. After signing his contract in 2012, Stewart never again played a 16-game season (missing 20 games over the next three years) or replicated his best seasons of production.
In 2014, the Panthers had among two of the top salary cap hits for running backs and paid running backs the second-highest amount in the league (behind the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson). It didn’t work out well as Williams had his least productive season of his 11-year career, Stewart dealt with ankle and knee injuries and Tolbert missed half of the trio’s final season together with a leg injury.
The philosophy was to pay the draft picks who performed for the long haul. The contracts were part of a huge cap mess that followed. There were lessons learned from that.
Wait and see
The Panthers today are in a different situation. Newton isn’t in the building and McCaffrey was partly necessary to keep since he is the star of the franchise. His contract also doesn’t cause the cap issues the previous ones did. They are only paying one back a significant amount of money, and keeping McCaffrey in the building was important. But in the long-term will it show to be the right choice?
It’s all too likely that McCaffrey would have had a successful season based on his two and a half games of play if not for the injuries. But the injuries do exist. Of course, even if he is healthy, it has not made sense to play him with the team out of the playoff picture, although Rhule would disagree.
But it’s something to keep an eye on as the Panthers move on from Hurney, because it’s the biggest deal he’ll leave behind. It may end up working out amazingly once Rhule truly gets a chance to build the offense around the McCaffrey. Time will tell.
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