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Jerry Richardson: The Man Behind the Curtain

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colin Colin Hoggard
A lifelong Tar Heel fan and North Carolina resident, Colin first...
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Following the nationally televised debacle against the Giants, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell took aim at Panther’s general manager Marty Hurney, in an article detailing the GM’s perceived failings  and following two more losses the refrain of incompetence has grown louder amongst Panther fans, to the point that FireHurney.com has now been created. Like Barnwell’s article, the website and complaints have been misguided and perpetuate the misconception that the buck stops with Marty.

While the owner of Charlotte’s other pro franchise, Michael Jordan, has repeatedly faced criticism, Jerry Richardson has dodged most of the blame (except for not firing Marty Hurney). Barring standard gripes from fans about ticket prices and requesting Cam Newton not get tattoos or piercings, since the player lockout has ended, Jerry has again returned to being a seldom seen, seldom heard, and seldom critiqued owner. The idea that Mr. Richardson is a hands-off owner, however, ranks above Kobe’s refusal to play for the Hornets as the biggest myth in Charlotte sports.

Since 2006, Jerry has co-chaired a committee that chose Roger Goodell to be the next Commissioner of the NFL, co-chaired the NFL’s executive committee, spent over three years “consumed” by the labor negotiations for which he was again a hardline co-chair, and recently urged owners to stand strong against the refs in the most recent lockout. The man has been hands-on in every major decision for the NFL in the last six years (at least). He admittedly has no other hobbies, and the very notion that he would be so involved in league matters, but completely removed from major decisions for his own team rings hollow.

When Steve Smith requested a trade from the Carolina Panthers, he went to Jerry Richardson’s house, not Marty Hurney’s. When Andrew Luck decided to stay in school, it was Jerry Richardson that called him to ask if the organization had played a role in his decision. It was Jerry that stood up and famously told Julius Peppers he needed to be a leader. When asked about the team releasing Jon Kasay, Jerry replied, “That was one of the most difficult calls I’ve made since I’ve owned the team” (emphasis added). When considering Kasay’s role as the last original Panther none of these may seem out of line, it’s not the only example. One of the more controversial personnel decisions (at least prior to 2009) was the team’s decision to re-sign oft-injured linebacker Dan Morgan and part ways with Will Witherspoon who was coming off two banner years in 2005. Morgan went on to play in just four more games and Witherspoon is still making plays seven years later. Morgan, however, was still described as Richardson as one of his all-time favorite Panther players in a 2011 interview. Most likely, that’s not a coincidence.  When Cam Newton was being targeted as the potential first pick in the draft, Jerry hosted him at his house and had to sign off of the choice, which again seems reasonable, but Jerry’s also ‘sure’ as a former wide receiver that he can see qualities in a quarterback the rest of us can’t and he also sought the counsel of Browns president and quarterback guru, Mike Holmgrem, crossing the line from concerned owner to meddling.

In the infamous press conference following the 2010 season, which Mr. Richardson later apologized for, he detailed how firing John Fox would cost him “$11,441,000” a specific amount for an owner of an NFL team valued at over one billion dollars. It was also Mr. Richardson, and not Marty Hurney (who was seated beside him) who spoke about his frustration with John Fox and his staff not wanting to play younger players. When asked about the yet to be hired head coach, the first word Mr. Richardson used to described the candidate they would look for, was not ‘leader’, ‘winner’, ‘fiery’ or any other commonly used term to describe candidates for coaching jobs. The word he used spoke volumes, “compatible”. As in someone who understands their place in the pecking order, who doesn’t mind relinquishing personnel decisions to the front office and Mr. Richardson, and someone who won’t cause waves. That had been John Fox, but faced with an owner-mandated spending freeze, Fox had grown increasingly frustrated and even dared to refer a reporter’s question to the ‘personnel department’ after a loss.

John Fox finally had enough, but the one man who has remained loyal also faces constant scorn from fans, Marty Hurney. When asked pointedly on the Mac Attack about Mr. Richardson’s involvement in decisions, Hurney fell on the sword, declaring it his responsibility. What he did not say, however, was Jerry isn’t involved. It’s this loyalty and willingness to shoulder the criticism that ensures his future with the franchise, but it’s also handcuffed the organization. Prior to the post-lockout spending spree, Marty had always been regarded as a competent manager of the salary cap, even by his harshest critics. Looking at the post-lockout splurge on re-signing their own free agents, it makes more sense that the organization overvalued perceived “loyalty” than Marty suddenly started dramatically overvaluing his own players. The bloated contracts have made Hurney’s job more difficult, pressing the team up against salary cap and that has forced the front office to draft for need, rather than selecting the ‘best player available’, which is the more optimal strategy, even according to Hurney, himself.

Other NFL owners, like Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones, face national ridicule for being too involved, while Jerry Richardson sails under the radar. Both are more visible and overt in their actions, but Richardson’s actions behind closed doors have just as much impact. Mr. Richardson has explained the team’s lack of big moves in free agency as seldom paying off in his previous experiences. Combined with the “loyalty extensions” offered to players like Jake Delhomme and an injured Jon Beason, Richardson has severely limited the options for Marty Hurney and his staff. For Richardson, who values loyalty so much, it’s time to acknowledge his role in forming this team. It’s not leadership to allow your employee to take the public beatings, when acting at your behest.

Recently, Richardson’s loyalty manifested itself in a beautiful show of compassion, in his caring for Greg Olsen and his wife during a very tough time. There have been numerous accounts of Jerry encouraging heart transplant patients and certainly countless other untold stories. Mr. Richardson’s loyalty, however, may well have led to several of the re-signings that now plague the Panthers roster and salary cap situation. In other arenas shows of loyalty are often reciprocated, but with many of today’s pro athletes, loyalty in the form of a large contract (with guaranteed money) is often met with a feeling of entitlement and complacency from the player. That attitude, more than any other, is most evident watching the team on Sundays.
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