KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Carolina Panthers won just once in their first six games and were scuffling along toward irrelevance when owner Jerry Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney.
Didn’t matter that it was early in the season, or that it could create some instability for coach Ron Rivera and the rest of the franchise. Richardson decided it was time to make a change, and it came swiftly and decisively the day after a loss to Dallas.
It’s the same kind of move fans in Kansas City have been seeking for weeks.
The Panthers are due to visit the Chiefs today to play before a backdrop of plenty of empty seats. Kansas City has lost eight straight games to fall to 1-10, prompting a movement by disgruntled fans aimed at expelling general manager Scott Pioli from the front office.
The game has almost become secondary to the off-the-field drama.
One grassroots group has ponied up for banners to fly over the stadium asking for Pioli to be fired. Many fans came dressed in black two weeks ago against Cincinnati to mourn the lost season, and Arrowhead Stadium was filled with thousands of Denver Broncos fans last Sunday.
How difficult are tickets to get for today’s game? Some posted on the secondary market this week for $3.50, about $60 below the average ticket price.
“These guys are together, they pull for each other, they fight for each other, and that’s the only way we’re going to get out of this deal is fight together,” said Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, confident his team’s focus remains on the field. “So that’s what we’re going to do.”
That’s what the Panthers have been doing the last few weeks.
After the change in their front office, second-year quarterback Cam Newton has played much like he did last season, when he took the league by storm. And Carolina has won two of its last four games — modest success, sure, but an improvement over the first half of the year.
“These guys, they’re playing for their jobs,” said wide receiver Steve Smith, one of the Panthers’ elder statesmen. “It makes it more important that they have the impact on someone else’s job, so I think they’re understanding that Coach Rivera’s tender really dictates on how well these guys do as well. You have to learn to feed each other.”
Rivera said he’s not concerned about his future, in part because he’s had an open and honest relationship with his owner. Rivera said that Richardson “understands the circumstances we’ve gone through and the situation we’ve been in this year,” and how that has impacted the results.
“At the same time, I understand his situation,” Rivera said. “That’s all part of it. You get into coaching, you understand that there are certain responsibilities that come along.”
One of them involves playing out the string in a lost season.
“Believe me, I’m not worried about my job as much as I’m worried about the coaches and the players, and I really mean that,” Rivera said. “No matter how I look at it, I believe you have to take it one game at a time. You have to play the guys who give you the best chance to win.”
For the Panthers, that means riding Newton’s right arm.
The former No. 1 draft pick is coming off arguably his best game of the season, when he threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Newton also ran for 52 yards and had two more scores on the ground in a 30-22 victory at Philadelphia last Monday night.
The Chiefs have indicated that they plan to put a spy on Newton, someone to keep tabs on him inside the pocket but also ready to give chase whenever he flees.
“Without talking about our scheme this week, you have to assign a guy to him,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “He can run the ball, and he’s probably one of the faster guys out there on the field. He’s really big and he has a big arm, so he poses a lot of problems.”
The Chiefs will start Brady Quinn for the second straight week, despite a shaky performance in last week’s loss to Denver. But the guy that gives the Chiefs the best chance to win isn’t the quarterback, but the guy that Quinn should spend all afternoon handing the ball.
Jamaal Charles has become a more consistent part of the offense the past three weeks, and is coming off a 107-yard performance that kept Kansas City in the game against the Broncos.
“The main thing is just setting edges and not letting him get outside,” Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said, “because that’s where he’s real dangerous.”
He’s just about the only thing dangerous about the Kansas City offense, though. It hasn’t scored a touchdown in 11 quarters — more than 173 minutes of game time. And it could be missing to starters on the offensive line, Branden Albert and Ryan Lilja, due to injuries.
Rough way for the Chiefs to go about ending several frustrating streaks.
“If you lose, it’s not great, but hey, we’re working at it,” Crennel said. “We’re going to keep fighting, we’re going to make that play, win a game, and we’re going to feel better.”
At KANSAS CITY (1-10)
Today, Noon, FOX
OPENING LINE — Panthers by 1
RECORD VS. SPREAD — Carolina 5-6; Kansas City 4-7
SERIES RECORD — Tied 2-2
AP PRO32 RANKING — Panthers No. 26; Chiefs No. 32
LAST MEETING — Panthers defeated Chiefs 34-0, Oct. 5, 2008
LAST WEEK — Panthers beat Eagles 30-22; Chiefs lost to Broncos 17-9
PANTHERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (19T), RUSH (18), PASS (16)
PANTHERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (17), RUSH (25), PASS (11)
CHIEFS OFFENSE — OVERALL (21), RUSH (4), PASS (29)
CHIEFS DEFENSE — OVERALL (16), RUSH (24), PASS (10)
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Carolina has won last two meetings after Kansas City won first two. ... Kansas City has lost eight straight games. ... Panthers QB Cam Newton threw for 306 yards and accounted for four TDs last week against Philadelphia. ... Carolina had lost seven of eight before beating Eagles on Monday night. ... Chiefs last in scoring at 14.6 points per game. ... Rookie MLB Luke Kuechly leads Carolina with 128 tackles. ... Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles has gone over 100 yards rushing four times this season, including last week against Denver. ... Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe needs two more catches to surpass Otis Taylor (410) for third-most in franchise history. He needs eight to pass Henry Marshall for second behind Tony Gonzalez. ... Kansas City leads AFC with 145.6 yards rushing per game. ... Panthers WR Steve Smith has caught pass in 86 straight games dating to the 2006 season. Smith has started 141 games, tied for second-most in team history behind OT Jordan Gross, who is expected to start 147th Sunday. ... Carolina has only attempted 11 FGs in 11 games.