Jerry Richardson's legacy is on the line

Jerry Richardson wanted to talk, but he didn’t want to do it standing in a hotel lobby.

Instead, he invited a reporter up to his room because his plan was to take a nap as soon as the conversation ended. Richardson looked tired and worn out and pretty much admitted that he was.

This was at an NFL owners meeting in New Orleans during the labor lockout of 2011. At the time, Richardson was the point man for the owners in their negotiations with the players. He was taking a lot of heat from players and it got even hotter when there were reports that he made condescending comments to Peyton Manning at the negotiating table.

The talks dragged on for months, and some thought there was at least the appearance that Richardson got pushed aside by other owners in the end.

Throw in the fact Richardson is 76 and had a heart transplant in 2008, and it’s easy to see why he looked worn down.

The Richardson I knew during my days as the beat writer for The Charlotte Observer (and even before that) was a vigorous man, constantly filled with energy or maybe caffeine from the iced tea he drinks by the gallon.

Richardson has looked a little better the last few times I saw him, but he needs to find a way to grab back some of his youth and energy right now because his Carolina Panthers and his legacy are at a crossroads. The decisions Richardson makes over the next few months might be the most critical in franchise history, and they’re also going to write his lasting legacy.

All the things Richardson did in the past don’t really matter right now. It doesn’t matter he’s the one who brought an expansion team to the Carolinas. Or that the Panthers were in the NFC Championship Game in only their second season and the Super Bowl in the 2003 season.

It doesn’t matter that Richardson used to be viewed as the model owner by fans. He often drove a Jeep around stadium parking lots on game days, picking up fans he didn’t know and driving them into the stadium while chatting. If a fan wrote him a letter, Richardson answered it or called the fan directly. He was a man of the people, and he was beloved. Oh, plus his teams were either winning or at least competitive, so that helped his popularity.

These days, things have changed dramatically. My mailbag and our Friday NFC South chats are filled with criticism of Richardson and panic about the Panthers. I hear the same from my friends who live in Charlotte, and those who were at Sunday’s home loss to Dallas said the atmosphere was just as bad as it was at coach George Seifert’s final game in the 2001 season -- the 15th straight game the Panthers lost. They said the fans who did bother to show up weren't so much angry as they were uninterested.

Sunday was general manager Marty Hurney’s last game. The Panthers, a trendy playoff pick in the preseason, are 1-5. The handwriting on the wall for coach Ron Rivera doesn’t look promising, and a lot of players are sure to be gone after the season.

You can see a housecleaning coming in Carolina. Does Richardson have the energy and strength to do it? I know the man, and I know he has a passionate desire to win. I’m pretty confident he can scrape up enough strength to do what has to be done.

But Richardson needs to do more than just find a new general manager, probably a new coach and a dozen or two new players. He needs to get the right general manager, the right coach and the right players.

Things are really bad with the Panthers right now. They haven’t had a winning season since 2008. The Panthers have had a great fan base since they came into existence (they’ve been all that matters on the Charlotte sports scene), but if things don’t change soon, they’re going to lose it.

Once upon a time, Richardson had a strong and close support group that he could lean on to make decisions like this, but that has eroded gradually. He fired son Mark as team president and son Jon as stadium president because he felt their dysfunctional relationship and differing management styles were having a negative impact on every other employee in the building.

Hurney already was a confidant, but he became even more of one when the Richardson sons left. Now, Hurney’s gone and Rivera may well be on his way out.

Richardson’s inner power circle is down to his wife, daughter, team president Danny Morrison, some buddies from the business world and a few other NFL owners whom he’s close to. But I doubt his wife, Rosalind, and daughter, Ashley, or the friends from the business world are going to be too involved in hiring a general manager and maybe a coach. Richardson may make some calls to other owners to ask about candidates, but those guys are also the competition.

Morrison is Richardson’s most trusted ally right now. I’m sure Morrison will be involved in whatever happens going forward. But Morrison shouldn’t be the guy making the football decisions. He’s an administrator and runs the business side of the operation.

Richardson is expected to bring in a consultant, and it’s likely to be a former NFL general manager. We don’t know who it is yet, so I’ll throw out some names, just so you can get a picture of who might fit the profile: Carl Peterson, Ernie Accorsi, Jerry Angelo or Michael Lombardi, just to name a few possibilities. Although I think it’s safe to say Bill Polian, who left the Panthers on less-than-friendly terms in 1997, probably is not a candidate.

Whoever it is will evaluate the current roster and coaching staff, evaluate how the scouting department is structured and gather up a list of potential candidates for general manager and maybe for head coach, and then present recommendations to Richardson.

The consultant will do most of the legwork. But Richardson’s the one who has to do the heavy lifting. Ultimately, Richardson will be the only one making the decision on how this team is going to move forward.

Richardson has made some good hires in the past (Hurney, Dom Capers and John Fox all had success for varying amounts of time) and some bad ones (Seifert).

But this time around might be more important than all the others combined. Richardson has to gather up his strength and search his soul. He’s a man of great pride, and his legacy is on the line.

If he can make all the right moves and the Panthers start winning the next few seasons, his legacy will be golden. If the losing doesn’t stop, all Richardson has worked and stood for all these years will be forgotten.