CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday that if defensive end Greg Hardy's jury trial on domestic violence charges is delayed until after the NFL season, Hardy should be able to return to the team.
Hardy has missed eight of Carolina's nine games, the past seven after being placed on the commissioner's exempt list Sept. 17. When Hardy started the paid leave of absence, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman indicated he would remain on it until his legal situation was resolved.
Under the NFL's revamped domestic violence policy, instituted after Hardy was charged in May, first-time offenders receive a six-game suspension without pay. Rivera was asked Friday if, in essence, Hardy had served the equivalent of the suspension, albeit with pay.
"In so many words, yes," Rivera said.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would have the ability to reinstate Hardy. But given the heightened attention on the league following its mishandling of another high-profile domestic violence case, involving the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice, such a scenario for Hardy seems unlikely.
Hardy's return would benefit a Carolina defense that has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush without him. The Panthers are on pace to finish with 35.5 sacks after leading the league in 2013 with a team-record 60 sacks.
Rivera said much of the Panthers' defensive plan for the season featured Hardy in a prominent role, and his absence has been felt.
"It's hard when you're constantly trying to morph into something you didn't really work on as much as you'd like," Rivera said.
A source close to Hardy said Thursday his trial had been postponed until after the season.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Meghan Cooke said Thursday, and reiterated Friday, that Hardy's case remains on the Nov. 17 schedule.
But Cooke said, as with all trial weeks, there are more cases set than can be tried during that week. A case's place on the trial calendar does not guarantee that the case will be tried that week, she said.
Chris Fialko, one of two attorneys representing Hardy, has not returned messages seeking comment.
Rivera said the Panthers have not heard anything definitive.
"We don't know," Rivera said. "Until we get an official word from somebody, we're just going to hold tight."
If the trial does get pushed back, Rivera said he believes Hardy should be able to play, possibly as soon as the team's next game, Nov. 10 at Philadelphia.
"If things had all transpired and gone a certain way, then his availability might be now," Rivera said Friday. "So we'll see. As I said, I don't set the policy."
Panthers cornerback Josh Norman agrees with Rivera that Hardy should be reinstated.
"We were definitely looking forward to the trial being in November, when he was possibly being able to return. Now they want to push it back until the end of the season," Norman said. "That came out of nowhere. How you going to hold a guy out for that long?"
The Panthers have continued to pay Hardy about $770,000 each week while he's been out.
In July, a District Court judge found Hardy guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend during an early morning altercation May 13 at Hardy's uptown Charlotte condo.
Under state law, defendants found guilty by a judge of misdemeanor charges automatically receive a jury trial upon request of an appeal.
Hardy immediately appealed the decision, and he was granted a jury trial that was scheduled for Nov. 17, during the Panthers' bye week.
Hardy, 26, will become a free agent again after this season. Regardless of the outcome of his trial, the Panthers are not expected to re-sign Hardy, according to multiple team sources.
The Panthers used the franchise tag on Hardy in March at a one-year cost of $13.1 million, guaranteed against injury. He was coming off a 2013 season in which he tied a team record with 15 sacks and went to his first Pro Bowl in the final year of his rookie contract.
Hardy has not been around the Panthers' facility while on leave and has had minimal contact with Rivera through text messages. But Norman, who's talked to Hardy a couple of times, said it's hurting Hardy not to be playing.
"It's not about any kind of money or any kind of paycheck, regardless of what anybody else thinks. That's him. He's passionate about this game," Norman said. "You can see it out there. You can feel his energy and how he wants to get better and how he competes.