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Why the Carolina Panthers must consider firing Matt Rhule

Matt Johnson
Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers took a massive risk hiring Matt Rhule in 2020, confident the coach known for building college football programs could find success in the NFL. As the 2021 season draws to a close, with the Panthers out of the playoff picture, it’s time to reevaluate that hiring.

Franchise owner David Tepper didn’t make a small investment in his new head coach. One of the richest NFL owners signed Rhule to a seven-year, $60 million contract. Instantly, someone with little experience at the professional level became one of the highest-paid NFL coaches.

Things went poorly in 2020. Carolina posted a 5-11 record, the same mark that got Ron Rivera fired, with the offense performing even worse than the year before. But Tepper didn’t overreact, understanding that the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out valuable practice time in the summer for Rhule to implement his ideas.

But things haven’t improved in 2021. In his second season and with a full training camp, Rhule’s plan isn’t working. Carolina is headed for another five-win season and the offense is regressing even further.

  • Matt Rhule coaching record: 10-21

Following an ugly Week 16 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rhule responded to concerns that he isn’t delivering on expectations and addressed increasing skepticism in the fan base.

“I believe it’s 1000 percent working, I just know no one can see it and I apologize. As I tell our team all the time, it took Jay-Z seven years. He had to start his own agency to become an overnight sensation. It takes time.”

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule on fans’ concern that plan isn’t working, via WCNC’s Nick Carboni

While the comment might have generated a few laughs in the press conference, fans didn’t respond well to it. Even worse, it is another indication that Rhule might be in over his head with a lack of understanding of how the NFL operates.

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Matt Rhule’s role in Panthers’ issues

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rhule took this job knowing the Panthers needed to find a quarterback. Months into the gig, Carolina signed New Orleans Saints backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million contract. It was far more than anyone expected Bridgewater to get and while Joe Brady is often cited as the coach responsible for the signing, Rhule had the final say and he raved about Bridgewater after the deal was signed.

“You know, Teddy is a guy that has really won at every level he’s really been at … had a devastating injury, comes back, goes to New Orleans and is given a chance there, and he ins again. He’s a great scheme fit for us. He’s been in this (type of) offense. So, really, as you’re sitting there at a time where there is no offseason, he walks in and knows the verbiage and knows the concepts. You watch him on tape and he’s executing the plays we’re going to run.

Carolina Panthers HC Matt Rhule on signing Teddy Bridgewater, via 247 Sports.

Bridgewater lasted just a year in Carolina. While he completed 69.1% of his passes, 11 interceptions and a pedestrian 248.9 passing yards per game left Rhule wanting a lot more from his quarterback. After Bridgewater was traded, he criticized the Panthers’ coaching staff for rarely practicing two-minute drills and red-zone situations. Rhule deflected the knock on the team’s practice routine and seemed confident the issues wouldn’t remain with a new quarterback.

Year:RZ Scoring Attempts per gameRZ touchdown rate:2nd Half PPG3rd Down Conversion
20203.6 (14th)50.88% (28th)9.6 (29th)38.97% (24th)
20212.8 (26th)54.76% (24th)7.5 (30th)35.75% (28th)
Stats via Team Rankings

Carolina hired Scott Fitterer as general manager, but Rhule still has a lot of power with roster construction. In April, Rhule signed off don’t reading three draft picks (2021 sixth-round pick, 2022 second- and fourth-round picks) for Darnold. Weeks later, without seeing him play a snap in a Panthers’ uniform, Carolina fully guaranteed Darnold’s 2022 salary ($18.58 million).

The Panthers could have drafted Justin Fields or Mac Jones, taking either a franchise-caliber talent or a pro-ready quarterback, but Rhule told the Rich Eisen Show that his confidence in Darnold made the decision easier.

“I love those guys and I think they’re gonna be great NFL players. I just think for us, when we got Sam and knowing he’s 23-years-old, just turned 24, we just felt like Sam plus another player would be better for the team overall. We’re just trying to build the whole team and I just believe in Sam, I believe that he deserves the opportunity to go out and play with us.”

Matt Rhule on decision to trade for Sam Darnold instead of drafting QB in 2021, via Rich Eisen

The decision backfired. Darnold played well during a 3-0 start, completing 68% of his attempts with a 99.0 passer rating. But NFL defenses quickly adjusted, Darnold saw familiar ghosts and the same issues that made the New York Jets give up on him reappeared.

  • Sam Darnold stats (Week 4-9): 54.77% completion rate, 4-10 TD-INT ratio, 56.5 passer rating, 16 sacks

The Panthers tried to make things work with P.J. Walker and then Cam Newton. After both quarterbacks struggled, Rhule fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady on a Sunday during the bye week. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t resolve the Panthers’ issues offensively.

An NFL head coach that doesn’t belong

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Buffalo Bills
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a reason NFL teams prefer hiring coaches with years of experience at this level. As Urban Meyer and countless others have shown, success at college doesn’t mean a head coach fits in the NFL. Thus far, Rhule is demonstrating this level isn’t right for him.

Using a quarterback rotation doesn’t work, but Rhule keeps attempting it every Sunday. Darnold, Walker and Newton have all attempted 60-plus passes this season, with none of them completing even 59% of their attempts. It’s a reflection on their talent levels, but also speaks to another issue. Quarterback is the most important position in sports and one thing they need to be successful is consistent reps and rhythm in the offense. It should be obvious, but rotating signal-callers on every other drive makes it impossible to achieve that.

Carolina’s offense isn’t getting any better, despite the head coach effectively pointing the finger at everyone around him by constantly making changes. The 46-year-old only spent one season in the NFL before this, serving as an assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants in 2012. Yet Carolina gave him a level of power that many veteran head coaches, including those with winning records, don’t have.

The Panthers are going to give Matt Rhule another season, it’s inevitable. But if he isn’t going to be fired, which might be the best move, Rhule has certainly lost the right to have the final decision on what quarterback Carolina acquires in 2022.