How Matt Rhule Is Handling an Unprecedented Way to Start an NFL Coaching Career

This is not how Matt Rhule thought his NFL head coaching career would start. But some of the ways he is adapting amid the COVID-19 pandemic and some of his experience in college could turn out to be an advantage in Carolina. Plus, two interesting contract situations and undrafted free agency chaos.
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You don’t need to remind Matt Rhule what Monday was supposed to be.

It was supposed to be the first real step in what could be seen as the final destination of a 23-year trip up the football-coaching ladder. It was supposed to be when he addressed his team as a whole for the first time, and when all the work that he and his staff have done over the last three months to set the program would finally take shape with the guys who’ll be carrying it out.

Instead, Rhule was home, in a house he’s lived in for less than a month, working with his staff exclusively over programs he may not have known how to use a few weeks ago. And he was attacking that with everything he had.

“Our message, even to our staff, has been, I know we’re disappointed that we’re not able to get started,” Rhule explained just after a draft meeting late Wednesday. “But number one, when you look at the news at night, you recognize it. I see people in New York, which is where I grew up, I see people really all over the place defending our citizens against this virus. It puts it in really, really strong perspective.

“And then number two, I look at this as an opportunity for me as a coach, as a person, and really for us as a team, Hey, how can we be better than we would’ve been, under these tough circumstances? And if we can really become better at the way we teach, the way we interact, the way we do the draft meetings, if we can become better, then how much greater will we be when we get back into the office? I try to take everything as an opportunity.”

We already know this is going to be a different year in the NFL. Offseason programs are almost certainly going to be called off. Training camp, if it’s held as scheduled, will be further restricted under the new CBA, with the number of padded practices cut from 28 to 16, and three-day weekends now baked into the schedule. And that’s a problem because time, to football coaches, is the most precious of commodities.

Common sense in this situation says that the circumstances in front of all 32 NFL coaches favor teams with continuity. Having an incumbent head coach and quarterback, the logic goes, is optimal. Having a lot of NFL experience helps too. And Rhule and his team don’t check those boxes.

But finding a way to make the most of that commodity everyone gets—time—is something Rhule can do, even without his players all under the same roof. In this minefield of uncertainty, it’s one thing Rhule is resolute on.

How will he do it? That’s a work in progress.

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We’re now officially two weeks out from draft day. And in this week’s GamePlan, we’re going to give you…

• A ranking of the situations the NFL’s new coaches face.

• A look into the Laremy Tunsil and Jalen Ramsey negotiations.

• An explanation on why the dash for college free agents could be messy.

But we’re starting with a deep look into the curveball that 2020 threw Rhule, just as he began fulfilling the dream of becoming an NFL head coach.

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Among the difficult spots Rhule has navigated in seven years as a head football coach, what he’s facing now probably wouldn’t rank first. His first shot came at Temple, which hasn’t traditionally been the easiest place to win. His second came at Baylor, after the sexual abuse scandal of 2016 gutted the football program there. In both places, he finished with seasons of double-digit wins, playing for conference titles.

But this one’s certainly different from those. And that much became obvious during the week in mid-March when just about everything changed.

His wife Julie planned to arrive with the family’s three kids, two dogs, and cat, just after St. Patrick’s Day. And as the COVID-19 crisis spread, it became increasingly clear to the Rhules that flying wasn’t going to be a smart option. So Julie hitched a small U-Haul to the car, packed in everyone, plus a babysitter, and charted a course from Waco to Tuscaloosa (about a 9.5-hour drive), then Tuscaloosa to Charlotte (another 7-hour drive).

It wasn’t without bumps. The Rhules’ kids have celiac, meaning they have to eat gluten-free, and with all the closures, they struggled to find a place to accommodate that for breakfast during their stopover. After a lot of trying, Julie called a local spot called The Waysider. The owner told her he’d help and instructed her to pull up in an alley alongside the building. When they got there, he came out, gloves on, and delivered the food to the car.

“She said he made the best gluten-free breakfast of all-time,” Rhule said.

Julie, the kids, the dogs, the cat and the babysitter arrived in Charlotte later that day. The Rhules moved into their house on March 21. Social distancing guidelines were already in place. A few days later, on the following Wednesday, stay-at-home orders were issued locally, and that wound up being Rhule’s final day in the office.

The good news? Even with the move into the new house, the family arriving by car from a half-dozen states over, and the new reality of working at home all happening at once, Rhule was prepared for what was coming—and ready to make the most of it. And most of that was really just the Panthers having foresight on some things, and flexibility on the rest.

The prelude. Rhule doesn’t remember exactly when it happened, but he does remember, before most in the U.S. were taking the pandemic seriously in the, what owner David Tepper asked he and GM Marty Hurney, and it was pretty straight-forward: Do we have a plan for this if it gets to that point?

That point, of course, was where we are now. And Rhule was able to answer, yes, the Panthers did, mostly because VP of football operations Sean Padden—Rhule’s ops guy at both Temple and Baylor, who came aboard with him and happened to have prior background as a software salesman—and director of IT James Hammond (“a rock star”, per Rhule) were on top of it.

“Those two guys were planning for this for weeks, so when the day came when I left, we were ready,” Rhule said. Because you’re planning for it, but all of the sudden they say you have to leave, and you can’t come back, you’re trying to grab everything and get home and I got home, and I was like, ‘How do I make all this stuff work? Yeah, you told me 20 times, but how do I make this work? And they knocked it out of the park.”

The reality of it. And this is where Rhule’s family life comes in, again. He has a 15-year-old son, and 7- and 4-year-old daughters, so each is at a different point in their schooling, and each has tried to keep up as the family moved across the country. It’s challenging, for sure, but has given Rhule insight into how he’ll be able to teach, once the league decides how it’s going to let coaches meet with players virtually this spring.

“If and when the time comes that we can do virtual learning, we will,” he said. “I’ll tell you Albert, what’s really unique for me as a parent who only went to school, sitting here with my 15-year-old and watching him learn, sitting here with my 7-year-old and watching her learn via Google Classroom, Google Meet, Zoom, all these things, and me having to manage it? I wouldn’t have been able to turn any of these things on two weeks ago, and now I’m like an expert.

“And for me, now, just getting ready for a draft, utilizing these things, having a staff utilizing these things, if and when the time and comes, I really, really believe in our ability to coach and teach through online collaboration, like I said, if it’s allowed.”

This is also one area where Rhule believes his staff can wield an edge—because they’re still working through installing schemes, the coaches have had a lot of practice teaching virtually to one another, and to Hurney and his scouts. As they’ve gone through it, Rhule’s reinforced to his staff that he wants them each to teach in their own way.

So what does that mean? Well, for DC Phil Snow, it meant the team getting a whiteboard to his house. For new OC Joe Brady, it meant giving him the capability with the technology at home, through XOS, to voiceover instructional video. “Teach with the best modality to you,” Rhule explained. “But the most important thing is that they’re experts at it. … As we work with each other, as we have draft meetings, we have to be experts with the technology.”

The draft edge. Take a look at John Schneider and Pete Carroll’s first three drafts in Seattle—You’ll find Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Golden Tate, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson in there. You’ll find guys Carroll coached at USC he passed on. You’ll see guys he coached against or recruited that he drafted. And both Carroll and Schneider would tell you to this day that it was an advantage in the scouting process.

Rhule coached Denzel Mims and James Lynch at Baylor, and coached against guys like Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Kenneth Murray and TCU’s Ross Blacklock and Jeff Gladney. Likewise, Brady directly coached, on offense, eight of LSU’s 16 combine invitees, and was with all of them in the Tigers’ program over the last year, in addition to coaching against other prospect-laden schools in the SEC. And that’s just the start of it.

“We have a lot of our staff that has touched a lot of different players in a lot of different ways,” Rhule said. “So hopefully we can bring some perspective on who they are and what’s important to them and how they tick. You can look for diamonds in the rough—Hey, trust me, I’ve seen this guy, he’s really this or he’s really that. So we’re trying to rely on our college experience at a time when it’s really hard to get out and see those guys.

“It may not affect the first- and second-round guys, but as you get back beyond that, I certainly hope our experience, not just who they are as players—you can see that on tape—but who they are as people, what makes them tick, we hope we utilize that in this process.”

The relationship edge. I thought this part was interesting, in that Rhule believes the situation in front of him could actually help to reach guys on a different level.

“One of the things I’ll say, in my seven years as a head coach, it’s really hard to build connections because you’re not the guy in the position room with the guys day-to-day,” Rhule said. “If you’re the linebacker coach, you get close with your guys because you spend so much time with them. When you’re the head coach, and this was at the college level, but I only got real close and built a real relationship with players when they were going through something, that’s when I would insert myself into their lives.

“I mean, I’d have a good relationship, but I only got close with them when they were going through something, something off the field, something at home, an injury, whatever, and I was able to step in and help them in any way that I could.”

So how does he know this will be different? Because it already is with his coaches, and he sees stronger relationships forming as a result. And it’s actually just like it would’ve been at Temple and Baylor, when his relationship with a player would become personal.

“In those moments, away from football, the players could see who I really was, maybe see me in a different light, and I could get to know them in a difficult, hard time,” Rhule said. “And it’s all of us now. When we get on a chat with the coaches, I’m not just saying, ‘Hey, how’s your family?’ I’m asking directly, ‘How’s your wife? How’s William? How’s Henry?’ It’s a much more focused thing because I think we all recognize the seriousness of this situation.

“So trying to keep this with our players about them and their families and their well-being hopefully does build those connections, because I don’t have them going into the season like other people do. Hopefully this will be a part of that process.”

The on-field advantage. This is one that Rhule actually can plan for. I mentioned to him the stories I remembered from Jim Harbaugh’s camp in 2011, post-lockout, and how Harbaugh had used his experience at Stanford—having to manage around the NCAA’s 40-hour rule and a roster with over 100 players—to the Niners’ advantage that summer. San Francisco, of course, went 13-3 and made the NFC title game.

“I think last year at Baylor, our first 13 days of camp, we were still in school, guys were still in classes,” Rhule said. “So you can say it’s a 12-hour day, but if all your kids are in class from 8 to 2, and all of the sudden you have to start at 2:00, you learn just to adapt to that scenario. What we’ve always done is, A) prioritize what’s important, then, B) not having a traditional practice model, having practice where a lot of guys are getting reps.

“Because you’re trying not just to get your starters ready, you’re trying to develop your young players too. So that was our vision coming to the pros anyway—Hey, this is the way to practice. And I think now, depending on how things work out, none of us know when we’re gonna go back, but when you do, as you said, the key is to get as many reps as possible, take advantage of the limited time. … That to me is very similar to what we dealt with at Baylor.”

Of course, he did have a start date to work around last year. He probably won’t have one of those for a while in Carolina.

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Rhule spent his first month on the job working through the Panthers’ offseason calendar, and he’ll joke about that now: “Hopefully it’ll come in handy next year.” He knows he’s day-to-day, and everyone else is too. So he’s waiting to hear about how he’ll be able to run an offseason program, and word should come down on that soon.

And yeah, there’s stuff getting delayed as this moves forward, like that first speech that was set to be delivered on Monday. But Rhule is choosing to focus more on other things, and it’s not like there isn’t still a whole lot to look forward to.

Earlier in the week, in fact, he was talking to his agent Trace Armstrong, and the former NFL defensive end reminisced about days when the entire offseason program was a single minicamp, and how excited players would be to see each other, and their coaches, when that short preview of what was ahead in the fall came.

“Obviously, I’d have loved to be in front of the team,” he said. “But right now the most important thing for our players, for our coaches, for everyone is to be home with their families, and to keep everyone safe. But knowing, ‘Hey, how much more excitement will there be when we finally do get together?’ It’s pretty cool.”

So Wednesday, he went through a full day of draft meetings with Hurney and the offensive staff, with coaches carrying completed reports early, given how so much time has been freed up. And he did it knowing circumstances could change in a day, week or month.

What’s next? No one knows. Which, Rhule hopes, winds up being where the Panthers find beauty in a really brutal situation for everyone.

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Mike McCarthy looked back on the Dez Bryant catch he infamously challenged in 2015.

POWER RANKINGS

Since we led with the situation Rhule and the Panthers are in, here’s a quick ranking of the five new head coaches, from the coach best positioned for 2020 (and we’re limiting this to just this year) to the one with the toughest challenge ahead.

1) Mike McCarthy, Dallas: McCarthy has the experienced ownership attuned on the football side, a well-regarded personnel chief (Will McClay), a veteran quarterback (Dak Prescott) and a roster full of guys who won a playoff game 15 months ago. Plus, his defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, is someone he’s worked with. And McCarthy has 13 years of NFL head-coaching experience, and led the Packers to a 15-1 mark in the lockout year of 2011.

2) Ron Rivera, Washington: Rivera basically imported the Panthers’ offensive staff, with Scott Turner rather than Norv Turner as OC, and added a veteran QBs coach in Ken Zampese. On defense, Rivera will be involved, and has an experienced voice in Jack Del Rio, who was, like Rivera, a head coach in the league during the lockout year. And while there isn’t a Prescott here, Washington has one young QB with upside (Dwayne Haskins) and another with background in the system (Kyle Allen) on hand. Add the second pick in the draft, and things could be a lot worse here.

3) Matt Rhule, Carolina: I initially thought Rhule might have the toughest road to hoe, especially because the NFC South figures to be treacherous. But I do think his experience in adverse conditions at both Baylor and Temple help. And the Panthers have deftly added players to the roster (Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker, Robby Anderson) with experience either in the program Rhule will run or the schemes he’ll implement.

4) Joe Judge, NY Giants: I think being in a Giants organization that won a Super Bowl in 2011 does help, and having guys with head coaching experience at his side (Jason Garrett, Freddie Kitchens, Derek Dooley, Bret Bielema) should be a plus. And that the Giants had so much success under Tom Coughlin, who’s from the same coaching tree as Judge, can’t hurt. But there’s going to be a learning curve for Judge, and a team that’ll be relying on young guys in key spots.

5) Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland: He’s the only one of the five on this list that’s arriving as part of a total detonation of football operations—with new GM Andrew Berry leading the scouting side. Add the history here, and the big personalities to manage on the roster, and there’s just a lot of work to do. Stefanski’s got a ton of potential. But he was a position coach less than 18 months ago, so he’ll be learning a lot on the fly.

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THE BIG QUESTION

What will the story lines be after the draft?

It’s a good question, of course. Normally, rookie camps give way to OTAs, then veteran minicamp and we have plenty to discuss until football goes dark for a month in mid-June. But this year? This year, for obvious reasons, will be different.

One place to look be will be to the big-ticket contract situations brewing across the NFL, and Patrick Mahomes’s is certainly in that category. But we know how that story ends—with the Super Bowl MVP resetting the market for top quarterbacks in the first year of the new collective bargaining agreement. What’s more interesting to me is a couple where there isn’t as clear an outcome.

And the really interesting ones trace back to a couple trades from last year. One had Jalen Ramsey going from Jacksonville to L.A. for two first-round picks. The other had Laremy Tunsil going from Miami to Houston for a little more than that. Both play positions that have lagged a little as market corrections have happened for receivers, edge defenders and defensive tackles. Both have leverage, as top 5 players at those positions.

Will they be the first $20 million guys at their positions? I think Tunsil and Ramsey will be.

Let’s start with Tunsil. My understanding is that the terms of the deal really isn’t an issue. When it’s done, it’ll likely be a three-year extension to take the big left tackle through 2023 (he turns 29 that August), adding to the $10.35 million option he’s due this year. Right now, the highest-paid left tackle is Indy’s Anthony Castanzo, a good-not-great 31-year-old who just got $16.5 million per year. The league’s highest-paid lineman is Philly’s Lane Johnson at $18 million per year, and he turns 30 next month and is a right tackle.

It’s not hard to square where the Texans will wind up at an APY north of $20 million, especially when you consider it’d probably cost them around $40 million to franchise him twice (in 2021 and ’22) anyway. The good news for Houston is if they do, say, a three-year, $60 million extension with Tunsil, they can fold this coming year into the year, and spread the total of over $70 million over four years.

Ramsey’s situation isn’t all that different. He’s more accomplished with better upside than the four highest paid players at the position (Darius Slay at $16.7 million, Byron Jones at $16.5 million, Xavien Howard at $15.1 million, and James Bradberry at $14.5 million), and he’s at least two years younger than each of those guys too. So he’s going to get his, and probably be the man to bring corners into the 2020s financially.

But the Rams’ situation is cloudier than the Texans’—Houston’s in the top five in the NFL in cap space, while L.A. is in the bottom five. And that might make it a little more complicated, though the fact that Ramsey has a sizable cap/salary number for 2020 ($13.7 million), gives the team some wiggle room in how it can play with his cap slot.

Either way, I’d guess both these guys get done before the start of the season. How they get there will be interesting.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

Or not enough people are talking about, at least—the looming chaos coming with undrafted free agents. We talked about it with Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy on the podcast this week. And Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reported on a plan floated by Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, to add three rounds to the draft to address it. But one way or the other, it’s going to be complicated.

In a normal year, teams might dispatch area scouts, position coaches or anyone else with relationships to fight through the all-out sprint to sign guys who slip through the cracks of the draft. Oftentimes, even though it’s not supposed to happen this way, negotiating will begin with the draft still ongoing. And without these staffs all together, things will be decidedly less organized.

Don’t think it matters? Well, Broncos RB Phillip Lindsay, Patriots CB J.C. Jackson, and Washington QB Kyle Allen were among the undrafted in 2018; Saints QB Taysom Hill, Ravens FB Pat Richard, Chargers RB Austin Ekeler and 49ers RB Matt Brieda were in 2017; and 2016 non-draftees Robby Anderson and Cory Littleton just scored pay days averaging eight figures per year. So the aforementioned process can, indeed, have an impact.

And then, there’s a second level to this. Most undrafted free agents won’t be combine invitees, which means that teams will have far more incomplete files on the guys they sign than they normal would, and the fallout from that could be immense.

How so? Well, teams could sign guys as, more or less, “tryouts,” figuring they can get missing info on a player by just bringing him in-house. If enough teams do this, then you could have a pretty intense level of roster-churning league-wide at the start of camp, presuming offseason programs are, as expected, wiped out. That’ll make for a busy couple weeks for scouts, and a pretty tumultuous entry to the league for a lot of rookies, in August.

For the reasons here—to calm the chaos a bit, and make teams invest a little deeper in a few more players, so they might not have as a quick hook—I actually like Colbert’s idea. And I wish the NFL would take a harder look at it, something that probably won’t happen because it doesn’t make as much sense for what kept the draft on as scheduled in the first place. Which is the broadcast product.

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FINAL WORD

Stay safe, everyone. And prospects, be sure to take care of your social media accounts. The draft’s right around the corner. 

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.