The Matt Rhule era in Carolina is officially over as Panthers team owner David Tepper relieved him of his head coaching duties Monday morning following a 37-15 beatdown at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.
Carolina had lost 11 of its last 12 games dating back to last year and had lost 25 straight games in which the opponent scored 17 or more points. If it's essentially an automatic loss when you give up 17 in a game, you're going to have a hard time finding many wins. Teams wake up scoring 20 on their worst days.
Credit to Rhule, though, he never lost the locker room. Players constantly went to bat for him in postgame pressers and mid-week interviews. For a team that endured a lot of losing over the past two years, it's easy to start questioning the head coach's philosophy following a 1-4 start and they never allowed that doubt to creep in. The team remained bought into the process, whether it was working or not, and placed the blame on themselves.
Tepper giving Matt Rhule a 7-year, $62 million deal
There's enough blame to go around for this disaster, so we'll start at the very top with team owner David Tepper. Folks from around the league were upset with Tepper giving a college coach this type of money to be a first-time head coach in the NFL. He did a terrific job resurrecting two college programs from the dead, but the NFL is a whole different challenge and he had just one year in the league as an assistant. Hiring Rhule to a shorter, cheaper deal wouldn't have caused as much backlash as it did.
Too much control
It's one thing to give a first-time NFL head coach a seven-year deal. It's another thing to give him essentially full control of the 53-man roster. This was a bad move on David Tepper's part and one that he has apparently learned from. During his press conference on Monday, he told reporters that a balance between the coach and the GM would be more appropriate.
Assembling an inexperienced coaching staff in year one
When a head coach is hired, his coaching staff will more than likely feature those that he has worked with the longest or has the most ties to. In this case, many of those connections were at the college level, including defensive coordinator Phil Snow and then going out and hiring an up-and-coming offensive coordinator in Joe Brady, who he had no prior ties with. It was an inexperienced NFL coaching staff and in the first two years, it showed. Rhule went out and hired a bunch of experienced coaches this offseason and the results were still the same. Had he assembled a veteran staff from the get-go things may have been slightly different.
Signing QB Teddy Bridgewater
Look, I know he was the best quarterback in the Rhule era but the Panthers should not have spent $63 million on a bridge quarterback, no pun intended. They should have rolled with what they had (Kyle Allen and Will Grier) and receive a top pick in the draft. They received a top-ten pick that year anyway but spent a lot of money on the quarterback position when they didn't need to. Signing Bridgewater took the Panthers out of contention for one of the top QBs in the 2021 draft - Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance.
Trading away a lot for Sam Darnold, picking up his fifth-year option
A 2021 6th-round pick. A 2022 2nd-round pick. And a 2022 4th-round pick. That's what the Panthers gave up for a quarterback that had thrown the most interceptions since he entered the league. The Panthers panicked and gave up too much for someone who had yet to prove that he could be a legitimate franchise QB. What made the situation even worse is that they decided to pick up the fifth-year option on Darnold's contract before he ever took a snap in black and blue.
Failing to address the offensive line during the 2021 offseason
The o-line was in rough shape from the moment Rhule took over the job. With it being the team's clear weak spot on the roster, aside from quarterback, one would have thought that fixing it would be the top priority that offseason. What did they do? They signed Cameron Erving and Pat Eflein on the first day of free agency - two guys that were viewed as backups around the league. Erving started at left tackle last year and is now a swing tackle that has played just one snap this season.
Passing up on QBs in the draft
The 2022 QB draft class was a bit of a clunker but the Panthers could have taken a chance on Justin Fields or Mac Jones in 2021. There's no guarantee that either of them would have worked out in Carolina, but it would have given the team something to build around rather than constantly running through a bunch of reclamation projects. Along with that, it would have made the vision for the future clear, which leads me to my next point.
In 2020, it was clear that the Carolina Panthers were entering a rebuild. They didn't make any splash signings in free agency and pretty much committed to playing a very young and inexperienced team. In 2021, though, they made a pair of in-season trades acquiring corners CJ Henderson and Stephon Gilmore. The Henderson deal was always viewed as a long-term play, but to trade for Gilmore sent signals that this team was ready to win now, especially after getting out to a 3-0 start. At the same time, Rhule and the front office preached patience throughout the year when things started to spiral out of control. They got ahead of themselves and made moves that they were not quite ready for.
Splitting the QB1 reps for the majority of the '22 preseason
The Panthers acquired Baker Mayfield via trade in early July but it wasn't for another couple of weeks that he was able to start throwing with his new teammates. When the team arrived in Spartanburg for training camp, Rhule and GM Scott Fitterer made it clear that it would be a competition for the starting job between Mayfield and Darnold. For whatever reason, they let the competition play out a little longer than everyone had anticipated which took away valuable time for Mayfield to gain chemistry and trust with his receivers and offensive line.
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