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The Panthers Are Betting New Coach Matt Rhule Can Fix a Pro Team, Too

After turning Baylor’s and Temple’s programs around, Rhule takes over an NFL team facing an uncertain future

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Matt Rhule has made his name by starting from scratch, and now he’s starting with a lot of scratch. The Carolina Panthers are finalizing a deal to hire Baylor’s Rhule as the team’s head coach, according to Yahoo’s Pete Thamel. The deal is for seven years and $60 million and could rise as high as $70 million with incentives, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The $8.5 million salary will double what Rhule was making at Baylor.

That was the price required to lure Rhule to the pro game. Rhule became one of the most sought-after coaches in college football after turning around Temple’s and Baylor’s football programs just a few years into each job. He turned down the New York Jets head-coaching job last year and refused an interview with Cleveland in December. Rhule was scheduled for a Tuesday interview with the Giants, for whom he was an assistant offensive line coach in 2012, but he instead accepted the Panthers job earlier in the day. The Giants hired Patriots receivers and special teams coach Joe Judge within two hours of the Rhule news. It is unclear whether Rhule taking the Panthers job spurred the Giants to hire Judge or vice versa.

In 2017, Rhule took over the Baylor football program, which is still grappling with a systemic rape scandal that led to the firing of coach Art Briles two years earlier. When Rhule stepped in, the team had filled just 45 of the maximum 85 scholarship spots available and had just one verbal commitment. The team went 1-11 in his first year. This season, Baylor finished 11-3 and went into New Year’s as the no. 8 team in college football. The school became the third team in FBS history to begin a season 7-0 within two seasons of starting 0-7. That turnaround wasn’t a surprise—it was the reason Baylor hired Rhule. He pulled off a similar turnaround at Temple after joining the school in 2013. In Rhule’s first season there, he went 2-10, but in his third season in 2015, the team finished with a school-record 10 wins.

Rhule knew Temple, located in Philadelphia, could not compete with Penn State and other high-profile schools for elite recruits, so he built a program around elite athletes with underdeveloped football skills and trusted his coaches to teach players good technique. It worked. In his third season at Temple, the Owls beat Penn State 27-10 in the season opener for their first win against State since 1941. Since 2016, the Owls have had more players drafted into the NFL (11) than the Texas Longhorns have (eight).

Rhule’s ability to turn those two programs around is the reason he is heading from the Baylor Bears to the Carolina Panthers. Unlike Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, the other Big 12 coach often linked to the NFL, Rhule did not gain traction with a groundbreaking scheme. Rhule was willing to air the ball out and run a college-style spread offense in the Big 12, where the spread is the base form of the sport, but ultimately seems to be a schematic agnostic who prefers a physical approach.

“Run-pass option has been my deal with the devil,” Rhule said at a coaching clinic last summer. “We won a couple games, but it wasn’t played the way I wanted it to be played. I want the game to look a certain way, with a certain brand. Run-pass option has been a bridge for me, a way to win. We want to be tough. We believe in full gear, weightlifting, the Oklahoma drill. All the people tell us to be careful about doing, I believe that’s exactly what we need to do.”

We don’t know whether the Panthers are planning to bring back quarterback Cam Newton, who has one season left on his contract and missed all but two games this season with a foot injury. Releasing Newton could save the team $19 million in cap space, but considering Jared Goff will have a cap hit of almost twice that in 2020, that number isn’t so bad. Neither backup quarterback Kyle Allen nor 2019 third-rounder Will Grier is likely to be Rhule’s starter in 2020. If the Panthers keep Newton, they could save $8 million by releasing longtime tight end Greg Olsen.

The Panthers, who went 5-11 in 2019, also have to rebuild their defensive line. Seven defensive linemen or outside linebackers will be free agents, and six of the seven are over 30. This season, Carolina’s run defense gave up the most rushing yards per attempt (5.2 yards per carry) and was the least efficient in football, according to Football Outsiders. That doesn’t mesh with what Rhule believes about playing physically.

Before Rhule deals with his players, he has to deal with his staff. Former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera hired the wide receivers (Jim Hostler), offensive line (John Matsko), and linebackers (Steve Russ) coaches he’d worked with in Carolina in his new gig in Washington, according to The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue. Rivera also hired Carolina’s head trainer, Ryan Vermillion, and will interview Carolina’s defensive line coach, Sam Mills, and quarterbacks coach, Scott Turner. Rivera is getting the gang back together in Washington, and it’s unlikely that Turner’s father, Norv, will continue to run the Panthers offense. With no set plan at quarterback, on the defensive line, or for the coaching staff, Rhule will basically be starting from scratch. That’s probably why he got the job.