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The Panthers Are Bad, but Matt Rhule Has Them Pointed in the Right Direction

Despite an uninspiring record and a string of close losses, there are plenty of flashes of potential in Carolina that point toward the beginnings of a successful rebuild

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Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus have written six different films set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including three centered specifically around super-soldier character “Captain America.” In writing each film, McFeely and Markus referred to Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which The New York Times has described as being “widely regarded as the ‘bible’ of screenwriting.” The book describes a three-act story-telling structure, which McFeely and Markus followed in writing each film. The results produced the highest-grossing film of all time, and two more in the top 25 of that list.

Field’s storytelling paradigm can be boiled down to three main points: setup, confrontation, and resolution. That sounds boring and formulaic, but it’s a classic foundation for great stories. McFeely and Markus were able to deftly flesh out that structure with depth and imagination to make their stories compelling. “There’ll be somebody out there watching this going like, ‘Of course, it’s a formula.’ It’s a framework,” Markus told Vanity Fair in September 2019, “so you don’t dive into despair. It’s something that you can hang things on so that you can actually spend more time on the character work and the really interesting details.”

There’s an art to turning something nondescript into something captivating, and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule has mastered it. For the third time, Rhule is authoring a story that’s following a similar three-act structure: revamp, retool, and succeed. The first-year Carolina coach has yet again inherited a team in need of a cultural overhaul, just like he did in the college ranks at Temple and Baylor. And while Rhule’s debut season hasn’t been successful in terms of generating wins, it’s possible that, based on his initial 2-10 and 1-11 seasons at Temple and Baylor, respectively, the 4-9 Panthers are on track for a Rhule-esque turnaround that could set the franchise up nicely for the future. In fact, the franchise is counting on it, considering the gamble that the Panthers took in handing Rhule a seven-year deal when they hired him. “I think Matt Rhule can come in here and build an organization for the next 30 or 40 years,” Panthers owner David Tepper said when introducing their new coach back in January.

Rhule’s rebuild required an explosive teardown this offseason, best epitomized by the releases of long-time faces of the franchise Cam Newton and Greg Olsen, along with the retirement of star linebacker Luke Kuechly. Eight of Carolina’s 11 free-agent acquisitions were offensive players, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and receiver Robby Anderson. The Panthers re-signed star running back Christian McCaffrey to a sizable extension, too. They utilized the draft to focus on their defense, adding four players who’ve logged starts in defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos, safety Jeremy Chinn, and cornerback Troy Pride Jr. To maximize and develop personnel, Rhule hired former Saints assistant and LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady as the Panthers offensive coordinator and former Baylor assistant Phil Snow as defensive coordinator.

The Panthers surprisingly opened the year 3-2, dropping their first two games and then rattling off three straight victories after losing McCaffrey to an ankle injury that has nagged him throughout the season. But the Panthers lost five straight games after that, plummeting to 3-7, and quickly out of the playoff race. A 20-0 win over the Lions in Week 11 stopped the free fall, but consecutive losses to the Vikings and Broncos have continued it, making the Panthers losers in seven of their past eight.

The record is ugly, but several aspects of the Panthers’ 2020 performance point toward a bright long-term future under Rhule. Despite enduring several key injuries throughout the year—and, recently, losing eight players due to COVID-19 protocols—Carolina has been competitive, with nine of its 13 games finishing as one-score contests. Carolina has gone 2-7 in those games, an indication that their luck could turn around in the future—which is typically what happens a year after a team finishes significantly above or below the .500 mark in one-score contests. As for why the Panthers have been involved in so many close contests and why they haven’t won many, Rhule admitted to a reporter that it’s a great question.

“We have to find a way to get it done at the end of the game,” Rhule said Monday. “That’s our job. That being said, I think hanging in there, sometimes coming back from leads, I think that shows a competitive spirit. I was having a conversation with one of [the Broncos] coaches before the game, and he said, ‘When you’re playing a lot of rookies … [for] us as we’re entering a new phase with the roster, you try to get 1,000 to 1,500 reps in the spring that we didn’t get. I think that that’s been really difficult. I look forward to having a true offseason where we can really coach and teach these situations better. But that being said, our job is a way to get these things done.”

The smock-sporting Rhule has faced the results head-on, even behind closed doors. When asked what he tells players after tight defeats, Rhule said his practice is to “tell them the truth.” After Carolina’s 28-27 loss to the Vikings in Week 12, Rhule told players that much of the blame could be shouldered by the coaches. After the Panthers’ 32-27 loss to the Broncos last week—in which Carolina gave up an 83-yard punt return and 37- and 49-yard touchdown passes, and in which Bridgewater defied coaches wishes during the final drive that resulted in a turnover on downs—Rhule told players that they hadn’t performed well enough.

“It’s really the same message all year,” he said. “It’s just every game is accentuated a little differently. But I don’t worry about guys’ eyes glazing over. At the end of the day, we have a strong competitive character, which is a huge building block. As long as the coaches, myself, and the staff show up to work every week and set the tone in terms of our preparation, our level of detail, our work ethic, I think players will always respond to that.”

Another point of optimism for Panthers fans has been the play of the offense, which ranks ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Rhule is offensively minded, and his success in his first season shows that his college-style offense can succeed at the pro level. That’s especially true given that the team has been without McCaffrey for most of the year, with running back Mike Davis filling in and becoming one of the NFL’s most efficient ball carriers this year. Whether the Panthers will manage to retain Brady, who’s already had his name floated around for head coaching openings, will be of utmost importance to build on the success of 2020.

The offense’s steady play throughout the season raises the question of whether the Panthers will continue starting Bridgewater, who signed a three-year, $63 million deal this past offseason. While there is no immediate reason for the Panthers to move on from Bridgewater, who would carry a $20 million dead cap hit if cut this offseason, the temptation of a rookie passer like Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, or Florida’s Kyle Trask will be great. Bridgewater’s statistics reveal he’s an average starter, and he hasn’t been one the NFL’s more efficient passers this year. But his high completion rate (70.7 percent, second among passers) and improved rushing ability gives him a high floor, as well as a high ceiling directing a lineup featuring deep threats such as Anderson and D.J. Moore.

On Sunday, Rhule was asked about whether he could continue building his squad with Bridgewater behind center, and he said he “absolutely” believes so. Rhule was then asked Monday if he’d consider turning to backup Will Grier over the final three games of the year; he said, “I have confidence in Teddy.”

The Panthers defense faces a steeper climb toward competency. The unit ranks just 27th in DVOA, though it has flashed some potential. If Carolina follows Rhule and Snow’s previous scripts, the Panthers could be due for marked improvement, just like Temple’s 2014 defense and Baylor’s 2019 unit. Second-year edge Brian Burns has been one of the league’s breakout stars and has remained one of the most consistent pass rushers throughout the season. Chinn, Carolina’s second-round pick out of Southern Illinois, has made impact plays, including in Week 12 against Minnesota when he became the first player to score multiple fumble returns for touchdowns in a single game since 1948.

The Panthers have a decent mix of veterans and young players—they entered the year with the NFL’s 13th-youngest roster, with an average age of 25.8. According to Over the Cap, they won’t be flush with cap space, with a projected figure of $10.2 million. But they’re in position to bolster their squad through the draft once again, currently on a path toward the sixth overall pick.

“I don’t believe in panic,” Rhule told reporters after Sunday’s loss. “I don’t believe in huge, huge, huge changes in the middle of the season. I think you go through the season and you try to do what you do better.”

This season was Rhule’s first act, and it went about as expected. In some moments, it even exceeded expectations. But with Rhule, it’s too early to declare that the Panthers aren’t heading in the right direction. It’s best to sit back and watch what happens next for Carolina. It may not look like it now, but this coud be another Rhule masterpiece in the making.