clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Panthers’ Problems Extend Far Beyond Matt Rhule

Carolina owner David Tepper took a step toward the future this week when he fired the team’s head coach. But Tepper has a lot of work to do to show he’s serious about righting this ship.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the end, Matt Rhule proved to be little more than a $62 million human shield. The now former head coach of the Carolina Panthers, who was fired Monday after a 37-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers that dropped Carolina to 1-4 on the season, initially came in as an innovative team builder. He’d had multiple 10-win seasons at Temple and helped revive a toxic Baylor program; Panthers owner David Tepper, who bought the team from a disgraced Jerry Richardson in 2018, gave Rhule a seven-year deal and full control of the roster in the hopes that he could rebuild the Panthers in a similar fashion.

At Rhule’s introductory press conference, Tepper claimed that the undertaking would last about five seasons and set the team up for long-term success. Three years and 11 wins later, Tepper has abandoned that plan. And though the timing was a little strange—you really needed five games this season to conclude that this wasn’t working?—nobody is criticizing the decision to let Rhule go.

Since Rhule’s hiring, the Panthers haven’t been anything other than a bad football team—a bad football team with a bad quarterback and a bad coach. Rhule was given free reign to mold the roster to his liking and multiple shots at finding a long-term solution at quarterback. But the roster isn’t any better today than it was when Rhule took over in 2020, and the quarterback situation is arguably worse. As the face of the whole operation, Rhule was an obvious scapegoat.

But now Rhule is gone, and Tepper remains as the only through line of the most mediocre stretch in franchise history. The grace period afforded to him after he took over for Richardson has officially expired. There is no more margin for error. If more failure follows, and the team’s 23-47 record since Tepper took over doesn’t improve, the “bad owner” accusations will only get stronger. Once that narrative is written, it’s hard to turn it around—harder, even, than turning around a bad football team.

When I got the notification about Rhule’s firing, I didn’t have much of a reaction. I’ve been a Panthers fan my entire life, and I felt … nothing. No relief that this era of systematic mediocrity was finally over. No anger that it ever happened in the first place. No sense of excitement for what could come next. I didn’t even stop to consider a list of possible candidates who could replace him. I just didn’t care. And I don’t think I was alone.

The strong connection the Panthers had built with their fan base during the height of the Cam Newton era has all but faded. In Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Josh Norman, and Greg Olsen, the franchise had several stars who were around long enough to become fixtures in the community—and good enough to get to a Super Bowl during the 2015 season. But with this current team, there is nothing to really latch on to. The best player is an oft-injured running back who will be the subject of trade rumors for the next month. There are some good young pieces on the defense, but through no fault of their own, they have yet to create any memorable moments in meaningful games—largely because the team hasn’t played in one of those since the playoffs after the 2017 season. There is nothing to look forward to, and peering into the recent past only makes that more obvious.

During his press conference Monday, Tepper lamented the fact that there had been a lot of red in the Bank of America Stadium stands during Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, and he admitted that that was a factor in his decision to fire Rhule, along with a clear lack of progress on the field. It’s easy to pin waning fan interest on the team’s poor win-loss record—if the team were contending for a playoff spot, fans would show up. But it’s also a reflection of the Panthers’ seemingly aimless roster-building strategy during the last few years.

In the NFL, any matter of roster management starts with the quarterback. If you’re trying to build a long-term winner—and Tepper has made it clear that sustained success is his aim—you have to find a franchise quarterback. Rhule never came close to locating one, but that wasn’t necessarily the problem. Franchise quarterbacks are hard to find—hello, Washington—so there’s no shame in taking a big swing to land one. But Rhule never really did that. His approach was more like that of a contact hitter who was just trying to put the ball in play and get on base.

In 2020, Rhule gave a three-year deal to Teddy Bridgewater, who faced criticism from Panthers fans on social media before ever stepping foot on the field and then lost any remaining support with his conservative playing style. Bridgewater was traded to the Broncos the following offseason, and Rhule sent a second-, fourth- and sixth-round pick to the Jets for the ghost of Sam Darnold. Given Darnold’s draft pedigree and the reputation of his former organization, it was easy to build up the 2018 third-overall pick as a source of untapped potential; Rhule said they’d passed on Justin Fields and Mac Jones in that year’s draft because he “believe[d] in Sam.” But Darnold’s poor play quickly washed away any optimism for his future in Carolina, and the team started looking for a replacement the next offseason. After months of trying and failing to find a suitable replacement, Rhule opted for another reclamation project in Baker Mayfield—another highly drafted quarterback from a bad organization who needed a fresh start.

Like Darnold before him, Baker has been unable to parlay that fresh start into a career renaissance. The former no. 1 pick has been one of the worst starters in the league this season, based on both numbers and film, and he’s now dealing with a high ankle sprain that will keep him out of the lineup for a few weeks. With Darnold set to return from his own ankle injury at some point during Mayfield’s projected recovery time, he should get another crack at the starting job. If he somehow manages to play well enough to hold on to it—don’t laugh—it’s at least possible that we’ve already seen Mayfield’s last start as a Panther. And even if that isn’t the case, it’s unlikely that we’ll see Mayfield (or Darnold) in a Panthers uniform beyond the 2022 season, as both are in the final year of their contracts. At this point, we can confidently say that Rhule whiffed on all three of his attempts at QB.

Anybody with a discerning eye could see that that was always going to be the case, because the bad results were the product of a flawed process—one that’s been Rhule’s calling card for quite some time. He found success as a college coach by exploiting inefficiencies in player recruitment. He embraced the use of recruiting analytics to find undervalued prospects with blue-chip athletic profiles, then coached them up so they were solid as upperclassmen. In that system, Rhule fielded teams that could compete with schools at the top of the annual recruiting rankings.

Rhule applied that same strategy to building Carolina’s roster. In the draft, the Panthers focused on finding exceptional athletes. Rhule then signed a bunch of his former college players who still carried the athletic profiles that had captured his attention as a recruiter years earlier. And instead of trying to land a blue-chip quarterback prospect, he shopped for value. That might be a good recipe for winning the TaxAct Texas Bowl, but not for beating Tom Brady or winning a Super Bowl.

Establishing a talent pipeline takes time—the kind of time you don’t get in the NFL. And through this process, Tepper has learned that lesson himself. After saying that Rhule was undertaking a five-year rebuild, the Panthers’ owner pulled the plug after 38 games. I guess he didn’t realize that fans wouldn’t be willing to sit around a half decade waiting for a winning foundation to be built. And while finding underappreciated athletes might offer a significant advantage at the college level, that isn’t always the case in the NFL, where every player who steps onto the field is a superlative athlete and there are systems in place to prevent lopsided advantages in roster building—free agency, the salary cap, the draft, etc.

Tepper is a new team owner, but he’s been around the NFL for a long time. He served as a Steelers minority owner for nearly a decade before buying the Panthers, and he’s seen how a successful NFL franchise operates. He should understand that there are no short cuts to sustained winning—especially when it comes to the quarterback position. Finding a franchise passer should be Priority No. 1 this offseason, no matter who is coaching the team, no matter where the Panthers end up in draft position, no matter how much cap space they clear during the rest of this season.

Tepper must make that clear to whichever candidate he ends up hiring. The second-most important step is finding a coach who is more focused on crafting winning strategies than building the roster—and Tepper acknowledged Monday that he needs to keep those jobs separate. Current general manager Scott Fitterer, who was brought in during Rhule’s second offseason, is coming off a good draft and seems to have the support of the fan base. Tepper should lean into that and give him a shot at finding the team’s next coach and its QB of the future. The Panthers need a fresh start, but some stability in the front office, which this team really hasn’t had since it fired Dave Gettleman in 2017, could be beneficial.

Overall, Tepper has a lot to prove during the rest of this season and into the spring. The two most obvious signs of bad sports owners (outside of anything morally reprehensible) are an apathetic fan base and a constant churn of failed coaches and execs. Panthers fans are begging Tepper to give them a team worth caring about. How he handles the next four months will dictate his ability to provide one for them.