Coaching In Carolina

I mentioned last Friday that I wanted to spend a bit of time discussing the Carolina Panthers’ decision to fire Matt Rhule earlier last week.  Usually, I am not a fan of firing coaches in mid-season for two reasons:

  1. Most teams are bad because the roster is bad.  It is only in rare circumstances where the coach is also the roster constructor so firing the coach seems wrong-headed to me.
  2. Since the reason most coaches get fired is a bad team, the chances for short term improvement are slim at best.

Having said that, firing Matt Rhule was probably the right thing for the Panthers to do because from all outward appearances it seemed to me that he was a square peg in a round hole in Carolina.  Matt Rhule got the job in Carolina based on his college record of “turning around programs that were in bad shape.

  • He took Temple from a 2-10 record in 2013 to consecutive 10-4 records (with bowl appearances) in 2015 and 2016.
  • He took over the Baylor program in the wake of the Art Briles “situation” leading the team from a 1-11 record in 2017 to 11-3 in 2019 – – and an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.

When David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers from Jerry Richardson in 2018, the team needed a “reboot”; Ron Rivera was fired in 2019 and Rhule took over the job.  He also got a 7-year contract reportedly worth more than $60M and when Tepper introduced him to the media, Tepper said that he and the team were embarking on a 5-year plan to mold themselves into perennial contenders. Sounds like a great gig; what could possibly go wrong?

First, success in college football coaching does not necessarily translate to success in NFL coaching.  I know that some great NFL coaches got their starts in the college ranks but there have been some rather dramatic flameouts too”

  • Chip Kelly:  Success at Oregon led to jobs with the Eagles and Niners that did not work out and now he is back at UCLA and doing quite well.
  • Urban Meyer: Won multiple national championships at the college level and did not last a full season in the NFL.
  • Nick Saban:   Great college coach had an NFL career best described as Meh!
  • Steve Spurrier:  Excellent college coach but his tenure with the Redskins was almost comical.
  • Bud Wilkinson:  His OU team still holds the NCAA record for longest winning streak (47 games) but his time as coach of the NFL Cardinals was anything but successful.

Moreover, there was no patience to carry out anything resembling a 5-year plan.

So, Matt Rhule – with an NFL coaching record of 11-27 – became expendable.  Now comes the start of what could well be another 5-year plan to turn the Panthers’ franchise around.  The reason Rhule is not likely to be the guy for continued time in Carolina is that he may not be the guy doing the scouting and the drafting, but he has his fingerprints all over the roster.  And the Panthers’ roster is deficient – – particularly at QB.  When Rhule came to Carolina it was obvious the team needed major help there; Cam Newton was a shell of his former self and had to be replaced.  Rhule brought in Teddy Bridgewater and one of his guys from Temple, PJ Walker.

  • [Aside:  Regardingthe need for  5-years to turn around a program, look at Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.  It took a while until he had a program in place that could stand toe-to-toe with Ohio St.]

That QB tandem was marginal at best, so the next move was to get Sam Darnold from the Jets.  I thought that was a great move at the time, but Darnold was a swing-and-a-miss with the Panthers and is currently on IR.  Now they brought in Baker Mayfield who is another retread.  Frankly, the tandem of Bridgewater and Walker look pretty good stacked up against Mayfield and Darnold.

After coaching his final game in Carolina – – a bad 37-15 loss to the Niners – – Rhule said this at his press conference:

“We’re not going to win unless we score more points. I’m not going to lie to you.”

He sees the problem; everyone sees the problem.  But his history says he does not know what to do to remedy that problem.  So, this is a parting of the ways that makes sense for everyone at the moment.  Rhule will certainly be a candidate for a bunch of college jobs that are open now or will be open come December.  And he has no real reason to jump back into the water immediately; that 7-year contract he got still has 4 years to run after this NFL season is over.

I said above that “everyone sees the problem” with the Panthers.  Perhaps, I was hasty in that assessment because there were more personnel moves by the Panthers in addition to the one that got all the headlines:

  • The Panthers also fired their defensive coordinator and their special teams’ coach.
  • The Panthers retained their offensive coordinator; that is the side of the ball where the major deficiencies exist.
  • So maybe the guy in the owner’s suite does not quite “see the problem”?

I know there are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs on the planet meaning that every one of them is valuable and sought after.   However, I think I would be careful about interviewing for the Panthers’ job unless it came with outrageously good financial compensation.  Matt Rhule was the “wrong-guy” for the job; I have to wonder who the “right guy” might be.

Finally, since today has been about a coaching job in the state of North Carolina, let me close with these words from Mack Brown – former and current head football coach at UNC:

“I want to go back to North Carolina to what I started to do in coaching; not what it got to be at Texas.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………