Matt Rhule: Everything that went wrong with the Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers hired Matt Rhule as a program builder. Unfortunately, rebuilding at the NFL level has proven more difficult than at the college level.

It’s rarely fun to write about the possibility or necessity of someone losing their job. Occasionally, a person so vile comes along that the collective can concede that losing their job and disappearing is to everyone’s benefit. Matt Rhule isn’t a bad football coach. But he hasn’t found success as an NFL head coach, and sometimes, making the jump sends a college coach tumbling off a cliff. It’s the difference between urban warfare and conventional fighting.

Following his firing by the Carolina Panthers, Rhule won’t be jobless long. He will find a soft landing with a program ready to rebuild at the college level, where his track record is as impressive as any relatively young (47) coach in the game.

But he blew possibly his one go of things at the NFL level. And while Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer is also culpable, Rhule never really appeared to embrace the idea of what an NFL rebuild entails, and it blew up in his face.

Matt Rhule fired after 49er’s blowout loss

On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers lost to the San Francisco 49ers 37-15 in a game that was never really close. The Panthers’ defense didn’t have an answer for the 49ers’ rushing attack, and the Niners passing game averaged 7.6 yards per play in the contest.

Baker Mayfield continued with his worst stretch of football as a pro, going just 20 of 36 for 215 yards and a pick-six in the second quarter. The failed experiment at quarterback was a theme during Rhule’s two years and change with the organization.

The Panthers posted the league’s third-worst offensive EPA-per-play mark over the coach’s 38-game tenure, in which he went 11-27. They ranked 17th defensively but had good production from the young group in 2021.

Rhule will likely find himself a soft landing at the Power 5 level of college football and is still owed $40 million by David Tepper as of now.

Matt Rhule’s failed QB experiments

We’re seeing failed experiments with multiple teams donning a combination of black, blue, silver/gray, and white. And while Frank Reich has gone to bat for QBs with more NFL pedigree, that only hurts Rhule’s case to remain employed.

Anybody who’d seen Sam Darnold play football for the New York Jets would tell you that while the situation surrounding him had devolved into madness, he had played poorly over a three-year sample size. Additionally, he was heading into the fourth year of his rookie deal and the Panthers had to make a decision on his fifth-year option.

But Rhule had faith in Darnold. Carolina picked up the option, which left them on the hook for $18.858 million of fully guaranteed money. Things were so disastrous that Rhule had to bench the former first-rounder in 2021 in favor of P.J. Walker to try and give the offense a “spark.”

But the egregious decision wasn’t trading for Darnold. It was not trying to actually rebuild the franchise and bring energy into the fanbase with a rookie quarterback from the coveted 2021 NFL Draft class.

Justin Fields hasn’t found success in Chicago, albeit on a roster that rivaled what the Jets did with Darnold. Mac Jones has flashed the ability to be the bus driving type, but he hasn’t been a world-beater either. Having the eighth pick in the 2021 draft was the opportunity Rhule and his first-year GM failed to take.

So a year later, faced with the realization of having to endure the 2022 NFL Draft crop of quarterback prospects, they were stuck between diamond and a final boss on Elden Ring.

The Panthers could stick with Darnold or take another $18.858 million shot on a first-round QB from the 2018 draft class in Baker Mayfield. Mayfield was coming off a labrum tear to his non-throwing shoulder. That tear had forced his mechanics into a state of deep despair, and he struggled in 2021 because of it.

No QB in the NFL has a worse CPOE than Mayfield through the first three weeks of the season (-14.8%!)

Carolina’s offensive turmoil

After a 5-7 start to 2021 where Carolina had once again lost Christian McCaffrey for a significant time due to injury, Rhule fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

Brady had helped lead the LSU Tigers’ historical 2019 offense to a national championship with Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Unfortunately, he could never get things going at the NFL level. The Panthers’ offense finished 19th in EPA per play in 2020, and through 12 games in 2021, ranked 30th in the category.

Rhule replaced Brady with Ben McAdoo, who had called plays for the New York Giants in 2014 and 2015 before becoming their head coach. In that two-year span calling plays, the Giants finished 12th in EPA per play, which is a respectable output.

However, McAdoo hasn’t called plays since 2016, which was his first season as a head coach. The game has changed quite a bit since then. And through two games with a healthy McCaffrey, the Panthers’ offense looks about as explosive as a watered-down firecracker, posting the 22nd-ranked EPA through three games. They’re dead last in success rate on offense.

Losing McCaffrey for such an extended period in two straight seasons is tough. The Panthers hired Rhule in January 2020 and then extended McCaffrey to a four-year, $64 million deal in April.

And while we couldn’t expect the first-year head coach to play hardball with the team’s star player, when has throwing everything offensively on the back of a running back gone well in this generation of offense?

Wasting a good, young defense

When David Tepper decides to fire Rhule, this will be the biggest disappointment. In a league built to provide entertainment and scoring in bunches on offense, the Panthers’ defense has been strong compared to the rest of the league. Over the past two seasons, they rank seventh in defensive efficiency, and their defensive corps is young and inexpensive.

That will change soon, as players like Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Jeremy Chinn will all come up for significant paydays sooner rather than later.

And instead of playing the game smart by drafting and developing a QB while spending loads of money on outside free agents to bolster a pathetic OL in 2021, they’ve spent over $37 million on two mediocre QBs to try and save a drowning coach’s job.

In a league where quarterback play is critical, and there has arguably never been better QB play at the top, placing all your eggs in the basket of two expensive reclamation projects will probably be what breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

Note: this article was originally published on Oct. 2 and was updated on Oct. 10 following Rhule’s firing.

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