The latest NFL coaching cycle has come and gone. While we did have pair of retreads pop up in Mike McCarthy heading to the Dallas Cowboys and Ron Rivera taking over in Washington with the Redskins, we also saw three teams hire candidates who will be head coaches in the NFL for the first time. Arguably the most intriguing of the three first-time coaches is former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, who will replace Rivera in Carolina, despite his lack of NFL coaching experience.
What is Rhule’s background?
Rhule only has one year of coaching experience in the NFL, and that was as an assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants in 2012. However, he does have a long history of coaching in the college ranks, with nearly 20 years under his belt. Rhule didn’t become a college head coach until 2013 when he took the reigns at Temple. In his four seasons with the Owls, his record was 28-25, but after going 2-10 in his first year, he then went 20-7 over his last two seasons. The story is similar in his time at Baylor. 19-20 overall, but 18-9 in his final two seasons after a 1-11 start.
Despite having very little coaching experience in the NFL, Rhule’s ability to take two programs that were struggling and turn them around in a very short space of time made him a hot candidate in the pros. Rhule’s name first popped up in the NFL ranks in 2019, and he was very close to making a change from a college to a pro coach. Rhule was in the running and potentially set to become head coach of the New York Jets, but is rumored to have been denied the ability to build his own coaching staff. That led Rhule to stay at Baylor, and the Jets ultimately settled on former Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase.
Instead, Rhule came back to Baylor in 2019 and, in just his third year with the program, registered an 11-win season. In doing so, his team won the Big 12, and he took the Bears to the Sugar Bowl for just the second time in school history, with the other time being way back in 1957.
Once again, the NFL came calling, and this time, Rhule was given an offer he couldn’t refuse. The Carolina Panthers offered Rhule a seven-year contract and gave him free rein on the coaching staff. That was enough to convince Rhule to come to Charlotte.
A lack of experience does not have to be a problem
Coaches without prior NFL experience have had a mixed bag of results, but they also should not be ruled out. New coaches are always coming up through the ranks, and the right ones in the right situation can ultimately bring results. Look no further than Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Pederson was not seen as a strong hire when the Eagles brought him in as head coach in 2016. In fact, many across the media were laughing at the franchise. However, it took just two years for the Eagles to laugh loudest when they defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII behind backup quarterback Nick Foles and the “Philly Special”.
2019 was not a strong year overall for first-year head coaches, but many came into situations that required longer-term planning than this past season. However, Matt LaFleur, who was an offensive coordinator for just two years after a number of years as a quarterbacks coach, is about to lead the Green Bay Packers into San Francisco to take on the 49ers for the NFC championship.
Another first-time head coach who made a splash was Indianapolis Colts, Frank Reich. After a slow start, Reich took the Colts to the playoffs in his first year before dealing with a rash of injuries and the sudden retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck in 2019.
To some extent, Titans’ head coach Mike Vrabel is the most interesting comparison. In just his second year leading the Titans, he has taken the Titans from the No. 6 seed to wins over the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots and the 14-2 Baltimore Ravens on the road. This is also just Vrabel’s fifth year as an NFL coach and his eighth year as a football coach at all, having been with Ohio State and the Houston Texans previously.
Rhule has more overall coaching experience than Vrabel, but less NFL experience. However, where they are similar is their expected role. While Reich and Pederson are responsible for leading their teams’ offenses, Vrabel takes a more CEO-type approach to the head coach role. That is how many expect to see Rhule lead the Panthers, allowing his coordinators to take responsibility for play-calling while he focuses on the overall picture.
Recent history has seen NFL teams more willing to take a shot on up and coming coaches, even if their experience in senior roles is limited. Rhule’s hiring is a somewhat interesting experiment by the Panthers, as he is certainly not short of experience or success in previous jobs. Still, his experience in the NFL is next to none. Plenty of teams will be watching the Panthers very closely over the next couple of years.