Matt Rhule has a process. It’s working, too. Or at least that is what he will tell anybody who asks. Consistency, which seems now to be defined in Charlotte as faith in the process, seems to be the guiding virtue of the day. The process can tell him that a players measurables are a more valuable indicator of success than film or experience. The process can tell him that highlights can be the rule and not the exception to Sam Darnold’s play if you maintain consistency—if you maintain faith.
The Panthers are, after all, a passing team until they are a running team until they are a passing team once again. Consistency mandates that they are the opposite of whatever isn’t working, that they should just commit to doing that other thing. You know, the thing that will work. That’s how Brady Christensen is definitively a guard, no ifs, ands, or buts about it until the mountain of evidence proves he is and always was a tackle. It’s how Darnold is the guy until he isn’t the guy until he is the guy, again. It’s how Cam Newton needed to get the hell out of town but returned, at David Tepper’s behest, as the consummate professional and competitor, as the best chance for the Panthers to win, until there was a chance to return Darnold’s proven-self to the line up.
All we know about the process is that it is working and that offensive tackles have to have a very specific arm length. Christensen isn’t one, unless he is, and rookie Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater couldn’t be drafted at No. 8 overall because that was too high to take a guard. The process has been kept opaque to the point of becoming a myth. It is a hand-wavy guiding ethos that defies any outside attempts at logic. That would be fine if it really were just coach speak and Rhule was shielding his team from the public while putting in the work. In truth, it really seems to be just a way that Rhule uses to justify going with his indecisive guts.
As a result, the team is in a clear decline. When put on the spot for mistakes or the team’s trajectory, Rhule’s primary motivation seems to be dodging responsibility. He doesn’t make bad calls, his players fail to execute.
On fourth-and-1 against Buffalo, Jeff Nixon didn’t call a bad play. Cam Newton was responsible for “poor execution, but it was the right play call by Jeff. I mean it’s going to be a first down.” At least, that was the case until the next day. Rhule had his feet held to the public fire for throwing Newton under the bus, and not for the first time. Pay attention to his pronouns here. “I’m sure Jeff [Nixon] would be the first guy that wished we would have called something else.” Blaming Nixon is as close as Rhule comes to taking responsibility for himself for an on field error. Nixon is his long term assistant. A guy that he is fully responsible for bringing to the Panthers. Yet it is only Nixon who carries regret, per that statement, for a collective mistake.
Compare that to the treatment of Joe Brady and Darnold. Brady was apparently not Rhule’s choice as offensive coordinator, whereas Darnold is as firmly attached to Rhule as Nixon. Brady was fired because he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—convert his offense to the power running scheme that Rhule wanted to change to midseason. This was not a change dictated by personnel as the Panthers main problem was an offensive line that was as ineffectual at pass blocking as they were at run blocking. This was purely a reactionary impulse with little strategic hope for success.
It obviously didn’t work. To be very clear here, Brady’s offense this season, over 12 games, attempted 36 passes per game and had 27.7 rushing attempts per game. In five games, Nixon called 32 passes per game and 24.4 rushing attempts per game. What a change.
Darnold, meanwhile, was the same chaos-generator on the field to end the season that he was to start the season. We know this because he was given every opportunity to prove it. As soon as he was healthy, Newton’s snaps were numbered. He was benched the first time he threw an interception, even though his arm was hit as he threw the ball. Darnold’s turnovers and hilariously off footed throws suffered no such consequences, regardless of context.
His treatment of Newton and Brady, of Christensen and Brian Burns, of everybody else he has found convenient to turn into pavement for his process isn’t indicative of a coach who believes in his team. Rather it is indicative of one who believes only and unshakably in himself. The only consistency is that his own decisions are above reproach. All failures are necessarily the fault of others.
That attitude breeds suspicion. Couple that with the growing incongruity between what Rhule says and what fans see and you are left with a team that is bereft of trust. Darnold is to be believed in. Cam Erving and Pat Elflein are worthy day one free agency signings. Arm length is more predictive than actual success. These are the publicly defined tenets of the process. No other details have been shared. No expectations have been set besides, laughably, that they are building a Super Bowl caliber team.
Patience has been the virtue preached at every opportunity. The process will lead to consistency, to sustained success. Patience, they preach to us, while scrambling from one knee-jerk move to the next. Scrambling, while trying to shift blame to any convenient place that isn’t the seat of the man actually making decisions.
Panthers fans have lost their patience. From stadium chants to poll responses, they have been loud and clear on what they want done this offseason. It is because they are tired of Rhule’s inherent inconsistency—they have lost their faith in the man.