The Carolina Panthers have fired Matt Rhule. He lasted 38 games with an 11-27 record. They have named Steve Wilks as assistant head coach. Wilks is a long time Carolina assistant who has one year of head coaching experience with the Arizona Cardinals.
Franchise owner David Tepper once remarked that he was not going to “tolerate mediocrity.” Rhule began the third year of his seven-year deal by starting 1-4, dropping his overall record to 11-27. His only explanation to the press yesterday was that the Panthers needed to start scoring more points than their opponents if they wanted to win.
Whether an attempt at humor or an actual demonstration of his football knowledge, that comment landed poorly on a fan base who had grown tired of his press conferences early in last year’s losing streak. Rhule initially won the fanbase over with talk of “the process” and a promise to make decisions based on both experience and data. He sold himself as a coach who approached the game with a modern philosophy. Almost three years in and it appears “the process” was a euphemism for the magical curtain in Oz and not any empirically derived plan.
Rhule came to the Carolinas with little experience in the NFL. He was the assistant offensive line coach for the 2012 New York Giants. That’s it. His hiring was a gamble by Tepper. The often bold hedge fund billionaire upped the stakes to hire Rhule out from under the Giants by offering him a seven-year, $62 million contract. It is unknown what, exactly, New York had on the table for Rhule but it is worth while to remember that he was technically a hot commodity when the Panthers picked him up.
His tenure with the Panthers after that highlight contract was marked by a constantly declining parade of hand-picked quarterbacks. First he jettisoned an injured Cam Newton in favor of Teddy Bridgewater. Then he tossed Bridgewater for a hope at revitalizing Sam Darnold’s career. Now, Darnold is watching from the sidelines as the latest reclamation project, Baker Mayfield, performs the worst of all of them.
The one thing the Panthers quarterback situation has held constant is that Rhule sought out and anointed each of these guys as the solution. Each one has been a bigger problem than the last.
Rhule’s tenure in the Carolinas was dominated by hubris and insecurity. He stepped in with high hopes but little context for the NFL and did not surround himself with experienced NFL assistants who could help him make that transition. Then, as challenges mounted, he constantly back pedaled in public, throwing players and coaches alike under the bus while failing to offer anything satisfying to the public. Players from Bridgewater to Brian Burns to Cam Newton to—as recently as last night—CJ Henderson have all been responsible for losses because of singular decisions they made, per Rhule.
Fan favorite offensive coordinator Joe Brady was fired for refusing to run the ball more. Brady was a sacrifice to a hungry mob after starting 5-7 in 2021. The Panthers followed his firing by not changing how often they ran the ball and continuing to lose their remaining five games of the season.
Outside of those personal failures by individual players or coaches, the Panthers were supposed to be quite close. Really. The words changed each week, but the message remained the same: pay no attention to the tire marks on the bodies hidden behind the curtain. Only the great and powerful Rhule can understand how close the Panthers were to greatness.
It is amazing that he never lost the locker room with that kind of behavior. Team leaders such as Burns, Mayfield, and Christian McCaffrey went to bat hard for Rhule last night with the press. By all accounts, what they said to the press matches what the locker room actually feels. But how they feel and the evidence of the Panthers record under Rhule don’t have to be in agreement for the latter to be telling.
For all that wins are a reductive way to look at individual players, they are a great way to look at teams as a whole and their leadership. The fact is that Rhule has had more power than your average NFL coach and has simultaneously fielded one of the worst teams in the league. It was his habit to say that every loss was on him as a coach and then turn around and say that one player made one mistake on one fourth down and that is why the Panthers lost 37-15 at home. The man with all the power held none of the answers. Now, finally, the Panthers will look elsewhere before asking any more questions.