The Panthers were considered a sleeper darling earlier in the season. They started with a 3-0 record amid a strong start by Sam Darnold, and many were lauding Matt Rhule for the Panthers’ performance. It seemed like his system was taking effect in his second season and he was en route to turning the Panthers around after a few down years.
Then, the wheels fell off. The Panthers have gone just 2-10 since as Darnold collapsed and his replacements — P.J. Walker and Cam Newton — haven’t been much better.
Rhule has come under fire for the performance of his offense, as a result. He fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady due to reported philosophical differences, but the offense hasn’t improved since Brady’s departure. Instead, it has continued to regress as Rhule has taken to alternating players at quarterback.
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In the Panthers’ 32-6 Week 16 loss to the Buccaneers, Rhule played both Newton and Darnold at quarterback. Panthers fans showered boos down onto Rhule and the Panthers every time Darnold came onto the field, as they wanted to see Newton play in what could be his last home game. And at the end of the blowout loss, a “fire Rhule” chant broke out in the crowd.
The boos and chants didn’t bother Rhule too much. He thinks he deserves the criticism.
“We lost,” he said in a postgame news conference. “You are what your record says you are, so I should be booed as I walk off the field.”
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Rhule also understands why the fans are frustrated with his two-quarterback system. He acknowledged that arrangement makes it difficult for players to get into a rhythm, but he believes it’s critical to see both Newton and Darnold play as he evaluates the team’s depth.
“I haven’t done a good enough job as the head coach to allow Cam and Sam and P.J. to be successful, because they don’t have 200 yards rushing next to ’em. And they don’t have a clean pocket and all those things,” Rhule said. “I understand completely why people are like, ‘Why are we going back and forth between those two guys?’ It’s a targeted decision that I understand is not popular, but it feels like it’s what’s best for the Carolina Panthers right now.”
While Rhule believes that, the vocal fans clearly believe that moving on from Rhule is the best course of action. It doesn’t appear that they will get their wish.
CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported Sunday morning that Panthers owner David Tepper is not planning to move on from Rhule yet, but he noted that the pairing “might not prove to be a long-term match.”
How the Panthers start the 2022 campaign could go a long way in determining the course of this franchise. Rhule would be a commodity on the college circuit again next October/November, and, according to many who know Tepper well and have worked with him or for him in the past, the odds of this billionaire standing pat after a third straight lost season — should it come to that — are bleak. However, for now, league sources said Tepper has indicated no desire to pursue another head coach. This offseason will be spent trying to provide whatever is necessary to turn next year into a winning season.
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And while Rhule’s long-term security may be in question, he seems to believe things are moving in the right direction. It will just take some time.
“We have some key areas that we have to fix, whether that’s to coach [the players] better or to do a better job organizationally,” Rhule said. “But I believe it’s 1,000 percent working. I just know no one can see it and I apologize. As I tell our team all the time, it took Jay-Z seven years. He had to start his own agency to become an overnight sensation. It takes time.”