Matt Rhule’s relationship with Cam Newton looks bad on the surface. There’s more to it

Each week grows more interesting for Panthers coach Matt Rhule.

Many Panthers fans were not pleased with Rhule’s comments last Sunday that singled out quarterback Cam Newton and an error he made when he decided to throw on fourth-and-1 instead of handing the ball off it off or running it himself.

The reaction was visceral, with some intimating that Rhule’s comments indicated a rift between the coach and player he once cut.

Rhule says that’s not the case.

“I was trying to answer a question about a play, not necessarily a person,” Rhule said Wednesday. “I believe that everything that happens in football is my responsibility.”

After watching the film, Rhule said Monday he could see what Newton was probably thinking and began to walk back his original statement.

He said he spoke with Newton in his weekly one-on-one meeting with the quarterback about the play. And in front of the team, he took responsibility for the play being called.

“I don’t think I’m very critical of those guys at all, to be quite honest with you,” Rhule said of his quarterbacks. “And the thing I love about Cam Newton is he always asks me to coach him hard.”

Doing that is always a tough balancing act because different people respond differently to certain styles.

Rhule has tried to instill a culture where the players and coaches hold each other accountable.

And in his two seasons with the Panthers, Rhule hasn’t been shy about calling out his players — particularly his quarterbacks — when they’ve underperformed. If they’ve fumbled at the goal line, thrown too many interceptions or made an incorrect read, he has let them and the media know.

“For the most part, Coach Rhule has always been a transparent and straightforward individual,” said wide receiver Robby Anderson, who also played under Rhule at Temple. “And that’s just his personality on and off the field.”

What Rhule’s said in the past

Take, for instance, last season when the Panthers played the Packers in Week 15.

The Panthers had gotten the ball to the Packers’ 1-yard line on first-and-goal and ran a hurry-up play. Then-quarterback Teddy Bridgewater attempted to jump over the pile and, in a last-ditch effort tried to reach the football over the goal line, but had the ball batted out of his hands. The Packers recovered the fumble and returned it 48 yards.

It was a critical error in the game and Rhule was noticeably upset with Bridgewater’s decision. The Panthers eventually lost, 24-16.

“That play at the goal line is obviously a killer,” Rhule said then.

He said that the play had a dramatic shift in the game and that it was one of the team’s principles to not reach the ball over the goal line unless it’s fourth down.

“I hate to beat him up on just that one play. There were a lot of things that were not up to our standard across the board,” Rhule said. “But that play just can’t happen.”

Bridgewater admitted that he made a mistake by reaching out with the ball in that situation.

Earlier this season, Rhule benched quarterback Sam Darnold after a poor performance in a 25-3 loss to the Giants. Darnold threw for 112 yards and the Panthers offense could not move the ball.

“The last thing I want to do is embarrass somebody because I know this is going to be the story this week,” Rhule said on Oct. 24. “But you go back to the olden days, before all the pressure, quarterbacks would have to go sit for a little bit and have to come back. So we’ll see. Sam will define who he is. This is up to him.”

Then, in Week 9, after the Panthers’ 24-6 loss to the Patriots on Nov. 7, Rhule again wasn’t shy in expressing his discontent with how the passing game was going.

Darnold threw three critical interceptions in the loss the Patriots and had arguably his worst game of the season. He completed worse than 50% of his passes and had a 26.3 passer rating. The Panthers had just lost their fourth game in the last five tries.

“I don’t want to lay things on one person, but we just can’t continue to keep throwing the ball up,” Rhule said then. “We’ve got to protect the football. … To me those are decision-making things that we’ve talked about and talked about and talked about. And here we are, Game 9 of the season and it hasn’t happened.”

Wanting to be coached

Rhule’s comments about Newton’s decision, calling it an error, was fairly minor compared to what he said about Darnold and Bridgewater.

When asked Wednesday if he felt he was more critical of his quarterbacks, Rhule said he didn’t feel he was being very critical.

“I listen to guys like Bruce Arians and some of those guys that are highly critical. I think some of you guys have intimated, why am I not more critical,” he said.

Arians, the Tampa Bay head coach, has grabbed headlines over the past couple of years for his criticisms of Tom Brady.

After the Bucs’ loss to Washington Football Team earlier this month, Arians flat out blamed the star quarterback for his two interceptions, despite one coming off a receiver’s hands.

But Brady and Arians’ relationship has worked out. The two won a Super Bowl last season and are one of the top teams in the NFC this year. They play the Panthers on Sunday.

As for Newton, he wanted no part in discussing Rhule’s initial criticism when asked on Thursday. He said it wasn’t important, and his only focus was on defeating Tampa Bay. What Newton wants people to know, as has often been a theme in his press conferences this year, is that he’s here to win.

He wants to be a player who can be coached. And he’s going to try to do whatever it takes to win as long as it is within the confines of the team and the game plan.

“At the end of the day, I know, just like every single coach you named, they have their beliefs, they have their reasoning, philosophies and thinkings of how they can get their teams to win,” Newton said.

Said Rhule: “I think one play happened and I gave an answer and maybe you guys or maybe some people don’t like it. Me and Cam are completely good.”