Panthers Fire Head Coach Matt Rhule; Grade Within

I did not expect to be writing this post so soon, but I certainly did anticipate writing it at some point. As Sports Illustrated foreshadowed last night, the Carolina Panthers have fired head coach Matt Rhule. I’ll have a page up at the conclusion of the season discussing my grades for the hiring and firing of various coaches, but I’m going to handle midseason changes on an individual basis because I don’t expect too many of them to occur.

Matt Rhule did a pretty nice job at Baylor before making the jump to the NFL, and one could definitely argued that he deserved a shot to run an NFL team. Regardless, no first-time HC should receive a 7 year/$62M guaranteed contract. New owner David Tepper wanted to make a splash hire though, so he overpaid to get the guy he coveted. As poorly as I regard the hiring, this grade only takes Rhule’s performance and the decision to fire him into account, though the money the team is eating will be considered.

Since Rhule took over the Panthers, their defense has been very good. That’s not surprising given that he was known as a strong defensive mind at the college level. His offenses, however, have been abysmal. Poaching OC Joe Brady from the national champion LSU Tigers was seen as a coup, but the offense greatly underperformed. Within 2 years, Brady was fired, but this was largely seen as Rhule needing a scapegoat. Brady has subsequently done just fine as QB coach of the Bills.

Rhule’s biggest offensive blunder has been his revolving door at QB. In his first season, he lured Teddy Bridgewater away from the Saints with a 3 year/$63M deal, two years of which were guaranteed, but the QB lasted just one year. It was not surprising to see Bridgewater play worse than he did under Sean Payton, a noted QB whisperer.

In year 2, Rhule swung a trade for failed Jets QB Sam Darnold. That went well at first and yielded a 3-0 start, but once star RB Christian McCaffrey got hurt, things fell apart quickly. Eventually, Darnold got hurt, and the team signed Cam Newton to fill in. He was a shell of his former self, and Carolina ended the season on a 7-game losing streak.

Determined to change QBs yet again, Rhule traded for Baker Mayfield and named him the starter after a sham competition with Darnold. Ironically, a Darnold ankle injury in the preseason sealed Rhule’s fate. Mayfield has been one of the worst QBs in the NFL, with the Panthers ranking 32nd in total offense. The only thing that might’ve given Rhule a chance was for Darnold to come back and play well, but he’s not yet ready to come off IR. After yet another dismal offensive performance against SF this week, the Matt Rhule era was mercifully ended.

The issues with Rhule come down to a lack of accountability (he’s always looking to ascribe blame to someone) and an inability to lead a functional offense. At some point, you can no longer blame just the QBs or the OCs. The buck has to stop somewhere, and the coach with an 11-27 record is a fitting place for it to do so. Reportedly, Rhule is being fired now as opposed to later so that he can pursue potential college openings, which would reduce the buyout the Panthers owe him.

Whatever the reason, the move needed to be made now, and that’s only because they failed to do so for the past year. Steve Wilks will lead this team in the short term, but that’s inconsequential. Carolina can focus on acquiring their true QB of the future (if they don’t think Matt Corral is it) and hiring a competent coach to groom him.

Grade: A+

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