- Covered Panthers, NFL for 11 years
- More than 25 years experience covering NFL, college football and NASCAR
- Joined ESPN in 2006
- ESPN staff writer
- Previously a college football reporter for CBSSports.com
- University of Florida graduate
The Carolina Panthers fired coach Matt Rhule on Monday less than three seasons into a seven-year, $62 million contract. Defensive pass game coordinator Steve Wilks, who coached the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, was named the interim coach.
Rhule’s record was 11-27, including 1-4 this season. His downfall was hastened by the team’s inability to bring in a franchise quarterback, as he began each of his three seasons with a different starter. Baker Mayfield, who began this season as the starter, has a 16.5 Total QBR, the lowest after five games of any starter since ESPN began tracking the number in 2006.
Rhule was hired in 2020 to turn around a Carolina organization, five years removed from reaching the Super Bowl in 2015, the way he did college programs at Baylor and Temple. That never happened.
So how did this happen and what should we expect from the Panthers the rest of 2022 and beyond? Panthers reporter David Newton and senior NFL writer Jeremy Fowler weigh in:
Why make this decision now and how did they get here?
Newton: Owner David Tepper couldn’t have liked that Bank of America Stadium was overrun by a sea of San Francisco 49ers garnet red during Sunday’s embarrassing 37-15 loss to the 49ers. He’s a businessman at heart. That and fans shouting for weeks “Fire Rhule” almost made this something that had to happen from a business standpoint.
That Tepper had two former head coaches on his staff in Wilks and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo made the decision easier. Wilks got the nod, which should come as no surprise, since Carolina’s biggest problem has been an offense ranked last in the NFL.
The decision also makes sense because it gives Rhule a chance to find a college job and potentially takes Tepper off the hook for some of the money owed when he gave Rhule the seven-year, $62 million deal in January of 2020.
Again, Tepper is a businessman at heart.
What’s the temperature in the locker room?
Newton: The locker room surprisingly was, as cornerback Donte Jackson said on Sunday, “100% behind Rhule.”
Players took accountability for their play, from running back Christian McCaffrey to Mayfield at quarterback. Ultimately Rhule’s college approach didn’t work — it relied on on discipline and control — as one former NFL player told me might be the case when Rhule was hired.
Who are the building blocks that could excite a new coach?
Newton: The defense, which ranked second in the league in 2021 and was playing at a level capable of winning for most of the first five games, has plenty of young talent in edge rusher Brian Burns, cornerback Jaycee Horn and defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
On offense, the same group on a rebuilt offensive line has played every snap together through five games and slowly is improving. McCaffrey is healthy and still an elite running back.
If it wasn’t for such poor play by Mayfield and his receivers, Rhule might have survived.
Add to that general manager Scott Fitterer appears on solid ground and the team has plenty of cap room (about $11 million to rank third in the NFL at the moment), this could be an attractive spot for a new coach. Starting over at quarterback and likely with a top-five pick in a deep quarterback draft class makes the job more attractive.
What about the rest of Carolina’s future — is it in decent salary-cap shape?
Fowler: The new coach will not inherit a bad Panthers roster situation. They can completely start over at quarterback, with Mayfield and Sam Darnold coming off the books in 2023. They should pick in the top 5-10 in a draft well-stocked with quarterback talent. The offensive line was rebuilt last offseason, McCaffrey has proved more durable this season (and still is only 26) and the defense has several building blocks.
Carolina will be fairly tight against the cap in 2023, with five veterans set to earn between $11 and $20 million next season. One of those is Burns, who enters a fifth-year option and will likely be extended. But the team can save money by releasing veterans such as receiver Robbie Anderson or linebacker Shaq Thompson. The biggest issue might be draft capital. The Panthers have just nine total picks from 2023 to 2024.
Who are the candidates Carolina should interview to be the next coach?
Fowler: The Panthers will be strategic in finding a coach who can maximize talent — particularly on offense. Rhule’s 1-27 record when opponents scored at least 17 points is staggering. Points must be scored with the new coach.
That’s why offensive coordinators such as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Shane Steichen, Dallas Cowboys’ Kellen Moore and Seattle Seahawks’ Shane Waldron could get heavy looks here, because of what they are doing without top-10 quarterbacks (and, in some cases, with long-time backups). It’s hard to ignore what the 49ers’ DeMeco Ryans, Dallas’ Dan Quinn and Buffalo Bills’ Leslie Frazier are doing on the defensive coordinator front. It’s not often this trio gives up more than a few scores most weeks. Arizona Cardinals’ Vance Joseph intrigues too.
What’s next for Carolina?
Newton: Find a way to win, and that won’t be easy for interim coach Wilks with the next two opponents being the past two Super Bowl champions: Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That injuries are mounting doesn’t make it any easier. The defense was without three starters on Sunday, and Horn left with a hip injury.
Then there’s Mayfield, who was wearing a walking boot on his left foot after suffering an ankle injury late in the first half Sunday. Former XFL star PJ Walker would be up next, which would be ironic, since he was key to Rhule’s turnaround at Temple. He’s also 2-0 as an NFL starter and players believe in him, so the team could have a chance if the defense gets healthy.
Wilks makes sense as the interim coach because players respect him, and he has experience as a head coach. He likely will be a candidate for the full-time spot if he can muster a turnaround, but expect Tepper to open his billionaire purse to lure a top name here. It wouldn’t be surprising if he went after former Saints coach Sean Payton, although it’s hard to believe New Orleans would release its contractual ties to him to join a divisional foe.
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