Matt Rhule purposely did something out of the box when he hired 30-year-old coach Joe Brady in January 2020 to be his NFL offensive coordinator with Rhule’s new team, the Carolina Panthers. Most of Rhule’s staff was people he knew and worked with in his old head jobs at Baylor or Temple, but not Brady.
“I decided to be bold and step outside of my comfort zone,” Rhule said Monday.
It reminded me of what Panthers owner Dave Tepper did with Rhule himself, hiring him away from Baylor instead of taking the more traditional route of choosing a veteran NFL offensive or defensive coordinator.
With Brady, it didn’t work out. He got fired Sunday.
With Rhule? We’re still waiting to see. But if it were my decision, I’d give him one more year to try and prove he can do this.
Rhule has said many times a coach is ultimately judged by their win-loss record in the NFL. He’s 10-18 so far, and Tepper isn’t known for his patience.
I still don’t think Rhule will get fired by Tepper at the end of this season, even if the Panthers finish 5-12. But I do believe he will be coaching for his Carolina job in Year 3, as will the rest of the Carolina staff.
Panther fans who want Rhule fired and want it to happen yesterday are forgetting that the first year of any new coach in the NFL almost always produces a losing record. That’s what has happened to all four previous Panther coaches in Year 1.
Could Tepper still fire Rhule in 5 weeks? Of course.
Yes, Rhule signed a seven-year contract with Carolina back in January 2020, but coaches’ salaries have no salary-cap implications. It’s just money, and if your team has a rich owner who wants to get rid of you, all they have to do is write a big check and move on. Tepper has done it before, ridding himself of Ron Rivera with four games left in the 2019 season because he needed to “shake the tree” as he said, much like Rhule fired Brady with five games left in 2021.
But if you’re reading the tea leaves here, the fact that Rhule has the juice to fire Brady at this point in the season likely means that Rhule himself isn’t going anywhere. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Tepper just wait until January and fire the whole coaching staff?
Tepper didn’t make the Brady decision, Rhule said Monday. The head coach did.
When asked if Tepper was consulted, Rhule said: “I talk to Dave all the time… This was my decision. I obviously let him know… But Dave’s been very supportive… He’s an excellent owner in that regard.”
What was Brady’s fault — and what wasn’t
Brady had come to the Carolina Panthers with a “Boy Wonder” reputation. But it turned out Brady wasn’t wondrous when he didn’t have a massive talent mismatch on his side like he did as the passing game coordinator at LSU with Joe Burrow at QB.
What went wrong in this startling fall from grace?
Simply, the Panthers didn’t score enough points and ranked in the 20s out of 32 NFL teams in most key offensive metrics.
They were especially bad in the third quarter — scoring 18 offensive points all year — which speaks to poor halftime adjustments and below-average real-time game management once Carolina had used up most of the plays it felt most comfortable with in the first half.
All that can be placed at Brady’s feet, as well as the Panthers’ lack of explosive plays and some of the decision to bring in Teddy Bridgewater as the team’s expensive 2020 quarterback.
What can’t be blamed on Brady? A whole lot. He didn’t trade three draft picks for Sam Darnold, nor decide to pick up his $18.8-million option for 2022. He didn’t injure Christian McCaffrey. He didn’t put so few resources into the offensive line.
With that said, I wasn’t a big Brady fan after his initial glow wore off. He was surprisingly boring in news conferences — purposely boring, it seemed — and his offense turned out to be boring, too. He was and is a very hard worker, but he got promoted too fast. He will do better when he gets a second chance calling plays somewhere in college.
The Panther QB quandary
When you can’t get QB solved, no offensive coordinator is going to look good. Carolina — 5-7 entering Sunday’s home game against Atlanta, when Cam Newton will start again — still hasn’t solved it.
The Panthers are still paying three NFL quarterbacks a starter-level salary right now: Bridgewater in Denver after trading him, Darnold and Newton in Charlotte.
And the Panthers have started a trio of different QBs already this season: Newton, Darnold and P.J. Walker. Said Rhule: “When you have the changeover we’ve had — you know, three quarterbacks have played — that’s not a recipe for success in the National Football League.”
It’s not. And Brady wasn’t some wand-waver who could magically fix it.
Rhule’s bold move turned out to be a mistake, even though he said on Monday he didn’t consider it to be one. Now Rhule has gone back to showing his loyalty card at checkout. Jeff Nixon, Rhule’s close friend and a current Panther assistant coach, will take over the offensive play-calling for the final five weeks in what appears to be a tryout of sorts.
Rhule said he took no joy in firing Brady and went out of his way to give him a good recommendation. They ended the “You’re fired” conversation Sunday with a hug.
“I think all of us in this world understand just how tenuous it is, you know?” Rhule said, referring to the game’s lack of job security. “Coaches, players, staff, everybody. So none of us like any part of this.”
Rhule will be on the other side of a conversation like that at some point in Charlotte. It’s inevitable. But I don’t think it will be in a few weeks. I don’t think he will leave for a college job, and the Panthers don’t seem to be ready to fire him.
And they shouldn’t.
Give the man one more year. But if this team is still hovering around 5-6 wins in Year 3? It’s time to go.