With the Sean Payton rumor looming, Panthers coach Matt Rhule faces a crucial season

·7 min read

Matt Rhule has gone undefeated over the past four months.

And for most returning NFL head coaches, the month of May means you survived the yearly purge, your fan base is excited about your draft picks and questions about your job security are off the table until at least October.

Not so with Rhule, however, who has gone 10-23 in his first two seasons after the Panthers plucked him away from Baylor with the idea that he could work his collegiate rebuilding magic in Charlotte.

Rhule faced those job-related questions with equanimity Friday at a press conference scheduled to talk about a rookie minicamp, helped no doubt by owner David Tepper’s recent declaration: “I believe in Matt and he has my full support.”

Still, a Front Office Sports report this week that the Panthers were “eyeing” former NFL head coach Sean Payton should it not work out again with Rhule this year didn’t provide the ideal May day for Rhule.

“Do I want stories like that out there?” Rhule said. “Probably not. But at the same time I also know a lot of people lose their edge when they write great stories about you. So I’m going to continue this grind, and work, and see where things fall.”

Rhule also said that Tepper had called him before the report surfaced — the Panthers had been alerted to it because they were asked to comment. The owner had told Rhule there was “nothing to it,” the coach said.

“I know David Tepper well enough to believe that he wouldn’t be talking to another coach right now,” Rhule said.

I believe that’s true. Remember, Tepper fired Ron Rivera with four games remaining in the 2019 season so he could conduct his first coaching search without Rivera, whom he deeply respected, still in the building.

But I also know, from my own reporting, that Tepper did think carefully about whether Rhule was the right guy to continue to lead the Panthers after a seven-game losing streak to end the 2021 season dropped Carolina from 5-5 to 5-12.

Tepper kept Rhule, a source close to the owner said, because the owner was convinced Rhule never “lost” the players last year.

That sustained effort was the deciding factor in keeping Rhule for a third season. But marked improvement is expected this year if there is to be a fourth.

Tepper reiterated his “Rome wasn’t built in a day” line recently.

As the owner said in late April in his first news conference in 16 months: “I’ve said five years (for a successful rebuild) — five years from the time Coach Rhule was (hired) here. And maybe it will be six years. I don’t know.”

Rhule signed a seven-year, $62-million contract with Carolina before the 2020 season, a deal of nearly unprecedented length for a college coach with no NFL head coaching experience.

From left, Panthers owner David Tepper, head coach Matt Rhule and former team president Tom Glick exchange laughs before Rhule was introduced as Carolina’s new head coach on Jan. 8, 2020.
From left, Panthers owner David Tepper, head coach Matt Rhule and former team president Tom Glick exchange laughs before Rhule was introduced as Carolina’s new head coach on Jan. 8, 2020.

Said Rhule of Tepper Friday: “When he came to my house two-and-a-half years ago, he told me that this was a five-year rebuild. ... And he convinced me then to come be a partner with him and build it with him. We’re not where we want to be. And I don’t think it’s going to take five years. I don’t want it to take five years. But those are the words that he said to me. And so I’m looking forward to taking a step this year. I like our football team. I like the way that we’re working. I like this draft.”

Incoming veteran quarterback?

Does Rhule also like his quarterback room? He said he does, but it’s obviously not enough to guarantee that the Panthers won’t add a veteran to the mix of incumbent starter Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker and rookie Matt Corral.

“I don’t think we could say ‘No’ to a veteran at this point,” Rhule said. Baker Mayfield, Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Foles are all possibilities.

Quarterback play has been the No. 1 problem with the Rhule era at Carolina. Until that gets fixed, the rest of it doesn’t really matter. Teddy Bridgewater, Darnold, Cam Newton 2.0 — none of them have worked out.

Maybe Corral will end up becoming a pleasant third-round surprise for the Panthers, and the gamble makes sense. But it’s hard to foresee that happening immediately. The transition from spread-offense QB in college to pro QB is like the difference between first-year Algebra and Advanced Calculus. Not many can grasp it fully in Year 1.

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, left, shares a laugh with Sam Darnold in 2021. Darnold is the Panthers’ incumbent starter for 2022, but adding another veteran QB remains a possibility.
Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule, left, shares a laugh with Sam Darnold in 2021. Darnold is the Panthers’ incumbent starter for 2022, but adding another veteran QB remains a possibility.

As for Rhule himself, he’s still got a chance. But he also knows another five-win season — the Panthers have now had three of them in a row, the first one under Rivera — would put it all in serious jeopardy. In that way, the coach’s tenuous job security is much like that of his players, as he pointed out Friday in an analogy I’ve never heard an NFL coach use before.

“When things happen,” Rhule said, “when the stories come out with unnamed sources … I say how lucky am I that I’m going to have a chance to overcome this adversity and be a better coach, person and father because of this. I always hope that it brings a better connection with our players, because our players live a life where they never know what’s going to happen with them. And I have a much greater feeling for that anxiety that they go through.”

It was the sort of refreshing honesty that Rhule often braids into news conferences. He’s one of the most likable NFL head coaches you’ll ever meet. He’s just not winning.

Examining the Payton rumor

To explore the Payton scenario for a second:

Payton, 58, retired in January from the Saints, while leaving the door open for a future NFL return. As Front Office Sports pointed out, the “mini-retirement” he’s about to take for a TV job in the 2022 season is one that many NFL head coaches do between jobs (Jon Gruden did it, as did Bruce Arians, as did George Seifert and many others).

The Dallas Cowboys are said to be interested in Payton, and a number of other teams would be, too, if he came back on the market. The Saints hold his rights through the 2024 season, though, which means high draft choices would likely be needed to compensate New Orleans before it would agree to “trade” Payton away.

Traditionally, teams are less willing to allow a coach to re-enter the same division. This would surely be the case for a New Orleans team that would have no intention of letting the Panthers pass them in the NFC South.

In other words, the whole “Payton to Carolina” rumor is fun for the segment of the Panther fan base that’s sick of Rhule, and that’s a notable piece of the pie. We all heard the “Fire Rhule” chants in December at Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers are 6-21 over their last 27 games.

A Carolina Panthers fan reveals his Christmas wish on Dec. 26, 2021, as the Panthers fell 32-6 to Tampa Bay in the midst of a season-ending, seven-game losing streak.
A Carolina Panthers fan reveals his Christmas wish on Dec. 26, 2021, as the Panthers fell 32-6 to Tampa Bay in the midst of a season-ending, seven-game losing streak.

But it’s also far-fetched.

I wrote in December that giving Rhule another season was the right thing to do, and I still believe that.

This is the year the improvement must happen, though. The offensive line has been overhauled in an impressive way, as has the coaching staff. Christian McCaffrey — at least temporarily — is back. The Panther defense remains good enough to win.

That’s the thing, though. It’s time to win.

No, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I bet you could see the Colosseum rising in the distance each day and know that it was going to be remarkable. There have to be clear signs this year that Rhule’s beloved process is working.

I think the Panthers need to go at least 8-9 for Rhule to be back for a fourth year. That sort of season would mean Payton would end up employed somewhere else and Rhule would be back in 2023.

But another five-win season, or worse? That’s going to be too much to bear.

Tepper has been patient. But he’s not that patient.

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