The Carolina Panthers began the 2021 season 3-0. It looked like they had “fixed” quarterback Sam Darnold, and with a strong defense to pair with him, they had the appearance of a sleeper playoff contender. Since then, they’re 2-10 in what has become a lost season in Carolina.
How much of the blame for that does head coach Matt Rhule deserve? Should Rhule be on the hot seat?
If you’re a Panthers fan reading this, your answer is almost certainly, “yes.” It’s the very easy and popular solution for a struggling team, and this year’s Carolina team has been no exception. In Sunday’s blowout at home at the hands of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, “Fire Rhule” chants spread throughout the crowd, and Rhule himself said that he should be booed for his team’s poor performance.
Along those lines, there are several factors we can point to when examining whether the blame falls on the coaching. The most obvious one is results. The 2021 season is the second straight year under Rhule in which the Panthers have gotten off to a hot start before crashing and burning down the stretch.
When we break that down to a more micro level, there’s a similar issue going on in nearly every game: Carolina has failed to execute well in the second half. The Panthers were a bottom-five team in third-quarter scoring in 2020, and this season, only the Houston Texans are a worse third-quarter team. As for what that means at both the micro (per game) and macro (per season) levels, it suggests that Carolina is unable to make the adjustments they need as the game or season continues. That’s a big indicator of poor coaching, and it’s a big knock against Rhule.
The second most obvious litmus test for good coaching is a lack of penalties. We hear it all the time in broadcasts: if a team is not penalized often, it’s a sign of a well-coached team. This Panthers squad isn’t doing their head coach any favors in that department. They’re not just accumulating penalties often, they’re one of the most penalized teams in the NFL. Their 105 penalties this season trail only the Dallas Cowboys’ 112 and the Las Vegas Raiders’ 114. That’s another strike for the second-year head coach.
Yet despite those factors, as well as the 10-21 start to his tenure as the Panthers’ head coach, current reports are that Rhule won’t be out of a job just yet. Carolina owner Dave Tepper signed him to a seven-year contract in 2020 with the knowledge that the team needed time to implement Rhule’s system and build up their core. It seems he isn’t going to back down on that commitment, at least not yet.
Tepper’s support and commitment to Rhule lie in stark contrast to the team’s philosophy with starting quarterbacks. Since Cam Newton began to have injury troubles in late 2018, the Panthers have had six other quarterbacks start at least one game. After Newton’s departure from the team following the 2019 season, no quarterback has stuck around very long as Carolina’s starter. Even Newton himself hasn’t been able to solidify his status in a starting role since returning for a second stint this season.
That’s a lot of inconsistency at the most important position on offense, so Rhule deserves a little bit of breathing room. Sure, the offense is one of the worst in the NFL, but as Newton said, the head coach isn’t the one out there playing. On top of that, no one can say Rhule hasn’t been trying to find a solution. He’s fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady and given nearly every quarterback on the depth chart ample opportunities to perform.
Furthermore, while the offense has been limping through the season with inconsistent quarterback play and a lack of Christian McCaffrey, the same can’t be said of the defense. Carolina’s defense is top two in yards allowed per game and top 10 in DVOA. That’s another point in the positives column for Rhule.
Taking every factor into account then, Rhule still deserves to be on the hot seat, or at least on a very warm one. The team’s performance has been a bit of a trainwreck over the last two seasons, and their lack of in-game and in-season adjustments are a big part of that. The Panthers’ high penalty total is another red flag against their second-year head coach. The flip side is that the lack of consistent or even serviceable play on offense gives Rhule an easy scapegoat. It appears that that—and good defensive play—has been enough for Carolina’s owner to give his head coach at least one more year, but the leash heading into the 2022 season won’t be a long one.