Photo courtesy of Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers were coming off a 7-9 season with optimism. They expected starting quarterback Cam Newton to be back fully healthy and in return expected to have a rebound season.
Newton entered training camp throwing bombs. He sat the first two preseason games to not place him in unnecessary danger. After that is when the domino effect began.
In the first quarter of the third preseason game, Newton suffered a foot injury trying to avoid a rush. The play ended with him being sacked by New England Patriots’ defensive tackle Adam Butler. Newton still played in the first two regular season games, but one could tell his injury was hurting his performance and Newton wasn’t himself.
Newton wouldn’t step on the field again the rest of the year. The injuries wouldn’t stop there though. Defensive tackle Kawann Short (played two games) and tackle Greg Little (started three games) would both go out with injuries. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe and guard Greg Van Roten would both go on injured reserve late in the season.
Enter Kyle Allen
Kyle Allen would come in to start in place of Newton. Allen came out looking great, passing for 901 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions in his first four games. Analysts everywhere were calling him the future of Carolina.
That wouldn’t last long as the Panthers would get trampled by San Francisco in Week 8 (51-13) after their bye week. The Panthers would win the next game, but lose the remaining eight games. Midway through the 8-game losing streak, head coach Ron Rivera was fired.
A New Era
The firing of Rivera would be the beginning of a wild offseason. Owner David Tepper stated the change was made prior to the end of the season because he didn’t want to be put at a “competitive disadvantage”. Tepper wanted to begin the coaching search without going behind Rivera’s back to do so.
The coaching search began and most believed the top candidates would be Mike McCarthy, Josh McDaniels or Eric Bieniemy. After several interviews, Tepper then flew down to Waco, Texas to meet with Baylor head coach Matt Rhule. Rhule appeared to be the leading candidate to land the New York Giants’ job; many believed he wouldn’t take any other head coaching job in the NFL.
It quickly became apparent that Rhule was Tepper’s guy. Tepper made sure Rhule didn’t board his flight to New York for his scheduled interview with the Giants. Tepper would leave Waco with Ruhle being the new Carolina coach.
The Golden Rhule
Matt Rhule turned Temple into an American Athletic Conference power in a short amount of time. Rhule started out at Temple by going 2-10 in 2013. He then went 10-4 in 2015 and finished off with a 10-3 2016 season. He then went to Baylor — another struggling team who just came out of a program-destroying scandal. Rhule worked his magic again going from 1-11 in 2017 to 11-3 in 2019.
As a coach, Rhule values things like speed, length, size and explosiveness. He looks for guys that may be raw, but have a high upside. He takes these guys and develops them. You can teach a lot of things, but the things Rhule looks for in a player, you can’t teach.
How does this translate to the NFL? We’re going to see more value coming from players in the later rounds of the draft. Rhule isn’t a die-hard analytics type of guy, but he values numbers when evaluating players. One main reason NFL teams have tried to lure Rhule to the league in the past is for his huge track record of developing NFL athletes on a consistent basis from guys that are raw.
This is something the Panthers could desperately use because they haven’t had huge success in later rounds of the draft. He’s a well-rounded coach who has coached nearly every position on the field. That’s something that’s extremely rare, but that gives him more respect as a head coach.
Assembling a Staff
After the hiring of Rhule, there was plenty of speculation about who would fill out his coaching staff. As LSU got closer to the national championship, we began hearing that Joe Brady would probably be the guy to lead the offense. LSU won the title and before Brady even had time to process that he had won a championship as LSU’s passing game coordinator, he was hired as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator.
Rhule’s long time defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, was later hired at the Carolina defensive coordinator. During the process of hiring coordinators, All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly announced he was retiring in an emotional video. A few weeks later, the Panthers parted was with longtime tight end Greg Olsen. These chain of events would create a roller coaster ride of emotions for Panther fans.
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The Brady Bunch
Brady was an offensive assistant for the New Orleans Saints in 2017 and 2018 before becoming the passing game coordinator at LSU in 2019. Brady went to LSU and completely transformed the offense. He took a quarterback in Joe Burrow, who probably wouldn’t have gotten selected out of a crowded quarterback room and transformed him into the top player in college football.
This offense turned the SEC on top of its head. Look at his offensive philosophy; this style of offense translates way better to the NFL than a Kliff Kingsbury offense or a Lincoln Riley offense. A lot of people say this is a Saints’ offense and though there are similarities, there are differences.
Brady takes his Wednesday afternoons to watch and analyze every touchdown in the NFL: Why the play was successful, was it a missed coverage or a great play. Then he takes this information to continuously transform his playbook. LSU’s offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger said publicly that Brady was way smarter than him.
He’s a smart coach who has created an amazing playbook and can create great game plans. In a Brady offense, every receiver and tight end has to play hard on every play, even if they aren’t getting the ball. In his arsenal, Brady uses routes that create a lot of rubs and picks to get players open. He creates concepts that plays with the linebackers pulling them off of one receiver to create a soft spot for another.
There’s 1,000 ways to get open in this offense if everyone is all in. While watching film on Brady’s offense, there are plays you have to watch multiple times to figure out how a player got so open.
Snowed In On Defense
Rhule was asked about hiring Phil Snow as defensive coordinator. Rhule said that he has never won a game as a head coach without Snow running his defense. Snow has over 35 years of coaching experience and has even been nicknamed as “Yoda” of coaches.
Snow has learned his fair share of defensive schemes throughout the years. He likes to throw a lot of disguises at an offense to cause them to audible out of their current play. When it does, the defense switches before the snap and the offense runs right into the “Phil Snow trap”. We’ve seen him run a lot of single-high safety looks and drop a safety into the box to play the run or blitz.
At times, he’ll show blitz from the linebacker and safety positions. They will drop back in coverage when the ball is snapped. If you watch a lot of his film, the safeties and linebackers have a lot of responsibility.
It’s almost genius watching how he moves the safeties and linebackers around to disrupt the play-calling. At times he likes to stand up a defensive end which could be a fitting spot for second-year Brian Burns. The way he manipulates offenses will destroy inexperienced quarterbacks and/or coordinators. It’s going to give offenses trouble across the league. He has used a lot of defensive schemes and most commonly used a 4-3 base, but Snow said he would have “multiple” defenses at Carolina.
Out With a Great
After the coaching staff was hired was when the Cam Newton drama began. As Newton was recovering from surgery, there were reports that the Panthers may trade him. Rhule made a statement and said he looked forward to coaching the former league MVP. Conflicting reports continued to come out surrounding Newton and the Panthers.
Eventually, it was revealed the Panthers were looking to trade Newton. Shortly after, Teddy Bridgewater was signed by the Panthers, killing any chance of a trade for Newton. Newton was eventually released by the Panthers.
Whether the Panthers needed to move on from Newton or not, the situation was handled poorly by all parties. The face of the franchise was gone from Carolina just like that. The Panthers then gave running back Christian McCaffrey a 4-year, $64 million contract extension, setting the stage for him to be the face of the franchise for years to come.
The Panthers seemed to focus on offense in free agency and entered the NFL Draft with a lot of holes to fill on defense. That’s exactly what they did. Carolina became the first team in the modern draft era to use all seven draft picks on defense.
The Panthers drafted defensive tackle Derrick Brown, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, safety Jeremy Chinn, cornerback Tony Pride Jr., safety Kenny Robinson Jr, defensive lineman Bravvion Roy and cornerback Stantley Thomas Oliver III. Carolina may have to relay on some rookies, but these guys are all athletes and will all grow together. The Carolina defense appears to be on the right track.
Carolina have made a lot of aggressive moves this offseason and that’s something the fans aren’t use to. This is certainly a rebuild, but the Panthers seem to be headed in the right direction. There will probably be some growing pains, but at the end of the day, there is plenty of reason for optimism about a bright future.