“Hey everybody. This is Matt Rhule. I hope you’re all doing well, staying safe. It’s the start of our offseason program. While we all can’t be together, I thought it was really important I reached out and kicked this thing off the right way.”
The right way? For Rhule and these Panthers, the obstacle-filled offseason fits what they face.
No NFL team in this historically different offseason is as challenged as Rhule’s Panthers. Consider:
• New coach, with one year of previous NFL experience. (Of the other four new coaches, Ron Rivera and Mike McCarthy are NFL vets, and Joe Judge and Kevin Stefanski, combined, have 23 years of NFL experience.)
• Two NFL rookie coordinators.
• A new quarterback who still has not met a single one of his receivers.
• The defensive leader, Luke Kuechly, is gone; retired.
• The offensive cornerstone, 2015 MVP Cam Newton, is gone; released.
Oh . . . and there will be four games this year against two Hall of Fame passers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and two more against a passer who might end up in Canton, Matt Ryan.
“I’ve coached at Temple and at Baylor, and my players will probably tell you we didn’t have a lot of advantages when we got there,” Rhule said in a conversation from his home Friday. “Just figure it out. Figure it out, bro. Really, that’s the key to life.”
This is a strange offseason for every team. It’s almost certain teams won’t be able to gather until late July at the earliest. I’ve documented in this column in recent weeks how teams are learning by videoconference instead of in meetings, and there’s really no way to know if this virus will allow the season to open on time, or whether training camps will exist at all, or how long teams will have to practice for the season. Rhule has told his coaches: Plan as if the players are reporting tomorrow. Prepare as if we won’t have them till a week before the season. Teams that succeed this season (assuming there is a season) are going to be the very talented ones, as always—but I bet they’ll be the ones, too, that prosper in a time of mayhem. The mayhem won’t matter. The football will.
And so when Rhule did his 6-minute, 21-second iPhone video on the picnic table, talk of the program and the schedule and the plans . . . poof. Meaningless. Why bother?
“Please know that my thoughts, your thoughts, our thoughts, are with everybody on the front lines of those fighting the coronavirus. But also know that whatever you need, we have resources here—whether it be medical, physical, psychological, emotional. Whatever we can do to help you during this time, please reach out.
“Obviously, I was looking very much forward to getting together, to seeing everyone, as we were supposed to start phase one. It can’t happen. I also understand that there are some things way more important than football. So I just want to share a couple of thoughts about things that I think are important to me, things that maybe set the stage for us as we think about how this time’s affecting us.”
When a coaching staff and key players don’t know each other well—quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, for instance, has never met the assistant he’ll be joined at the hip with this year, QB coach Jake Peetz—the communication via videoconference is vital. NFL rules mandate that teams and veterans can meet virtually for only two hours per day, four days per week. So those eight hours a week are gold. With the Panthers, offensive coordinator Joe Brady, 30, and Peetz 37, are spending about three more hours per day by videoconference going over scheme and plays and the minutiae that guys coaching together for the first time just have to get right. On Friday, Rhule jumped into their Microsoft Teams videoconference three times as they try to design a new offense with a new quarterback.
“I’m a walk-around coach,” Rhule said, “and so because I can’t pop into a coach’s office or sit down with a player in the weight room or the locker room, I pop into their Teams meetings sometimes, just to ask questions. I learned about being a walk-around coach from studying [former coach] Bill Parcells. Only now I have to do it talking to a screen, not a person.”
Rhule has a seven-year contract, and so he’s concentrating on building a strong foundation. (It’s like the 49ers did with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, on six-year deals, building for the long haul and surviving a 10-22 start.) On paper, the NFC South is miles ahead of the 2020 Panthers. Ten months from now, Carolina might be in the Trevor Lawrence derby. But whatever happens this year, owner David Tepper hired Rhule to build from the ground up so in 2022 the Panthers will be going toe-to-toe with Sean Payton and the best of the South. Tepper knows 2020 is an investment.
The Panthers will use this time to do something NFL-unconventional. Rhule has each coach watch the other coaches’ videoconferences and how they teach their individual positions. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow teaches on the greaseboard in his garage, the old-fashioned way. Peetz teaches the quarterbacks on a virtual projector, focusing his Microsoft Teams cam, standing next to a monitor with videos running to illustrate plays the way players would see them in a classroom. And they have an overseer. Rhule, in his time in college and the NFL, has coached linebacker, defensive line, special teams, offensive line, defensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and as recruiting coordinator. So he finds value in having every coach learn every position. And he feels comfortable in giving coaching points to every assistant. Also: He’s assigned each assistant an area of expertise to present concepts and education topics to the rest of the staff, in 40-minute classes beginning this week. Linebackers coach Mike Siravo will give a clinic Monday on how to teach tackling. On Tuesday, Peetz will show routes that best attack a defense’s quarters coverage. And so on.
“Over the years,” Rhule said, “I just felt like there was a real disconnect between how much offense the defensive coaches know, and how much defense the offensive coaches know. And so that’s just allowed me I think to be really confident as a head coach. I’m not some guru, but I do know enough about every position on the field. The ones I haven’t been an expert at, I’ve hired really good coaches there. I’ll learn from them. It’s my job as a head coach to have players play their best football when they play for me. . . . You can’t ask the players to learn the full game if our coaches don’t do that. I think that all comes from my background.”
It bleeds down to the players. One day last week, Peetz handed the teaching for a day to Bridgewater. “He taught some drop-back and play-action,” said Brady, the new offensive coordinator. “We wanted Teddy to do it because I think there’s a fine line. Football’s in the grey. We can sit there as coaches and say, ‘Hey Teddy, you’re gonna take a three-step drop, and you’re gonna hitch, and here’s where the ball’s gonna go.’ But it’s good hearing a quarterback who’s actually going through it and seeing it—what he likes, what he sees, where he wants to go with the ball, where his eyes are going during all of it. He went about an hour and a half.”
Said Peetz: “He did allow a bathroom break. I had to ask coach Bridgewater for permission.”
“It’s pretty well-documented that over half of the Fortune 500 companies, the most successful companies in the world, were started in depression or recession times. That’s really kind of counterintuitive. How can great companies come out of times when there wasn’t much money, when things were hard, much like they are right now? Really, the answer is these companies weren’t built on fads. They were built on solid fundamentals. They were built the right way because they had to be or they never would have survived. By having to scrap and fight to be successful in those hard times, when good times came, they were already successful, and they are to this day. I take that as a message for me. How can I build myself to be the man, the husband, the father, the coach that I want to be? If I can find a way to make myself better during these hard times, how much better is it going to be when we can all go out to dinner again?”
It all sounds good and inspiring, but if history is a judge, Carolina fans better be patient. The edge Rhule has over, say, a Joe Judge or a Kevin Stefanski, is that he’s been a head coach—twice. And he’s had to build a program with a new base. His first Temple team was 2-10; his first Baylor team 1-11.
There are issues. Bridgewater is working with pro and college receivers (including Buffalo’s John Brown) in Miami, but not yet with any of his own. He’ll have to hit the ground running with five of his first 10 games against division foes with much more collegiality and collective experience. But Rhule wanted positive people who wouldn’t look for excuses. Bridgewater on that: “It’s a blessing to be back in this position that I’m in. Having someone believe in you, having an organization that believes in you and gives you the keys and says, ‘Here, this is your opportunity,’ that’s all that I’ve asked for. I know that it’s a difficult time right now and I’m not able to be around the guys, but with technology, we can FaceTime each other. We can call each other. We can meet. Guys have questions, it’s easy to get access to each other.”
Bridgewater might not be the most interesting story in the quarterback room. In the last 15 months, Brady has gone from being an invisible Saints offensive assistant to the passing tutor for Joe Burrow at LSU to the offensive coordinator for a division rival of Drew Brees and Sean Payton. Brady wakes up in his new Charlotte home every morning around 5, makes his schedule, and knows everyone in the NFL world is wondering, Okay, kid. You think you can complete with the big boys? Bring it on. He doesn’t sound intimidated.
Maybe the most valuable lesson Brady learned from Payton/Brees is watching them on Saturday nights. Prep week would be finished, but one important element remained. Brees would take every one of the 18 sections in the New Orleans game plan—screens, quarterback movement, play-action, red zone 20-to-the-11-yard-line, red zone 10-and-in, empty-backfield, and others—and pick out the plays he liked and wanted called the next day. He might pick out 40 or 45. Payton, every week, would hope to call every one Brees liked in the game.
“I learned,” said Brady, “that if your quarterback doesn’t have trust in the play, why are you calling it? He needs to have a clear vision on why you’re calling the play and what you’re looking for in the play and that understanding so that when that pigskin hits his hands, he knows where to go with the football. That exact meeting Sean and Drew had each Saturday night is what I did with Joe Burrow every week. So Joe knew when we get to third-and-4-through-6, this is what we’re gonna call, and he’d like it. At New Orleans and LSU, I learned to create a system that fit the players we had.”
“I think the thing we’re learning right now is there’s a lot of good people in this world right now—a lot of good players, a lot of good coaches, a lot of good doctors. But when you go through something like this, you realize we need great. I challenge you, I challenge myself right now, to be great. As players and coaches, if we can master our playbooks and our systems right now through distance-learning, iPads and laptops, if we can overcome all those obstacles, how great will we be when we have the opportunity to interact as teammates and co-workers and coaches?”
Peetz, the QB coach, worked for Nick Saban in two different stints at Alabama. Saban would start a season building a process for how the staff wanted the season to end—with a national championship—and build it, perhaps, differently in one year than the previous one. That would often depend on the players on the roster. Rhule’s way reminds Peetz of that. In an offseason that’s different than any these coaches have seen, Peetz believes that approach is important.
“What I think you’re going to see,” Peetz said, “is the people who come out of this ahead are people who have a process and a clear vision of what they want. That’s why Matt has been successful—because he’s had a defined vision and purpose and process as to how he’s gone about it.”
Rhule learned most from two coaches: Joe Paterno (Rhule was a walk-on backup linebacker at Penn State in the ’90s, and Paterno’s dog-earned 1971 tome “Football My Way” is at his office desk) and Bill Parcells. Parcells lived by two things Rhule values. One: There is a way to win every game. Two: Every 100 yards of field-position gained is worth seven points. What does that mean? Don’t underestimate special teams, and don’t underestimate field-position football. The Giants won a Super Bowl in 1991 with those mantras. Those are the kinds of things Rhule preaches. Does it matter, really, if you’re in the same room with a group of players, or with a group of coaches, when you’re teaching what you believe about football?
“People overuse ‘It is what it is,’ “ Rhule said, “but this situation is what it is. This is the adversity. There were a lot of constraints on me as a college head coach, going 1-11 and 2-10 and bearing the brunt of all that negativity and criticism and all those things. My first year at Baylor, my dad was around and I remember him saying to me, ‘You’ll rebuild Baylor football one relationship at a time.’ Same thing here. We’ll figure it out.”
“We’re going to see a lot of tragedy, but we’re also going to see a lot of greatness as we beat the coronavirus. As I sit here in my backyard, not doing much on the front lines like our heroic doctors and nurses are, I can learn from their example. What can I do to be better today? What can I raise that standard to? Take some time to really look at ourselves.
“Stay safe . . . Let’s find a way to go be great.”