The Carolina Panthers released coach Matt Rhule on Monday to a seven-year, $62 million contract with fewer than three seasons. Defensive pass game coordinator Steve Wilks, who coached the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, has been named interim coach.
Rhule’s record was 11-27, including 1-4 this season. His downfall was hastened by the team’s inability to land a franchise quarterback as he began each of his three seasons with a different starter. Baker Mayfield, who started this season as a starter, has an overall QBR of 16.5, the lowest after five games of any starter since ESPN began tracking the number in 2006.
Rhule was hired in 2020 to transform a Carolina organization that was five years away from reaching the Super Bowl in 2015, just as he completed college programs at Baylor and Temple. That never happened.
So how did that happen and what can we expect from the Panthers for the rest of 2022 and beyond? Panthers reporter David Newton and senior NFL writer Jeremy Fowler agree:
Why make this decision now and how did you get here?
Newton: Owner David Tepper couldn’t have liked the sight of Bank of America Stadium being overrun by a sea of garnet red San Francisco 49ers during Sunday’s embarrassing 37-15 loss to the 49ers. He’s a businessman at heart. That and the fans chanting “Fire Rhule” for weeks almost made this something that had to happen from a business standpoint.
The fact that Tepper had two former head coaches and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo on his staff in Wilks made the decision easier. Wilks got the nod, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since Carolina’s biggest problem was an offense that was bottom-ranked in the NFL.
The decision also makes sense because it gives Rhule a chance to land a college job and potentially puts Tepper off the hook for some of the money owed when he handed Rhule the seven-year, $62 million contract in January 2020.
Again, Tepper is a businessman at heart.
What is the temperature in the changing room?
Newton: The dressing room was surprisingly, as cornerback Donte Jackson said Sunday, “100% behind Rhule.”
Players took ownership of their game, from running back Christian McCaffrey to Mayfield at quarterback. Ultimately, Rhule’s collegiate approach didn’t work — it relied on discipline and control — as one former NFL player told me might have when Rhule was hired.
What building blocks might excite a new coach?
Newton: The defense, which finished second in the league in 2021 and played at a winning level in most of their first five games, has plenty of young talent in edge rusher Brian Burns, cornerback Jaycee Horn and defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
On offense, the same group has played every snap together in five games in a rebuilt offensive line and is slowly improving. McCaffrey is healthy and still an elite running back.
If Mayfield and his receivers hadn’t played so poorly, Rhule might have survived.
Add to that the fact that general manager Scott Fitterer seems to be on solid ground and the team has plenty of cap room (about $11 million for third-ranked NFL players right now), this could be an attractive spot for a new coach . Starting fresh as a quarterback and likely with a top 5 pick in a deep quarterback draft class makes the job more appealing.
What about the rest of Carolina’s future — is she in some decent form of salary cap?
Fowler: The new coach won’t inherit a bad roster situation from the Panthers. You can start all over again as quarterback, with Mayfield and Sam Darnold fading from the books in 2023. They should finish in the top 5-10 in a draft well stocked with quarterback talent. The offensive line was rebuilt last offseason, McCaffrey has shown more resilience this season (and is still only 26 years old), and the defense has multiple building blocks.
Carolina will be pretty tight against the cap in 2023, with five veterans set to make between $11 million and $20 million next season. One of them is Burns, who is taking a fifth-year option and is likely to be extended. But the team can save money by releasing veterans like receiver Robbie Anderson or linebacker Shaq Thompson. The biggest problem might be draft capital. The Panthers have just nine overall picks from 2023-2024.
Which candidates should Carolina interview to become the next coach?
Fowler: The Panthers will be strategic when it comes to finding a coach who can maximize talent – particularly on offense. Rhule’s 1-27 record when opponents scored at least 17 points is staggering. With the new coach must be scored.
Because of this, offensive coordinators like the Philadelphia Eagles’ Shane Steichen, the Dallas Cowboys’ Kellen Moore, and the Seattle Seahawks’ Shane Waldron could draw serious looks here for being without top-10 quarterbacks (and, in some cases, long-time fuses ). It’s hard to ignore what the 49ers’ DeMeco Ryans, Dallas’ Dan Quinn and Buffalo Bills’ Leslie Frazier are doing on the defensive coordinator frontline. It’s not often that this trio gives up more than a few scores most weeks. Arizona Cardinals’ Vance Joseph is also intriguing.
What’s next for Carolina?
Newton: Finding a path to victory won’t be easy for interim coach Wilks, as the next two opponents are the last two Super Bowl champions: Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The fact that the injuries are increasing doesn’t make it any easier. The defense was without three starters on Sunday, Horn left with a hip injury.
Then there’s Mayfield, who wore a hiking boot on his left foot after suffering an ankle injury late in the first half on Sunday. Former XFL star PJ Walker would be up next, which would be ironic given he was key in Rhules’ turn at Temple. He’s also 2-0 up as an NFL starter and players believe in him, so the team could have a chance if the defense gets healthy.
Wilks makes sense as an interim manager because the players respect him and he has experience as a head coach. He’ll likely be a candidate for the full-time position if he can muster a turnaround, but expect Tepper to open his billionaire pocket to lure a top name here. It wouldn’t be surprising if he went after former Saints coach Sean Payton, although it’s hard to believe New Orleans would sever their contractual ties with him to join a division enemy.
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34768733/panthers-fire-head-coach-matt-rhule-1-4-record-next-steve-wilks-named-interim Panthers fire head coach Matt Rhule after 1-4 record: What’s next