Matt Rhule is out of the door in Carolina. Just 5 games into the 2022 NFL season Rhule has become the first head coach to be fired. Potentially surprising it came so early, but not surprising it happened.
Here we will take a look at the rise and fall of Matt Rhule. How did he get to where he is, where it all went wrong and what was his ultimate downfall?
From New York originally, Matt Rhule and his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was a teenager. He attended Penn State University where he is a former walk-on linebacker. Leaving college in 1998, Rhule stayed at Penn State for 1 more year as a volunteer assistant before bouncing yearly between coaching jobs at Albright, Buffalo, UCLA and Western Carolina. Between 2006-2011, Rhule found himself at Temple taking on coaching jobs across the team. From Defensive line coach to becoming offensive coordinator.
Rhule then took on an assistant coaching role at the New York Giants where Tom Coughlin was in charge.
This is where the rise and fall of Matt Rhule’s career really begins. Let’s take a look at Matt Rhule’s story. Looking at what made him so successful and what ultimately made him fail.
Matt Rhule returned to Temple for the 2013 season, where he had once been a coach and offensive coordinator. He was named their 26th head coach when Steve Addazio took up the head coaching job at Boston College.
In his first year, Rhule went 2-10 in 2013 before going 6-6 in 2014. Then the tide really started to turn. Armed with a 4 year extended contract Rhule took the Owls to back-to-back bowl games. In 2015 Temple went 10-4 and went to the Boca Raton Bowl. Then the following year in 2016, they went 10-3 and made it to the Military Bowl. Rhule led Temple to the AAC East division title, their first since 1967 before he ultimately departed before the bowl game heading for his next opportunity.
Matt Rhule became the next head coach at Baylor taking over from Jim Grobe in December 2016. Inheriting a roster with a lack of talent, Rhule soon found out how much work was needed after only winning 1 game in the 2017 season.
Rhule had to draw on all his experience at Temple. To turn this franchise around it would need the same rebuild that made him so successful at Temple. Baylor lacked a winning culture, having not been to a Bowl game in 8 years.
In 2018, in just his second season, Rhule had already turned things around going 7-6 and defeating Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl.
Then in Rhule’s 3rd season as head coach of the Bears, he saw the same uplift as he did at Temple. Rhule took Baylor to an 11-1 record. Making the Big 12 Championship game and the Sugar Bowl. Rhule and the Baylor Bears would go on to lose both those games against Oklahoma and Georgia.
With a full resume of instilling winning cultures and rebuilding programs, Matt Rhule became wanted in the NFL. In January 2020, Rhule was named as just the 5th head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Owner David Tepper was so enamoured with Matt Rhule that he opened up the chequebook in a bid to stop Matt Rhule from boarding a plane to New York where he had a meeting scheduled with the Giants.
Matt Rhule was signed to a huge 7-year $62 Million deal. It was an unprecedented contact for a coach leaving the college game and heading to the NFL. There are some who claim that this deal was given to Rhule not only to persuade him to stay in Charlotte but, was owner David Tepper flexing his financial muscles in a market he was new to. Showing that he had taken the option of finally realising his dream of finally owning an NFL franchise and was in the game to compete. David Tepper had only recently become the owner of the Panthers and wanted to bring a new direction.
Matt Rhule’s Panthers career ended up being one marred with change and lack of direction, never hitting the heights or realising the rebuild he was able to at both Temple and Baylor.
In his first 2 season’s Rhule was never able to truly get the results he needed. After improving the defence in his first season, his offences became stagnant and stale. Never developing as he did in college.
The results kept echoing the same stories. A lack of offensive firepower and a lack of acceptable quarterback play. But an ever-changing spiral of name occurred on Matt Rhule’s watch, which contributed to his downfall.
Coaching Staff Changes
Possibly a telling reality for Matt Rhule’s Carolina Panthers was their lack of offensive firepower.
A week after being hired Matt Rhule went after Joe Brady to be his offensive coordinator. After a fairytale season at LSU which saw them win the National Championship, Joe Brady was seen as a huge part of the record-setting LSU offence and was expected to be inundated with NFL coaching offers.
Brady was expected to fire up this Carolina Panthers offence, laying the foundations for an expansive and entertaining scheme that would put up points. That ultimately didn’t happen and in almost 2 seasons Brady was out of the door.
Not only did Matt Rhule bring in Joe Brady from LSU, he also brought with him his long-time defensive coordinator and long-time friend Phil Snow. Snow had been with Rhule during his entire tenure at both Temple and Baylor. A trusty ally that Rhule could rely on.
Transitioning from the college game is never easy. For a head coach or for a coordinator. It is why you see so many first-time head coaches turn to veteran NFL coaching experience in their first year. Surrounding themselves with a wealth of knowledge. It worked for Sean McVay and more recently Brian Daboll has kick-started the Giants franchise. With hindsight, this is something that Matt Rhule may have wanted to do.
So up stepped Ben McAdoo to take over from Joe Brady as Offensive Coordinator. Having over a decade of NFL experience, including as a head coach of the New York Giants, Rhule selected him as his next offensive coordinator. But Rhule hasn’t just had resets within his staff. But potentially more importantly at the quarterback position.
During his time in Charlotte, the Panthers have had nothing but damaged goods at quarterback. From Teddy Bridgewater, to Sam Darnold, to Baker Mayfield. They all failed in spectacular fashion.
Firstly Matt Rhule decided to bring in Teddy Bridgewater. After a semi-successful run of games for the Saints early in the season due to an injury to Drew Brees, Rhule made Bridgewater the target.
Bridgewater signed a $63 million deal with $33 million guaranteed. Rhule and Bridgewater finished the season with a 5-11 record.
Following the season, Rhule made a decision that he wanted to move on. Rhule and the Panthers had selected Sam Darnold as the face of the franchise. The Panthers traded away a second and fourth-round pick for the failed Jet, as well as picking up his 5th-year option. That guaranteed Darnold a further $18.8 million for the 2022 season. Whether Sam Darnold was going to be the guy or not. They paid him to be.
The Panthers then traded away Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos for a 6th-round pick in return.
In the 2021 season, Sam Darnold proved he wasn’t the guy. The offence continued to struggle and Darnold continued to show what he showed at the Jets. This isn’t a quarterback you can rely on.
Another Spin Of The Wheel
So the Panthers spun the wheel again. Armed with little draft capital they decided to draft Matt Corral out of Ole Miss, trading away a 3rd round pick for the pleasure. Matt Corral then went on to suffer a season-ending injury in preseason. Now noone could have seen that coming, but it encapsulates the continued sorrow the Panthers continue to suffer at the position.
Before Corral’s injury, The Panthers also decided to take a chance on another out of favour QB in Baker Mayfield. Mayfield had far more success with the Browns than Darnold did with the Jets. Mayfield bet on the Panthers and the Panthers left themselves no option but to bet on him.
The Panthers showed they had not learnt their lesson. You can not bargain shop at the quarterback position, getting faulty goods and continuing to buy from the same quality of shop. The Panthers had multiple top 10 picks where they could have taken a swing at the position which has cost them so much.
We know that Matt Rhule tried for better. Whether it was an attempt to go after Jimmy Garoppolo or courting Deshaun Watson. But, Rhule failed in his attempts to bring them in. The vision for the Panthers franchise wasn’t clear or good enough to entice a franchise calibre quarterback to head to Charlotte.
What made Matt Rhule think they had enough? We know that he fell in love with Darnold and truly believed he was the guy to take the Rhule generation of Panthers forward. He had committed to the decision and could not go back.
One part of Matt Rhule’s contract with the Panthers stipulates he has full roster control and the last say. A major oversight from David Tepper and the Panthers hierarchy to give a first-time head coach, a head coach with no prior NFL experience no less that type of control.
You only get so many goes before your end up firefighting your own mistakes rather than taking the team forward. Rhule’s mistakes simply kept piling up. He was given opportunity after opportunity at the quarterback position in particular with no success.
During his college days rebuilding a program and recruiting players, having them buy into what he was doing was a cornerstone of his success. But in the last 3 drafts, almost a 3rd of their picks are now no longer with the team.
Rhule may not be solely responsible for this. General Manager, Scott Fitterer has to bare some. But, Rhule had the last say written in his contract.
Matt Rhule and the Panthers coaching staff were also the coaching staff for the 2021 Senior Bowl and were impressive. He was coaching the draft prospects, was on the field and was a guy that everyone bought into. He came across as a fantastic man manager. The problem came with why was he not able to replicate this at the NFL level. Being a likeable guy only gets you so far in the NFL.
His coaching style is one of the reasons he was so successful in college. He was able to motivate players, coach them up and sell his vision that you can buy into when recruiting and developing players. Matt Rhule proved he was exactly that a coach, not an executive staff member. He is a player’s coach rather than someone who could handle the full football operations at come at an NFL Franchise.
What we saw at the Senior Bowl was really good. Seemed like a really good man manager. The problem came with whether was he able to manage at the NFL level, outside of being a likeable guy. It is one of the reasons why he was so successful in college and was great at the Senior Bowl. He knew how to motivate and man manage these college players. Selling his vision that is easily bought info when recruiting and developing players. He was a player’s coach rather than a guy who could handle the full football operations of the NFL.
The Final Act
So, after 2 and a bit seasons, Rhule was fired in October 2022, with a record of 11-27.
That record included the Panthers going 1-27 when they have conceded 17 points or more. That includes 25 straight. When Rhule was head coach at Baylor, they did not win a game against a ranked opponent. Is there some carryover against the best opposition?
Rhule’s firing came after a home loss to the 49ers. Home losses have become normal to Panthers fans. Goin 4-13 at home since 2013. The 49er’s result was one that may have been expected, but a resounding fan voice was too overpowering. That game against San Francisco turned into a home game for the 49ers. A noticeable lack of local fans turned up expressing a lack of faith in the organisation.
If NFL owners can not get fans in the stadium then they have a huge problem. No less for their commercial opportunities. This could well have been the final straw for David Tepper who felt he had to pull the trigger to give Panthers fans some sense of competency within the organisation.
Owner, David Tepper, said in a press conference when asked about a future head coach – “they need to instil a culture of winning“. Exactly what Rhule was hired to do and failed.
So, what is next for Matt Rhule?
It is almost a certainty that he won’t be getting another NFL head coaching opportunity. That isn’t something that looks like an option and is unlikely to be something that Matt Rhule will want. He will be best going back to what he knows and where he has had success. Rebuilding teams, creating winning cultures and developing players at the next level.
Matt Rhule will have his pick from a host of colleges that would throw anything at the opportunity to have Matt Rhule be their next head coach. With the financial might of college programs, contracts won’t be an issue. Some colleges will be open to handing Rhule a blank cheque and taking him whatever the cost.
College programs will have to factor in that they will have to work out a buyout for Matt Rhule’s current contract. Rhule is still owed $40 million of guaranteed money. That would be offset by any contract he takes up in the college game.
And of course, the college football landscape has changed since Rhule left for the NFL. The introduction of NIL will change the way Rhule will have to recruit. We don’t know if that will be an asset or a hindrance.
It’s fair to say Matt Rhule will get to choose his next destination. Huge college programs like Nebraska, Arizona St and Wisconsin currently have empty chairs and open vacancies. All 3 have huge status and recruiting power.
There is also wide speculation of teams that will look to move on at some point this season or at the end of the season. With a team like Auburn a firm favourite among bookmakers.
Rhule will likely take some time and evaluate his options at the end of the college season. One thing is for certain, expect to see him on a sideline of a big college program next autumn.
Where do you think Matt Rhule will end up next? Let us know on Twitter @NinetynineYards
Image Credit: Charlotte Observer