Matt Rhule, coach, Carolina
The Panthers hired Rhule in January. Then, Luke Kuechly retired (and four other defensive starters were jettisoned), Cam Newton was released, and Greg Olsen was traded. Season started. Christian McCaffrey has missed four games with a high ankle sprain. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is gone for the year (shoulder); left tackle Russell Okungmissed two games with a groin injury.
Carolina, 0-2 with McCaffrey and 3-1 without him, was typically competitive Sunday in a seven-point loss to 5-1 Chicago.
In a recent conversation with Rhule, he left no question about why the Panthers’ season didn’t go down the drain with the early adversity. His message: If you’re on my team, you’re a starting player in the NFL. That’s how they’re coached.
“You want to have a team that the players know you trust them,” Rhule said. “I want our guys—I want [backup running backs] Mike Davis and Reggie Bonnafon, I want [backup tackle] Greg Little, I want [backup defensive tackle] Zach Kerr—I want them to know that, like, we trust them and we believe in them and they’re here for a reason. At the same time, there’s also a standard in our organization for how a starter plays. If you go in there to be a starter, we expect you to do your job and play really hard and play to our standard. The more you do that, the more I think it becomes contagious. I think a part of it is, we practice like a college team. Our twos [second-teamers], we expect our twos to get reps. When practice is over, the two offense stays out and runs through the script one more time. I expect our coaches to coach our twos and our threes.
“I believe in that because at the college level, you’re trying to develop freshman and sophomores. You want them to stay engaged. I look at this level and I say, ‘What’s the difference?’ There isn’t one, really. It’s football. If we can be a place that develops young players, if we can take undrafted free agents and rookie players and develop them, then when they’re called upon, they’ll be ready. I’m sure other teams do that. I’m not saying we’re revolutionary. But it’s what I know from being the son of a high school coach and a college coach. We’ve come here and done this. So our twos, when they’ve been called upon, have gone in and they’ve really done a nice job for us.”
In his first three games as the McCaffrey heir, Davis, a waiver pickup from the Bears last year, rushed 45 times for a 4.9-yard average. In the two games without Okung at left tackle, the Panthers allowed just two sacks and Teddy Bridgewater completed 73 percent of his throws. That doesn’t just happen. Matt Rhule can coach, and his players, up and down the roster, can play.