The Carolina Panthers found their replacement for Ron Rivera in former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, who becomes the sixth head coach — fifth permanent — in franchise history. Rhule agreed to a reported seven-year contract worth between $60 and $70 million. The Panthers also reportedly covered a $6 million buyout for Rhule at Baylor.
Rhule becomes the fourth coach the Panthers have hired without previous NFL head coaching experience, following inaugural coach Dom Capers, John Fox and Rivera. The three combined are responsible for 179 of the Panthers’ 195 all-time victories.
“I want to make sure the game is played the right way, each and every day, not just in the games, but on the practice field and in the meeting rooms,” Rhule said at his introductory news conference Monday in Charlotte. “I want to make sure that we honor this game that has given so much to us. And that we build a team that cares about each other.”
Owner David Tepper went outside the box a bit by dipping into the college ranks. Up until that point, Carolina had been following the blueprint of most NFL teams searching for a coach. The Panthers had interviewed former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, since hired by the Cowboys, and were talking to Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. The Panthers were also expected to interview Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.
Like the other candidates, Rhule has an offensive background, something the team made a priority after nearly nine years with the defensive-minded Rivera at the helm.
Rhule has just one year of NFL experience — he spent the 2012 season as assistant offensive line coach for the Giants. New York had planned to interview Rhule, a New York native, the day after he met with the Panthers, but Tepper acted quickly to nail down his man.
Rhule was a walk-on linebacker at Penn State, then began his trip up the coaching ladder in 1998, at Albright. His path took him through North Carolina, as special teams/linebacker coach at Western Carolina from 2002 to 2005, eventually adding responsibilities as run game coordinator and associate head coach.
Rhule also coached on staffs at Buffalo, UCLA and Temple. Despite his playing experience and early coaching responsibilities on the defensive side of the ball, Rhule eventually made the transition to coaching offense. He coached quarterbacks at Temple and eventually took over as the team’s offensive coordinator.
Following his year with the Giants, he returned to Temple as head coach. He quickly earned a reputation as a quick-fix head coach, improving the Owls from 2-10 his first year to 6-6 and then 10-4 — Temple’s first 10-win season since 1979. After a second 10-win season at Temple, Rhule took the head job at Baylor, again turning the program around quickly.
The Bears went from 1-11 his first season to 7-6 and 11-3.
Rhule earned NFL attention after last season, interviewing with the Colts and Jets for their openings before deciding to remain in college. Rhule seemed unlikely to make the jump again this year. In mid-December, he told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, “I don’t think I’m dumb enough or naïve enough to say that I would never be an NFL coach. I just think for me, I have such an unbelievable situation here, that it would have to be next to perfect, and even then, it would be hard to do.”
Schefter pushed Rhule on what his “perfect” situation would be, and his description could shed some light on the Panthers’ offseason plans.
“I think for anyone that goes (to the pros), A: You need to have a quarterback; and B: you need to have alignment,” he said.
By the end of the season, Carolina’s only quarterbacks on the active roster were Kyle Allen and Will Grier. The team has a decision to make on former league MVP Cam Newton, who many expected to be cut or traded to save cap space. It’s possible that Rhule’s requirement of an established quarterback could mean that the team will find a way to keep Newton in town, perhaps under a restructured contract.
Rhule tends to prefer a smashmouth offense. While at Temple, he said, “I figured it out, let’s run for 150 yards, we’ll win and I can get my wife a new kitchen and pay for my daughter to go to private school.”
He ran a more RPO-heavy set at Baylor, although that was out of necessity, not by choice.
“Run pass option has been my deal with the devil,” he told Football Scoop. “We won a couple games, but it wasn’t played the way I wanted it to be played. I want the game to look a certain way, with a certain brand. Run pass option has been a bridge for me a way to win. We want to be tough.”
Rhule has embraced an analytic approach to coaching, and his deal with Panthers includes budget money to start a sports-science division with the team.