Matt Rhule isn’t in an easy position right now, I get it. The newly named Nebraska coach is in the middle of a media blitz to hype up Huskers fans and get national visibility ahead of recruiting, while constantly being haunted by the specter of his former job: Being the worst head coach in the history of the Carolina Panthers.
That is a difficult tightrope to walk. It requires balancing future promise and expectation while being constantly pulled into the past to answer for his mistakes. There are a few ways someone could approach this: You could say the fit just wasn’t right, admit the NFL wasn’t the right place for you as a coach, or even duck the questions entirely and say you want to focus on the future. Rhule picked a new tact: Gaslight an entire NFL fanbase.
The common through line that dominated Rhule’s interviews was this concept that he was sold a false bill of goods in coming to Carolina. There was supposed to be a four year plan, and greatness was around the corner, if only he had more than 2.5 years to get it done. Rhule said precisely this to Rich Eisen.
“I was hired to do a four year, kind of a plan. I’m a guy that historically in the third year has won. We knew talking to people there that it might take a little longer, because of where we were, end of an era […] If you tell me ‘hey, we need you to do it in two years, then I’m going to do it differently. I’m gonna sign some more free agents, I’m gonna change some things. If you ask me to do it in four years then we’re gonna build through the draft.”
Here’s the problem: There isn’t evidence of there ever being a four-year plan for the Panthers, either through words or action. In fact, there are receipts.
Matt Rhule in his first team meeting back in 2020.
“ I don’t want to wait 3 years….I want to try do it right away”
A lot different than the narrative he’s trying to push on his media tour. pic.twitter.com/hS7kA9QWu1
— The 4 Man Rush (@4ourmanrush) November 30, 2022
“To get to a championship as a head coach, it’s usually taken me three years. I don’t want to wait three years. I don’t want to have to sit there are say “okay let’s do this,” I want to try to do it right away.”
Rhule’s actions showed him to be a far more like that initial 2020 video that his curated media image today. He was in win-now mode from the second he arrived — the problem was he just wasn’t good at winning now, or in the future, or at any point in time during his tenure. The fault of that lays at one man’s feet: Matt Rhule’s. Rhule had complete control over the Panthers, it was written into his contract. Being able to dictate his own personnel and coaching decisions was one of the reasons he chose to come to Carolina over other jobs teams who were interested in him.
When former GM Marty Hurney was fired midway into Rhule’s first season over “differences” with Rhule, it was a clear sign that the man responsible for drafting Julius Peppers, Luke Kuechly, Cam Newton, and Thomas Davis — all former All-Pros, didn’t jive with the new vision for the team. The Panthers hired Scott Fitterer from Seattle, who was used to simply being the executor of a controlling coach’s vision when he worked with Pete Carroll. At the time Panthers.com said precisely as much, that this was Rhule’s show, his vision, and Fitterer would be enabling it.
So, let’s go back to that first Rhule statement to Rich Eisen, when he said he would have signed more free agents if he knew there was an expectation to win immediately — an expectation Rhule made to his staff when he said he wanted to win immediately and not wait three years. However, when it comes to things going wrong, in Rhule’s mind it was never his fault. When asked by Eisen why the team didn’t draft a QB, electing to pass on Justin Fields in 2021 he said:
“I wasn’t the GM. I didn’t make the picks.”
If you’re getting a little confused at this point it’s not your fault, because Rhule trying to make this picture confusing. He’s lying. He’s re-writing history to fit a narrative of him being the poor, maligned program builder who wasn’t given a chance to succeed in a win-now world of the NFL — but rest assured, Nebraska fans, when he’s given time he’s going to make a winner.
It’s not his fault the team struggled early (despite trying to win early), it’s not his fault they didn’t select a superstar quarterback (despite having control of the franchise) — nothing was Matt Rhule’s fault. The real reason that the Panthers didn’t take Fields was because the Panthers were stuck on horrific path at QB that Rhule put the team on, and he refused to admit he screwed it all up.
The first win-now move at the position came immediately after Rhule was hired, when he signed Teddy Bridgewater to a 3 year, $63M contract. It banked on Bridgewater being a franchise QB — which never materialized. So then Rhule tucked tail and traded for Sam Darnold, another Hail Mary win-now move that didn’t pay off. Then he did it again with Baker Mayfield.
This costly, pointless floundering at quarterback was by Rhule’s design. No matter how much he wants to gaslight fans over it now, he did it. It was on him. There is no world in which he was trying to execute a slow-burn plan to build through the draft while also ignoring the most important position in football by trying to throw money at the problem and get someone in who can win right away.
There are objective truths in this world. Some things are not open for interpretation. Matt Rhule is a coach with an established history of turning around college programs. He is a terrible NFL coach. He’s also willing to lie to make himself look better.