CHARLOTTE — After the most unique offseason in NFL history, one could forgive Matt Rhule for lamenting the present circumstances.
But that's not his style.
"Yeah, it's less than ideal," Carolina's first-year head coach said on a virtual press conference Wednesday afternoon. "I mean, even as we're making decisions right now, we're making decisions based off of meeting rooms and things like that. But it just is what it is.
"There's nothing worse than a football coach who complains."
Rhule and the Panthers are in a tough spot. Still, as rookies finally get in the weight room and on the field for conditioning and veterans report for testing, it's starting to feel like football.
"I've been ecstatic since being back in the building," Rhule said. "Certainly getting back on the field the other day, it's been so exciting just for all of us."
Rhule noted how different the team's facility at Bank of America Stadium now looks in an effort to keep players safe as training camp begins during a pandemic. The team has essentially moved its operations from smaller rooms to bigger rooms. Among the many changes, each player has his own suite so that virtual meetings can occur safely and remotely, but still on-site.
"I tell our guys, 'Eight is the new six.' They say six feet; we're trying to do everything at eight feet as best we can," Rhule said. "I hope that when our players show up, they'll see that in a hard situation, we've done our best to try to make this a brand new place and a brand new space for them."
While health and safety are paramount, legitimate concerns about the virus remain. The Panthers have already had one player opt-out due to COVID-19 concerns in linebacker Jordan Mack.
"The thing that I've said to everybody is, obviously, it affects us all differently. So if you have any concerns, questions, any issues — just always reach out to talk about those things," Rhule said. "At the end of the day, everyone's got to make the right decision for them. So I don't fault anyone for the decisions they make, especially when it comes to the safety and security of their family."
With rookies, quarterbacks, and returning injured players now on the field for conditioning and walk-throughs, coaches are wearing masks or face shields. Those trying out the latter are doing it so players can get to know their faces and better see their expressions.
The staff has a difficult task of evaluating players before the Aug. 16 roster reduction to 80 players. Some teams have already trimmed to that number, but the Panthers will use a split-squad — at least for now.
"It just didn't seem right or prudent for us to just make cuts without ever having seen some of these guys work," Rhule said. "The rules state that we can go down to 80 at any time. I think in a year like this, as many people as possible who know your system who've been around you — even if they get called up in November — you're going to be happy about it."
With little practice time and no preseason games, Carolina's undrafted rookies could have a tough time making enough of an impression to make the opening roster. But unlike other coaching staffs who have longstanding ties to players, everyone has a blank slate right now.
"At least for us, we don't know anyone," Rhule said. "There's also an expanded practice squad. It went from 10 to 12, and now it's at 16. You have a chance to be on an NFL roster that maybe you wouldn't have had last year."
That's part of Rhule's general coaching philosophy, anyway. As a coach who thrived at Temple and Baylor without many five-star recruits, he wants an environment where players can develop from the practice squad to a consistent starter.
"That's one of the areas I always thought was neglected by so many people," Rhule said. "I don't know why you can't develop players in the NFL. So we thought, let's do a great job with our practice squad players, do a great job with our young players and find some diamonds in the rough."
To that end, Rhule has been impressed with the rookies' retention from the virtual offseason program.
"Obviously, there's always a step there where you go from doing it on the board to being on the field, having your cleats in the ground and the pressure and the speed of it," he said. "My recommendation to the guys was don't be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are good when they happen now when you learn from them. And just take a breath and relax. You're all good football players. You're here for a reason. Don't let the anxiety get the best of you."
After coaching for so long in college, Rhule is accustomed to not having preseason games to evaluate players. It means the club will have to come up with competitive situations to maximize practice.
"I've had to utilize practices and scrimmages to make evaluations. So I'm going to rely on our coaching staff, rely on our personnel staff, on (GM) Marty (Hurney), his people," Rhule said. "This is really a time for our players — young players, old players — if they have a meeting, whether it's virtual or in person, they've got to be great at it. If they go out to the practice field and get a couple reps, they've got to be great at them. They've got to really show what they can do in a controlled environment."
In a sense, not having preseason games could somewhat benefit the Panthers. Sure, there's tape on offensive coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Phil Snow from their previous stops, but opponents won't be familiar with exactly how Carolina's personal will fit into certain formations and plays.
"We won't have to show our hand as we go," Rhule said. "So that'll obviously be something that we try to take advantage of, at least early in the season."
Call it positivity, call it optimism. As Rhule said on Wednesday, there's good and bad to every development.
But as he begins his first training camp, at least Rhule knows this: No one wants to hear a complaining football coach. And it doesn't seem like there will be much room for complaints or excuses for the Panthers in August.
View photos of head coach Matt Rhule and his coordinators returning to work.