How Matt Rhule is leading his first offseason program

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The first week of May is typically when NFL teams have moved into Phase II of their offseason programs, with coaches allowed to give players on-field instruction.

Obviously, that's not happening this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So first-year head coach Matt Rhule has had to pivot as he now presides over the Panthers' virtual offseason program.

"I think it's going really, really well," Rhule said. "It's a great opportunity for us to meet with the players, really master the system. I think it's forced us as coaches to rethink how we teach.

"Our coaches are refining it day after day, becoming better coaches. Our players have done a great job of interacting and taking in the information. So I think it's been really positive.""

The Panthers' program runs Monday through Thursday each week, with team meetings starting at 1 p.m via Microsoft Teams. Those sessions, run by Rhule, focus on a particular topic or feature a different member of the football operation, like the wellness staff, to make sure players understand the resources they have.

"We talk about different segments of the program every day," Rhule said. "I think it's a good opportunity to try to have guys hear from multiple people, try to get some interaction and teach the system."

After the team get-together and a half-hour special teams meeting, players then separate into offensive and defensive meetings or their position groups. While Rhule is present for the special teams meeting, he usually doesn't attend the breakout sessions.

"I let the coaches handle their meetings," Rhule said. "I want them to be able to work back and forth with the players. I don't want to be sort of big brother standing over them — I want them to develop those relationships. But I am able to go back and listen to the meetings afterwards."

Rhule noted that if there is something specific he wants to see, he'll pop in, but said with a laugh that he makes sure he's announced.

"But by and large, I want to make sure that the guys are developing relationships with most of their position groups," Rhule said. "So it's really letting the coaches do their jobs and letting the coordinators do their job."

So far, Rhule has received positive feedback from both players and coaches for how the program has worked.

"I think everyone understands that it's not ideal, but that it's being done really well," Rhule said. "I think a lot of our coaches and players are finding the good parts in it. Instead of worrying about what's not great about it, they're trying to find things that are great about it.

"The ability for players to really dive into the information — we're not on the field doing on the field work, so we can really focus on the cognitive parts of the game. So I think guys have been really positive about the way it's going. And as I said, we're trying to spice it up and have different people talk to them so they build relationships with all the people in the organization."

Last weekend, the Panthers also ran a three-day virtual rookie minicamp that included about five hours of meetings each day.

"It was a good experience. Pretty much all the rookies were together, getting to know the playbook and things like that, interacting with each other," said seventh-round cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver III. "Just another good opportunity to get to know your teammates better, the coaches better, and get into the playbook."

Per NFL rules, rookies can't participate in the bigger virtual offseason program until May 11. But Rhule was impressed with the way the 2020 class was attentive and retained information throughout the weekend.

"They paid attention, they were on time, and they worked hard at it," Rhule said. "So they'll get integrated next Monday, but we tried to give them a great boost — three days of a lot of information so that when they show up on the 11th, they're pretty far ahead."

While everyone understands why the offseason program must be virtual, Rhule admitted it's difficult trying to get to know players on the roster when they can only interact through video. But he also feels like building relationships isn't something he should force, so he's trying to take advantage of little moments that pop up.

"Wishing people happy birthday, always being available for guys," Rhule said. "Just trying to be the same guy every day, be who you are, knowing that opportunities are going to come to get to know guys better and better. 

"People respect someone who's consistent, so if I can be consistent through this really hard period, hopefully there will be a lot of trust as we get back together at some point."

And much like during the draft, Rhule has found that a silver lining of conducting a virtual offseason program from his home office is a unique, shared experience with family. 

"Usually once a week, I try to talk in a longer team meeting on something I believe, and my son usually comes in and listens to it," Rhule said.

"I think all of us right now, while we miss getting out of the house and going to work and all the different things that we love, I know we also all enjoy being together with our families. So yeah, I'm trying to enjoy as much of that as I possibly can right now."

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