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Matt Rhule
Matt Rhule's vision for the Panthers is on the next thing
Rhule enters his second year with goals in mind, but last year reinforced the need to keep the focus immediate.
By Darin Gantt Sep 07, 2021

CHARLOTTE — Here's the thing about a process. It doesn't come with a map.

So while Panthers head coach Matt Rhule may have had some general ideas about how he wanted things to go entering his second season, he didn't know what would pop up unexpectedly. While he might have had dreams about what his NFL career might be like, he couldn't have predicted a worldwide pandemic. While he might have mileposts he wanted his team to hit, he doesn't frame them in terms of things he can't control in the future.

All there is, is the work. Step by step. Practice to practice rather than year to year. It's how he thinks.

"Not really," Rhule said with a shrug when asked about his vision for his second year in charge of the Panthers. "I've always just been kind of day to day; what does the team need right now type of a guy.

"I was walking into a lot of unknowns, didn't really know what the situation was going to be, so I just walked in and took it day by day."

That might sound like a cliché, and let's face it, it is. That's the language football coaches speak. But it's also the only way he knows how to work, and how to fix a football team that needed fixing.

Rhule proved his ability to do that at Temple and Baylor, but the NFL is a different creature. So as much as he had ideas about things he wanted to do, he couldn't know specifically what comes next.

So rather than trying to implement his plan on the Panthers the way he did two wayward college programs, he made the conscious choice to have a blueprint, and then to see what was next and react to it.

"I made a decision — if you get rid of the terms 'players' and 'coach' and think about people, life's all about people," Rhule said. "That said, I knew I was walking into a new environment. Anywhere I've been, it's not about carrying winning over. How did I win there and replicate it? You say to yourself, how do we win here? What are our assets? What do we have to overcome? And figuring that out at each place.

"Even when you're in the same place, who do we have, what are our strengths, what are our weaknesses, how do we win here? That was my mindset, get there, figure the place out, take it day by day, and just trust that in time if you do the right things long enough, it will work."

While it can't be relied on as predictive, there is at least some evidence that his method works.

Rhule's first Temple team went 2-10. The second one went 6-6, and they won 10 games and made a bowl by the third. His first Baylor team went 1-11, the second one 7-6, and the third one went 11-3 and to the Sugar Bowl.

But college is different than the NFL, and Rhule knows that. He also knows enough to know what has worked and what hasn't.

The list of college coaches who were going to bend the NFL to their all-powerful will except they couldn't is long. The list of college coaches who dug in and figured out the pro game and had great success is much shorter.

And that list starts with Jimmy Johnson, so when Rhule began thinking about his second NFL offseason, he decided to go fishing.

During a family vacation in early April, Rhule and his son Bryant jumped aboard Johnson's boat "Three Rings" (in reference to the two Super Bowls Johnson won in Dallas, along with the title he won in college at Miami) and headed out to catch some Mahi and learn some football.

"He's the best," Rhule said of the Hall of Fame coach. "He took Bryant and me out and made sure it was a great experience for us, made sure it was an unbelievable day to be around him.

"It was very casual. At the same time, I'm not going to not take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions, to talk. . . . Just hearing his philosophy was really good for me."

When Johnson was trying to fix the Cowboys, his first order of business was to stack assets. Trading Herschel Walker for a boatload of picks was a start, but he also wanted as many draft choices as possible. So it's not a coincidence that less than a month after that fishing trip, the Panthers made a franchise-high five draft-weekend trades, and left with a franchise-high 11 picks.

But Johnson has acknowledged that there was far more to the transition from college to pros that he recognized at the time.

"There's not a world of difference; there's a galaxy of difference," Johnson said this summer of his own journey. "As a college coach, I was a mentor; I was kind of a father figure, I did a tremendous amount of counseling with the players. They were young kids that had left home for the first time in their life, all the pressures of getting that college education, the pressures of the girlfriend, the pressures of living away from their family.

"So my relationship with the players was a heck of a lot different than professional players, who are really, they're dictated by financial reasons. It's a business. Their agents are influencing them, so it's a completely different relationship."

Relationships are one of the things Rhule's great at. As good as he is at football, he's probably better at people. He convinces them. He makes them believe.

And when he walked in the door here a little over a year ago, he had to start all over again, and with a group of guys who didn't know him.

Veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson admitted it was unusual at first. He came into the league under coach Ron Rivera, so there was going to be an adjustment to a new personality.

"I feel like me and Coach Rhule definitely understand each other," Thompson said. "We definitely had some hiccups when he first got here, but now I feel like our relationship got a lot better. He understands me, and I understand him. I understand how they want us to be coached and how they want us to play. And how we want them to coach us."

Thompson said an important component in that relationship-building was seeing Rhule's points of emphasis borne out on the field. The Panthers lost eight one-score games last year (3-8 on the season), so you find out in a hurry that little things can make a big difference. Thompson's adopted those principles as his own now.

But it also took time and conversations.

"It's just two grown men, right? Two grown men have to hash it out and talk about it," Thompson said. "You're going to have bickers; you're going to fight. That's just the way it is. As long as you both understand and respect each other, that you're both men, then you have a good relationship, and that's what it was.

"We're good now. Joking around, and we laugh and everything. Me and him, we came a long way, and our relationship got a lot better."

Matt Rhule, Shaq Thompson

It's worth noting that entering a pivotal offseason for the Panthers, Thompson was one of the leaders who made sure attendance at voluntary workouts was near-perfect. That wasn't the case with every team, as the NFLPA was leaning on players to not volunteer for everything. But Thompson was rounding up rookies and young players, and bringing them along.

That's what a transformation looks like.

"You come in, you're new, you have to learn 90 different people, where all the people who were here only had to learn one new person or a couple of different people," Rhule said. "I think any time you bring in change to an organization, whether you're coming from college or another NFL team or Antarctica, change is stressful for guys; there's anxiety. Once they get comfortable with it, once they understand, even if they don't necessarily like everything you do, once they understand what you do, there's just much more comfort to it.

"It just takes time for people to be able to understand, this is our process, this is what we do, this is why we do it, and at the same time, it's good when it starts to work, and when you get a chance to sit down and talk to people one on one. I didn't really have that much at first but certainly have more of it now."

Rhule didn't want to get into the details of conversations with Thompson, but he clearly didn't mind having high participation, and having players drive it. And having leaders like Thompson and Taylor Moton and other veterans helped create that environment.

"For me, coming in this offseason, it's like this is what we want to do; we'd love to have you be a part of it," Rhule said. "The spring was important for us. Everybody showing up was big. That's a credit to the players and the leaders on the team. Everybody showing up was important to make some progress football-wise, and get better as a team and get better as a person.

"I give a lot of credit to (Thompson) and Matt Paradis and Christian McCaffrey and T-Mo — they certainly were the catalysts in that."

Of course, a lot of that involves those players adapting to Rhule. He's the one in charge, so that's how it works. But he remembers during his one year with the Giants in 2012, hanging out in the parking lot with guard Chris Snee and their kids after games. There was just a seven-year age difference between the fathers, and Rhule learned that communication had to be natural, and not dependent on roles.

"I'm technically the coach, and he's technically the player, but we were two guys with families," he said. "I think if you ask the guys I coached in college, when you're dealing with young players, you're training players, they don't really know how to play the game the way you want. You're training them. At this level, you're coaching them; they're already trained.

"It's very much a symbiotic relationship. You give to them; they give to you. That collaborative process we have at this level, you want to have it at college with some of the players, but you have it way more here. But the great coaches give players what they need. You talk to each player; you listen, you give them what they need. That to me is the key to good coaching."

The guys who have seen him at both levels said they could see a change.

Haason Reddick played for Rhule at Temple, and was one of the most significant free-agent pickups of the offseason. While they wanted a guy who had 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles to add to the defense, Rhule said it was also important to add guys who know how they want to work. So Reddick walked in the door knowing what to expect, and having seen that it worked.

"As far as things that are different, I want to say he's a little more relaxed. At certain points, he's a little calmer," Reddick said. "I think that's due to the fact he knows he's dealing with veteran players, and he has guys that made it. He's now coaching guys that have made it to the highest level of football. It's different than college, (with players) coming in from high school.

"This is the higher level; it is the NFL. I feel like he's a little more calm and relaxed. He's not so hard on players like he was when he was in college."

Rhule laughed when he heard that assessment during the heat of training camp, saying every older player thinks they had it worse than the guys who came after them.

"But certainly when you have 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-old guys, I'm dealing with what they're doing academically and everything," Rhule said. "Here I'm dealing with football. Everyone that's here wants to be a great player; they want to do the right thing. They don't want to be beaten down.

"But I think we have a good culture of accountability here. I take responsibility, the player, we put the tape on, and if it's good, it's good. No one is sacred, it could be anybody."

That was another of Johnson's lessons. In the NFL, the margin is small, and the tape doesn't lie.

The Hall of Fame coach joked that when he was at the University of Miami and had comical advantages in players, "my wife Rhonda probably could have won eight or nine games, I didn't even need to show up; we had so much talent."

"In pro football, if you try to do the same things and you turn the ball over three or four times, you're going to get beat. I don't care who you're playing," Johnson said. "The difference between the worst team and the best team in pro football is very, very small. In college football, if you're in the top 10 or 12 schools, you're going to win eight or nine by being pretty good. You don't have to be at your best. You're going to have to be at your best for maybe three games a year (in college). There's a big difference, beginning with the length of the season. It's really structuring your practices, making sure you don't overwork your players, the offseason program.

"I mean, it's really a different world in professional football."

Rhule found that out the hard way last year.

He walked into his first NFL head coaching job in January. In March, the world stopped, and COVID-19 took every plan he had made for his first year and stuck them in the shredder. All the speeches he had prepared for his first minicamp now had to be delivered into a webcam and broadcast to his players on their computer screens. All his detailed practice plans would have to wait until training camp, when he was trying to install a culture and a game plan while meeting new faces, and trying to learn them from behind masks.

Asked about the hardest part of his transition last year, and Rhule said it wasn't anything to do with the difference in college and pro players.

"I would say number one, COVID," Rhule said plainly. "That was such a weird experience. And just figuring out the right schedule for players that we could work at a high level, and still keep them fresh.

"I don't ever want to lose our ethos as being a practice team, a team that wants to play hard, so I think the biggest thing was how hard COVID was. Every day was a challenge. Getting back to a normal season has been really good."

Of course, normal is relative. There's no way to plan for what's to come, which is why Rhule minimizes grand theories or visions of the future. There's a huge television in his office, and when he's gathering a thought or is between tasks, he'll steal a glance at the screen, looking for any small clue on a freeze-frame of game film, any minute difference which could make a difference for his team.

He's learned already that success has to be granular, and it has to be grown. It can't be imposed, sent down by decree.

So as he thinks about what the 2021 Panthers will be like, he shrugs and admits he's not sure what's next.

There are plenty of things he likes about this team, but he simply doesn't know. He thinks they're better. He hopes they're resilient. Seeing the way they bounced back from a bad first day of joint practice with the Colts with a much better effort in the second was a small sign of progress. But until he sees them handle a couple of wins, or work out of a losing streak, he won't be sure.

"Really good teams ride the highs and lows of the season," Rhule said. "You win a couple of ball games, you don't get too high. You lose a couple, you don't get too low, you stay even-keeled and have the same standard and the same process every day. Those will be the challenges of the season that we'll have to endure and meet."

He's asked how he'll define improvement in his second season, after his first one ended with a 5-11 record.

"I don't know if I can define it," Rhule replied. "At the end of the day, you turn the tape on and see how it looks. I think that's what we're looking at. I'm not looking for improvement from last year; I'm looking for day-to-day and week-to-week.

"I want to turn the tape on every Sunday night and like the way the film looks and like the way we're playing and our effort and our energy and our precision as well as our physicality. We want to be a team that meshes aggression and precision. So we play really hard and really fast but also with tremendous detail. Those are the things you only measure by watching the tape. It's hard to play hard and be detailed."

And it can't be weighed by the pound. It only comes a spoonful at a time.

That's why that day is the most important one to Matt Rhule. Because the next thing is always right in front of him, not at some fixed point on the horizon.

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