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.