CHARLOTTE — Panthers head coach Matt Rhule heard the fans registering their displeasure. He understands why.
But Rhule also defended his work in building things here, after a 32-6 loss to the Buccaneers that dropped Carolina to 5-10.
Rhule gave a long answer when asked after the game how to explain whether his process was still working, talking through a number of the hurdles the team had to clear when he walked in the door.
"We have some key areas that we have to fix," Rhule said. "Whether that is to coach them better, to do better organizationally. But I believe it is 1,000 percent working; I just know no one can see it, and I apologize."
The challenges the Panthers faced this year were clear, beginning with an offensive line Rhule compared to Interstate 85 ("under construction") when he was in Spartanburg for training camp. The Panthers used their 11th different combination of starting linemen in 15 games Sunday. The unsettled nature of the quarterback position, which has required three starters this year, certainly hasn't helped, nor has the absence of Christian McCaffrey. But Rhule pointed to the resources poured into the defense and the strides they've made there.
But he also heard boos Sunday.
"You know, I come from Philadelphia. To me, it shows that people care," Rhule said. "Walking off the field, people booing – we are not winning. I have no problem with that. People spend their hard-earned money to come watch us play. It is part of it when you are the head coach, when you are the quarterback. That is all part of it. It makes it that much better when you win.
"I much prefer passion over apathy. I much prefer pressure over nothing. I could do something else. I think our fans have been great. They support us and you know sometimes you need to be booed. . . . I have no issue with our fans. What fans deserve is they deserve a winner. They saw a really good team early in the year and they're not seeing it right now. I understand their frustration."
— Veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson was asked about the team's confidence level in "the process," after their 10th loss in their last 12 games.
"Each and every day we come here and we work," Thompson said. "You all don't see what we put in, in the meeting rooms and on the film and all that stuff. Each and every day, these guys come in, and each and every day, we work. We are not going out there and BS-ing and none of that stuff. That's the process. That's 'the brand' he's (Rhule) talking about to us each and every day, working. That's what we do. Each and every day we are going to come out here and we are going to work. Regardless of the outcome, win, lose, or draw. We are going to go out there and fight for 60 minutes."
— Rhule praised the "mental toughness" of quarterback Sam Darnold, who entered the game in the second quarter to some jeers.
And to his credit, Darnold said he tried to compartmentalize things as well as he could, in his first game action since Week 9.
Asked about coming onto the field to something other than full support, Darnold said he was simply trying to control what he could control.
"Just do my job. That's the biggest thing," Darnold said. "I feel like a lot of these questions are going to be answered with that response. I just have to go out there and do my job. That's really all I was thinking during that moment."
Of course, any negative reception could have been because of the absence of Cam Newton rather than the presence of Sam Darnold, and Darnold seemed aware of that.
"I'm sure a lot of the fans are passionate about Cam," he said. "That's very obvious. So I'm thinking that's what it was. Cam's done so much for this city and so much for this organization. I'm sure that's what it was."
Darnold first throw was a strong one — a 63-yard connection to Shi Smith, and he finished the game 15-of-32 for 190 yards passing. It wasn't a great day, but it also wasn't a situation conducive for the passing game. The Buccaneers sacked Darnold four times and Newton three times. That seven was the high total for the Panthers this year.
So when it came down to assessing his own play, Darnold was clear: "Not good enough. Left some plays out there. Didn't complete enough footballs."
View photos of the Panthers taking on Tampa Bay in the 2021 home finale in Week 16.