The Panthers have wrapped up their virtual offseason program, and head coach Matt Rhule likes where the club left off, though there are plenty of questions ahead because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They like to work, very competitive," Rhule said of his team during a video press conference Thursday. "We've done everything from mental health and wellness to special teams to guest speakers, and I feel like our guys have shown up every day and been good about it.
"I think that's a really big takeaway. … When guys have nice chemistry, when guys enjoy working together, and when there's a strong work ethic, you're started off in the right direction."
Still, there are evident complications to how the Panthers will practice once training camp begins. Rhule revealed the current plan is for rookies to report July 21, with injured players and quarterbacks arriving two days later, with veterans coming in July 28. But there will be more guidance from the league and from the Panthers' own pandemic response team in the coming weeks.
"What's best practice now might not be in 30 days. So it's an ever-evolving group," Rhule acknowledged. "That being said, I think when the time comes, whatever the cutting-edge technologies, whatever the best practice is, whatever the safest way we can do things, I'm sure that they'll do."
In the three-tiered system outlined in a recent NFL memo, coaches and players will be kept separate from most other club employees. While the NFL has loosened restrictions to allow coaches back in their home facilities if local government guidelines allow, Rhule and his staff have stayed home to work virtually.
When coaches and players do return, Rhule is anticipating significant changes to where and how the players meet. That the Panthers work out of at Bank of America Stadium could help alleviate some spatial constraints.
Rhule mentioned the possibility of using the Club Level on the third floor as a meeting area. The team could also turn the entire first floor, including what they usually use as meeting rooms, into locker rooms.
"At the end of the day, whatever it takes," Rhule said. "I've learned now over the last couple months that I can meet really well virtually. So if that means guys practice and then they go home and we meet virtually, then we'll do that. If team meetings have to be broadcast in all the different position rooms, we're going to do that."
Rhule has been having conversations with team owner David Tepper about contingency plans for the pandemic for a while now. Those talks have included what happens if a player or coach tests positive for the virus and is unavailable for a game.
"Mr. Tepper had said that to me like three months ago. More like, as we were having conversations, you're going to have to think about do you quarantine a quarterback? Who calls the plays if (offensive coordinator) Joe (Brady) gets sick or (defensive coordinator) Phil (Snow gets sick)?" Rhule said. "So we have all along kind of said, 'Hey, let's figure out all these different things.'"
Like every other team, the pandemic shifted the Panthers' spring preparations for the upcoming season. But they had the added challenge of a new coaching staff, plus a large turnover of the roster.
While Rhule liked how Brady and Snow implemented their respective offensive and defensive systems with in-depth virtual sessions, Rhule admitted Carolina is behind in evaluating players on the field. Because of that, training camp practices have become even more critical.
"Every development has two sides — there's positive and negative. The negative, obviously, is we did not actually get in and start doing things, like start throwing the ball," Rhule said. "There's some natural gravitation one way or another when you see what guys' strengths are. So we might get to training camp and say we want to push more in this direction of the offense, push more in this direction of the defense as we get to know our people."
There is still much left for the NFL to decide to make meetings, practices, and games as safe as possible. So right now, Rhule's general message to his team is each individual should do what's right for him and his family.
In that vein, Rhule was asked what his reaction would be if a player wanted to sit out due to concerns about the virus, like Avery Bradley of the Lakers decided because he has an immunocompromised son.
"That's why my coaches aren't in the building right now. Go be with your family right now. We can work a lot over this (virtually)," Rhule said.
"I just think that the best way to be a good coach is to always put your players first. So if anybody has any concerns, No. 1, I'd do my best to alleviate them. No. 2, one thing I know is we have the right people at the Carolina Panthers who are trying to make sure that we're not just living up to the policies and the protocols, but we're doing a great job of making sure we are as safe and healthy as we can be. And then three, just always trying to make sure that if our players have issues, we try to help them. So I would always support my players in whatever they're doing that's right for their families."
Here are a few other highlights from Rhule's spring wrap-up press conference.
On if he would consider taking a knee during the national anthem to support his players:
"First of all, I would consider anything as we move forward. I am supportive of the cause. I'm supportive of the movement. I'm supportive of social justice. I think for me, I think every person — whether it's a coach, player, everyone — that'll be a very personal decision for each person. I think it has to be made at the right time for the right reasons for everybody. So I'll support my players with whatever they do, and when the time comes, I'll think deeply about what's the best thing for me? What's the best way I can show my support? But make no mistake, I'm definitely supportive, and I think a lot of this has come from the players. So I'll wait and see what direction they're leaning, and then I, like everyone else, will make my decisions."
On the recoveries of DT Kawaan Short (shoulder) and K Graham Gano (leg) from their respective injuries:
"I think they're both really making good progress. I think they're both trending towards being healthy and being ready. Obviously, without having OTAs, I haven't had a chance to see (them in person). They're working with our people. But all the reports have been that they are both working really hard and making a lot of progress, so I think we feel really good about that."
On guest speakers during the team's virtual meetings this offseason:
"There were some great ones. Ryan Clark spoke to the defensive backs. I thought he was amazing. Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher — just a lot of great guys and I don't want to forget anyone. The biggest one for me was we had Joe Montana come in and talk to the quarterbacks. I'm like a little kid listening to that. You know, we wanted it to be useful to our guys. We weren't killing time. But to have guys come in and talk about what it took for them to be great, how to be great — I thought those things were really special."
View pictures of Matt Rhule during his time as head coach at Baylor (2017-19) and Temple (2013-16). Photos courtesy of Baylor Athletics and the Associated Press.