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The Day After: Matt Rhule trying to give the gift of focus

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CHARLOTTE – The short answer is, no, the Panthers aren't going to play Will Grier. And yes, Matt Rhule is cognizant of the fact he needs to get his wife Julie something nice for their first Christmas in Charlotte.

Those two seemingly unrelated things made sense together, once you let them breathe.

Even after losing a fairly dreadful 32-27 decision to the Broncos Sunday, Rhule was feeling expansive Monday, spending about twice as much time with reporters as is customary the day after the game. He discussed the granular details of Sunday's loss — and got very granular at times — but the overarching message was one of education.

He's trying to get players to understand their jobs, while he comes to understand his own at the same time. Just like his 2-10 rookie season at Temple, and his 1-11 first year at Baylor, this year was always going to be this way. The Panthers being 4-9 might actually be ahead of pace. But he doesn't want to waste a chance to learn a lesson this December that could be beneficial when the games matter more.

That's where poor Grier got dragged into the discussion, when Rhule was asked if he felt any compulsion to play the second-year quarterback in the final three weeks. Rhule circled back to a question from about 30 minutes earlier in the conversation about how to keep players' attention on small details when you lose seven out of eight games to make his point.

"I'm going to go try to win the last three games, so I'm going to put the guys that earned the right to start or play in," he began, settling in for what clearly was going to be an extended metaphor, a parable perhaps.

"I just don't think it's a great message to the team to start making this a tryout," he continued. "The question earlier about how to keep guys' eyes from glossing over, if we learn one thing this year with a young team, if we learn how to finish a season with 28 days of focus in December, if we have a chance to be a playoff team next year, our ability to focus around Christmas, to focus around Thanksgiving, to go win games at the end of the year when you're beat up, when practices are shorter, that's a skill.

"Who can be great at the end of the season when you're dealing with all these things? How do you handle making sure you have a Christmas present for your wife and also making sure you know the third-down game plan? I'm dead serious. It's the ability to eliminate distractions and stay focused.

"So instead of trying guys out, I'd rather try to get the whole organization to understand how important December is. And try to win games in December. And if we're not good enough to win, to give an honest fight. We didn't play great yesterday and we still had a chance to go win a game."

There were more words, but that was the essence of what he's trying to sell this year, this month, and this week.

Rhule wasn't thrilled with the technique some of his players played with at times, the lack of precision of assignments.

But he also wondered whether he put some of those players in position to succeed, by giving some of them extended game reps when they barely practiced the previous two weeks because of the bye and the assorted absences that kept some guys away last week.

He wasn't crazy about quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wasting a chance to use the two-minute warning to craft a better third-down play.

"Teddy made a decision to run a play when we asked him not to," Rhule said. "Watching the tape, I see what he saw, but it shouldn't happen that way. That'll be made clear moving forward. There's a time and a place. You can't have quarterbacks play in the black and white, there has to be some gray area, . . .

"In that area, I think he thought he had a little more grace to get that done, but it's not what we wanted."

But Rhule also filed away the play so that everyone understands what the expectations are when it comes up again. He was specific that he needed to circle back to make sure his part of the process was taken care of, that he communicated clearly to coaches and players how he wanted it handled.

Rhule has jumped on some grenades in recent weeks, putting the blame on himself and the coaching staff for the loss to the Vikings. The Broncos loss may have been more of an individual player deal at times, and he clearly wasn't happy with some specific parts.

But they're all learning, with the goal being that they all arrive at the right place at the same time.

And that the Christmas gifts are covered.

INJURY UPDATE

Rhule said that running back Christian McCaffrey was coming in for rehab Monday afternoon, another sign they plan on him returning this season.

(Again, he's going to play his best players, regardless of planning for the future or draft pick considerations.)

Rhule also said that he thought left tackle Russell Okung has a chance to play Saturday against the Packers after leaving yesterday's game briefly with a calf injury. Okung missed four games earlier this year with a similar injury, but this one's apparently not that bad since he was able to finish the game.

STILL LIKING LITTLE

Rhule was also asked about second-year left tackle Greg Little, who has been a healthy scratch the past two games.

That turned into more of an endorsement of backup left tackle Trent Scott, who Rhule called "one of the most positive developments we've had this year."

With the Panthers generally keeping eight linemen active for games, their backup spots have gone to Scott, Michael Schofield, and Tyler Larsen.

"I like Greg Little a lot," Rhule said. "I like where he's trending, but we're really pleased with Trent and what he's doing. . . . If Russell's not able to go, Greg will be up this week."

View the best behind-the-scenes photos of Carolina's Week 14 game against Denver.

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