CHARLOTTE – Few national media members are as familiar with Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and how he wants to build a team as Brian Baldinger.
An analyst for multiple outlets, including NFL Network and FOX, Baldinger first got to know Rhule in 2013 when he was Temple's head coach. Rhule made weekly appearances on Baldinger's Philadelphia-based radio show and Baldinger returned the favor by speaking to the Owls at least once a season. The relationship continued when Rhule went to Baylor and Baldinger worked a handful of Big 12 games for FOX.
So now that Rhule is just over halfway through his first season as an NFL head coach, how does Baldinger think the build is going?
"He's on schedule," he said Wednesday. "I think he understands the league. Playing keep away from Patrick Mahomes last week was a great game plan. They had almost a nine-minute opening drive with Mahomes just sitting there on the sideline, and they had a chance at the end to go down and kick the field goal and win. That's going up against a Super Bowl team. There's no moral victories, and he doesn't want to take anything out of it except he's building a foundation about how to play the game.
"He's building a mindset with how he wants to practice, how he wants to approach the game, and how he wants to approach each upcoming opponent. I think he's establishing that, and he's going to weed out the players that fit the system and those that don't. The guys that I talk to on the team, they love him, they respect him and they're on-board. That's what happens the first year. I think he won two games his first year at Temple and he won one game at Baylor his first year. It's not about wins, it's about establishing a culture."
It's also about developing players, which is something Baldinger has highlighted on Twitter for Panthers fans since the start of the season. Through his #BaldysBreakdowns, Baldinger has used film breakdowns to explain what he's seeing out of Carolina's young core. Here are some of those highlights, including some longer opinions about the development of certain players:
Your most recent clip featuring the Panthers was with Brian Burns. Where would you say his game is at right now?
Baldinger: "He's starting to build an archive, a real Rolodex of moves. Most guys spin inside, and if the guard or center is sitting there waiting for them, they get their head knocked off. Not many guys can spin outside. It's just an awkward move. But he beat a good tackle, Eric Fisher, with an outside move the other day and put a hit on Patrick Mahomes. It was lightning-fast, he got the left elbow of Eric Fisher to pin him like you would in a basketball move, like LeBron James spinning down low. It just caught my eye cause he hadn't shown that much. A lot of guys are afraid to use a move in a game cause they don't know if it's going to work. But if it's been done in practice enough where they feel secure about it, then they'll use it. It was just the right move, and you go, 'OK, I've seen him stab, I've seen him dip-and-rip, I've seen him with an inside move, and now I've seen an outside move.' He's got three, four, five different ways he can beat you right now, and he's just getting better and better.
"He's not putting up sack numbers that are going to lead the league right now, but sometimes they rush just three guys, and they're a zone team. So they just need a guy that can pressure, and when a quarterback wants to hold it — because that's what they're trying to get them to do — they need a guy that can still beat a double team and escape and make the quarterback move. It's an unselfish thing sometimes, the way that he plays, but he's coming. A lot of those guys up front are coming. Efe Obada is coming and Derrick Brown is coming and you can see it. You can see the development."
Many looked at Obada as almost like a novelty his first couple seasons. But you see something sustainable there?
Baldinger: "Yeah, I do, because he can rush inside. I think he's better as an inside rusher. He's got real power and a good slot move. I know he was part of the international program, and that's always a fun thing and it's good for growing the game and all that kind of stuff. But I don't care if he's from the U.K. or if he's from the University of Alabama, it doesn't matter. If you can play, you can play. And he can play."
No one was expecting Brown to put up Aaron Donald-like pass rush numbers, but what have you noticed from him through the first half of his first season?
Baldinger: "You see what you saw at Auburn. You see tremendous power and physicality. He can just physically pick guys up and throw them. He's got to learn. Even if you look at Aaron Donald's numbers, or Khalil Mack's numbers, none of these guys were world-beaters their first year. It takes them a year to figure things out. The offenses he's going up against right now, and the complexity of the offenses he's seeing, isn't what he saw at Auburn and the SEC. So it takes a year to figure it out, but you see it.
"You see him getting on the edge now. You just can't push guys down the middle. They're as big as he is. So you've got to get on the edge, get to the corner and learn how to rush guys on the edge and have a counter move. So you're starting to see it, He blocked a pass last week. When you can't get to the quarterback, get your hands up. All those little things. It might be microscopic, but you can see he's a much better player in Week 9 than he was in Week 1."
Why do you think Jeremy Chinn has made such a quick transition from Southern Illinois to Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate?
Baldinger: "He's a big chess piece on defense. You can play him at the dime linebacker, you can play him at safety, you can play him in the slot. You can play him in so many different places. You can play him on the tight end. But you need a guy like Phil Snow that knows how to move a guy like that around and put him in those places. Chinn has tremendous awareness and vision, and that's hard to find. Guys like Tyrann Mathieu have that. So when a guy has those kind of instincts and vision, put him in a place where you can use those to the best of his ability. Then he's a great tackler. He's a five-way player, and you can use him in all those different ways. And to have a coordinator that can understand his strength and then move him around, that's part of the match. It isn't just Jeremy Chinn. Phil Snow is doing a great job of putting him in a lot of those positions right now."
Baldinger: "Last week, I felt bad for Christian because they really started to get into their playbook with Curtis Samuel and McCaffrey in the backfield together in some of the packages they had, which really made them difficult to defend. But I thought Mike Davis was (a perfect fit) because Matt always wants to have a physical running game. And as good as McCaffrey is — and he's excellent — sometimes it's good just to have a guy that can win contact battles, and Mike Davis is winning a lot of contact battles up front. He's getting hit at a yard, and you look up and he's got four yards. He can find the hole, and he's a good receiver. Those kind of guys are valuable. Guys that can get you and keep you on schedule — and this offense is about staying on schedule. They'll take their deep shots when they're there, but it's about staying on schedule and ball control. (Davis) allows them to do that. He's not looking to hit home runs, which means he won't take negative plays. He gives you the yards that are there, and then he's a contact runner who will get you a couple extra yards when he drops his shoulder on people."
Baldinger: "They're moving him around. At the Jets, he was basically just running go routes. Now he's running the shallow crosses, he's running the sail routes and comebacks. He's kind of running the whole route tree right now. They've got him in the bunch formation, they've got him in the slot, they've got him in motion. They're really using him like a No. 1 receiver. Now, you can debate whether DJ Moore is that guy, but to me, it looks like Robby is kind of like that role as a No. 1 guy. You wouldn't think with the way he's built that they would be able to do that, but he's developed as an all-around receiver right now."