CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Matt Rhule appears to have the support of Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper despite two straight double-digit loss seasons to start his NFL head coaching career.
Rhule said he spoke with Tepper on Monday, one day after the Panthers lost 32-6 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and were eliminated from playoff contention, and the conversation went well.
“He’s been unbelievably supportive,” Rhule said on a videoconference call. “All our conversations were about the best things to do moving forward. He’s been tremendously supportive and shown me a ton of confidence. We are certainly not where we want to be, but we knew this was something that was going to have to be done right.”
Whether that guarantees Rhule is back in Carolina (5-10) next season is unclear.
Rhule said he didn’t ask about his future, and said he wouldn’t want to speak for Tepper.
Rhule is in the second year of a seven-year, $60 million contract that lured him away from the college ranks.
He had the deck stacked against him right from the start in 2020 because the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down any offseason practices, thus preventing him from meeting most of his players in person for the first time until the start of training camp. The Panthers finished 5-11.
This year Carolina got off to a 3-0 start and optimism followed. But it proved to be a bit of fool’s gold, as the Panthers have lost 10 of their past 12 games, including six straight at home.
On Sunday, some fans chanted “fire Rhule” and others booed his decision to replace Cam Newton with Sam Darnold on the game’s third possession as part his two-quarterback rotation.
“To me, it shows that people care. Walking off the field, people booing — we are not winning. I have no problem with that,” Rhule said. “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.”
Rhule had big turnarounds beginning in the third season of stints at Temple and Baylor. After starting the first two seasons 2-10 and 6-6 at Temple, the Owls went 10-4 and 10-3 the next two years.
At Baylor, he went 1-11 his first year, then 7-6 the next. In the third year the Bears got it right, going 11-3 and finishing 13th in The Associated Press poll.
“I believe it is going to take off at some point,” Rhule said.
WR Shi Smith. The Panthers began playing more of their young players Sunday with the team looking ahead to next season. One of those that stepped up was Smith, a rookie from South Carolina. Smith had three catches for 86 yards, including a 63-yard reception where he got behind the defender to haul in a wide-open pass from Sam Darnold. Smith only had three receptions for 18 yards coming into the game.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Panthers tight ends. Carolina is getting virtually no production from its tight ends since trading Dan Arnold away at the beginning of the season. Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas have combined for just 33 catches for 328 yards and one touchdown. To put those numbers in perspective, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce has 83 receptions for 1,066 yards and seven touchdowns on his own.
WR D.J. Moore. Moore has proven to be a quality, reliable No. 1 receiver for the Panthers. On Sunday, he became just the third Carolina player in history to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Moore is scheduled to make $11.1 million next season under the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, but it’s expected that GM Scott Fitterer will look to re-sign him to a long-term contract extension in the offseason.
Offensive line. The Panthers desperately need help on the O-line this offseason. Their makeshift line allowed seven sacks against Tampa Bay and didn’t give either Cam Newton or Sam Darnold much of a chance in the pocket. The Panthers have allowed 43 sacks on the season, tied for sixth most in the NFL.
Panthers CB Stephon Gilmore left Sunday’s game with a groin injury, but Rhule indicated he didn’t think it was serious. Cornerback is the team’s deepest position, but it has grown thin with injuries sidelining Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye for the season.
6 — Consecutive losses at home for the Panthers after starting the season 2-0 at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers will play out the string on the road at New Orleans and Tampa Bay.