Friday was supposed to be about rookies and starting fresh and hope springing eternal, although those kinds of touchy-feely stories are generally reserved for baseball’s spring training, not the NFL’s rookie minicamps.
Still, the plan Friday was to chronicle the opening day on the practice fields for left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and quarterback Matt Corral, the Panthers’ first two draft picks and the biggest names among the 42 players at rookie camp.
But even in mid-May, when Matt Rhule echoed the owner’s recent comments about a slow, patient rebuild, Carolina’s third-year coach couldn’t escape the elephant in the room: his own job security.
Just two weeks after David Tepper said the embattled Rhule had his “full support,” Front Office Sports reported Thursday the Panthers are “eyeing” recently retired Saints coach Sean Payton should things continue on a downward trajectory for Rhule, who has a 10-23 record after two seasons.
“The first I heard of it, Dave called me and told me that it was gonna come out, that they had called him and there was nothing to it. I know Dave Tepper well enough to believe that he wouldn’t be talking to another coach right now.”
Talking to another coach and eyeing one are two different things. And I agree with Rhule that Tepper wouldn’t go behind his back actively trying to line up his successor.
The reason Tepper fired Ron Rivera with four games left in the 2019 season was for precisely that reason: The $17 billion hedge fund manager wanted to get the search for the next coach started, but didn’t want to do so with Rivera still in the building. Also, there’s the matter that Tepper would be tampering if he reached out to the 58-year-old Payton, since the Saints hold his rights through 2024.
That said, Tepper is fond of bright, shiny objects and is said to like and respect Payton, who won a Super Bowl in New Orleans during the 2009 season. But Tepper isn’t the only NFL owner with an appreciation for Payton, and the others have the benefit of not being in New Orleans’ division. Plus, who’s to say the respect is mutual when it comes to Payton and the Panthers?
But the Payton speculation underscores the weird dynamic within the Panthers organization, where Tepper and Rhule keep preaching patience while looking for a quick fix at quarterback. After cycling through Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold and unsuccessfully pursuing Deshaun Watson, the Panthers traded up to draft Corral after the former Mississippi quarterback fell to the third round.
The Corral pick on the second day of the draft came after trade talks for Baker Mayfield broke down when the Browns refused to pay enough of Mayfield’s $18.8 million salary to the Panthers’ liking, according to sources.
But with Corral viewed as a developmental quarterback, Carolina is keeping its options open with Mayfield and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo.
“We want to have a really strong quarterback room,” Rhule said, “so I don’t think we would say no to a veteran at this point.”
Unless you have a franchise quarterback, it makes sense to keep taking swings at the quarterback position. But while Garoppolo or Mayfield would be an upgrade over Darnold, they’re not the guy Tepper was referring to when he talked about finding a QB who could win multiple Super Bowls.
But with a top-five defense, an improved offensive line and the hope of a healthy Christian McCaffrey, Garoppolo or Mayfield could get the Panthers to the playoffs. That is why Rhule’s interested in them — talk of a five-year plan be damned.
“When (Tepper) came to my house 2 1/2 years ago, he told me this was a five-year rebuild. That’s what he said to me. He convinced me then to come be a part of it, to build it with him,” Rhule said Friday. “We’re not where we want to be, and I don’t think it’s gonna take five years. I don’t want it to take five years. But those were the words that he said to me. I’m looking forward to taking a step this year. I like our football team. I like the way they’re working. I like this draft. I have a lot of faith in the people in this building, the way everyone’s working, and I certainly have a lot of faith in Dave.
“That’s why I left (Baylor). I left a great job with people that I loved and cared about to come here because I believed in his long-term vision to get this thing done. Do I want stories like (the Panthers eyeing Payton) out there? Probably not. But at the same time, I also know a lot of people lose their edge when they (write) great stories about you. So I’m gonna continue just to grind and work and see where things fall.”
Tepper hired Rhule because of his history of rebuilding programs at Temple and Baylor. The former Penn State walk-on is halfway through Tepper’s stated five-year timeline and only two years into his seven-year, $62 million contract.
But the clock is ticking, even in May.
When he walked past the weight room Friday, Rhule was encouraged to see safety Jeremy Chinn working out on a day off for veterans. Rhule played golf this week with the newly acquired Johnny Hekker and was reminded how lucky the Panthers were to have the NFL’s All-Decade punter from the 2010s.
Even with reports that the Panthers are already looking for his replacement, Rhule said things aren’t as bad as they seem.
“Sometimes when things are a little like this on the outside,” Rhule said, shaking his arms, “sometimes it brings people together. I coached two years with masks on in COVID. … It’s (been) a hard two years.
“A lot of good things are happening,” he added. “I’ll just keep my focus on the guys because that’s what I got into coaching for. I got into coaching to help players, so I’m blessed to be here.”
(Photo of Charleston Rambo and Matt Rhule: David Jensen / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)