The first sign was that he had the fortitude to say “no” to the Cleveland Browns.
The second was that he somehow managed to clean up one of the worst messes and awful scandals in college football, going from 11 losses at Baylor in 2017 to 11 wins in 2019, doing what he could to salvage the program’s sordid reputation.
Small wonder that Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper saw enough of what he liked to take a trip down to Waco, Texas, to interview and quickly offer Matt Rhule the team’s vacant head coaching position.
Keep in mind that Tepper fired Ron Rivera — by many accounts inside and outside football a good man and quality coach — with four games remaining in the season. The team responded in kind with four losses, including two embarrassing no-shows at Indianapolis and home to New Orleans to mercifully end the season.
No disrespect to interim coach Perry Fewell, who had to feel like he was stacking and re-stacking deck chairs on the Titanic, but the team was rudderless. The run defense, with lousy gap control, made it exceedingly difficult for Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson to stuff opposing rushers. The offense had Christian McCaffery — who became the third player in NFL history to amass 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in a single season — but Kyle Allen couldn’t stop turning the ball over and Will Grier showed that he still isn’t ready to be an NFL starter.
Don’t start on special teams ... the Colts’ Nyheim Hines has his own personal highlight reel thanks to the Panthers’ attempt at a punt coverage team.
Tepper can shoulder some of this responsibility. Greg Olsen, the team’s conscience and a player who the media finds without fail in postgame scrums in the locker room, expressed his frustration. Other players didn’t mince words. Even Kuechly, not known for his loquaciousness, said that the team will miss Rivera.
Tepper acknowledged that Rivera was “too good a man” to conduct a coaching search with the current coach still in the building.
Enter a man who was on the radar of a lot of NFL teams, yet had the arrogance or common sense — take your pick — to decline an interview for the head coaching position with the Cleveland Browns. While the rule has always been never to decline job interviews, Rhule — and undoubtedly other people in football, the media and the general population — has seen the perpetual mess in Cleveland and realizes that life is too short.
Rhule had Temple humming right along when Baylor called him to fill its head coaching position after kicking Art Briles out following a series of sexual and non-sexual assaults allegedly committed by players from 2011-16 and covered up by the school.
Rhule, the son of a minister, accepted and embraced the challenge at the largest Baptist university in the world. Baylor went from 11 losses in 2017 to 11 wins in 2019 while cleaning up Briles’ embarrassing, inhumane mess.
Additionally, there are few, if any, critics of the man. Are you starting to see what Tepper saw?
What will Rhule and the Panthers do with Cam Newton? Too early to tell, especially given that the draft and minicamps are at least three months away. No one knows if Newton’s foot will heal properly after surgery and if he will be the same caliber of player who was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2015.
Will they move on and draft or sign another quarterback? Will they let Newton play out the last year of his contract? If so, do they draft and develop another quarterback anyway? Does Newton come back, play well and earn another long-term extension?
The Newton decision will be part of the “process.” Rhule and Tepper love that buzzword, now a staple of the sports lexicon. Tepper is preaching patience in the meantime.
“Patience” is subjective, of course. Until they find a successor for Newton? Until Kuechly regresses to being merely good? Until McCaffery wears down?
Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney will hear about going for a college coach instead of an NFL retread or hiring the hot coordinator. Going outside the NFL copycat box tends to invite giggles and snark.
Instead, Tepper was bold. It’s the sort of move that can turn a franchise. Will this be that move? Stay Tuned.
Gabe Cornwall is the Central Copy Desk Manager for The Daily Reflector and Adams Publishing Group-ENC in Greenville.