One of the toughest things for NFL coaches to learn is clock management. Each season, there are plenty of examples of ill-advised timeouts taken or valuable seconds running off the clock when a team is slow to react to the situation.
Often, clock management can be the difference between success and failure. It’s a lesson new Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is learning more than a month before the giant digital scoreboard clock at Bank of America Stadium is turned on for the first time.
“They know they have great talent,” Rhule said of his players. “They know they have great weapons. What we don’t have is a lot of experience together. We don’t have a ton of time. We certainly want to be one of those football teams that gets better as the year goes on, but we can’t waste time right now.”
Maybe it’s not clock management at this point in the season as much as calendar management. Either way, the Panthers need to preserve every second. The team has revamped its coaching staff, much of the roster, and its offensive and defensive schemes, and they did it during an offseason where OTAs and minicamps were canceled and in-person coaching was virtually nonexistent.
Now that they’re gathered in training camp, the Panthers need to get the playbook installed and mastered, and the clock is ticking.
That means that some normal luxuries are going by the wayside as the Panthers endure the football equivalent of an all-night cram session before a big college exam.
At a recent practice, new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater asked that the music — a staple of NFL training camp workouts — be turned off so everyone could focus on the task at hand.
“He’s professional,” Rhule said. “In this day and age that people are always asking for music, he said turn the music off. We’re not ready for that yet. He’s serious about getting the football right.”
Bridgewater may be a newcomer, but he’s familiar with offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s schemes from their days together in New Orleans, and he’s serious about getting the rest of his teammates on board and making the team his own.
“He’s a lot of fun to be around,” Rhule said. “It’s all ball. If the meeting goes until 8, you can bet he’s going to be there at 8:30, 9 still. He loves football, loves his teammates, loves leading, loves people. My son came to help out as a ball boy. Within five minutes, Teddy knows his name. He’s just one of those people. But on the practice field, he’s competitive.”
Many of the returning Panthers players are cut from the same cloth as Bridgewater, which helps Rhule and the rest of the coaching staff save valuable time.
“It’s all about the details,” Rhule said. “You watch guys like (running back Christian) McCaffrey. This is my first time being around (receiver) DJ Moore. They’re really detailed and deliberate about, ‘Hey, this is what I need to get better at today.’ I think if we have that approach — we need to build a competitive environment where everybody is holding everyone accountable to get a little better every day. We don’t need a bunch of passionate, fiery speeches. We need a work ethic and a toughness and a brand. I’ve seen that already.”
He saw it the first day the players gathered for camp.
“They came in in really good shape,” he said. “We ran everybody on the first day. There was no conditioning test this year. We started off and had a plan to ease guys in, but guys showed up in shape, in really good condition. So we were able to start a step ahead and take off.”
Rhule boiled down his goals for training camp to three main points.
“Make sure our bodies are ready from a strength, weight and conditioning standpoint,” he said. “Make sure we have the football right, and also, that we’re building a team.
“This is a different year,” he added. “We aren’t going to be bringing a lot of people in for tryouts and physicals. The people that are here, we’ve got to come together. We’ve got to be really deliberate in practice. It’s all about details.”
And no details are as critical as the time on the clock that’s constantly counting down toward the season’s opening kickoff.