The Carolina Panthers were put on high COVID alert after someone on the team tested positive for the virus.
Or, to put it another way, the team got a little extra time to themselves to start the week.
“I try to always find the positive,” head coach Matt Rhule said.
The identity of the person who tested positive wasn’t revealed, but the Panthers’ guards appear to have been battling the virus in recent days. Tyler Larsen and Michael Schofield both missed practice time last week, and Larsen was placed on the COVID-19 list on Friday. That doesn’t necessarily mean he tested positive — although ESPN reported he did, citing an unidentified source. The NFL’s COVID list is used for players who tested positive and also those who were identified as potentially being exposed to the virus through contact tracing.
Schofield dressed for Sunday’s game against Chicago. Then, on Monday, more dominoes fell.
“I got a phone call at 4:48 this morning,” Rhule said in his Monday press conference, which he delivered from his home office. Citing “an abundance of caution” the team decided to have players, coaches and staff work virtually on Monday and Tuesday. The facility was still open for players who needed the trainer’s room. As of press time, the plan was to resume in-person practice on Wednesday and follow the normal game-week itinerary.
That left Rhule to try and make the best of a tough situation, as he’s been doing since the pandemic hit shortly after he took the job as Carolina’s head coach.
“Like everything else, we’ll take everything as it comes,” he said. “I’m working from home.”
So are his assistants.
“I told my staff, ‘Hey, take this time with no distractions,’” Rhule said. “‘Go back and watch this week’s game. Watch the last few games. Let’s find ways to improve.’”
In other words, the temporary shelter-in-place comes with extra homework for the Panthers staff. And Rhule is working just as hard as everyone else.
“In my office (at the facility), someone knocks on my door every five minutes,” he said. “I’m up here in my attic and I can really kind of lock-in on the tape.”
The Panthers’ most recent game, a home loss to Chicago, gives Rhule plenty to review. His time alone has already paid dividends, as he recanted his postgame statements on the problems Teddy Bridgewater and the Carolina offense had against the Bears.
“I thought a lot of the struggles on offense were related to pressure,” he said. When he watched film, however, he saw that the pass rush wasn’t the problem, a lack of options was.
“We didn’t have very many guys open,” he said. “It wasn’t one of those deals where, ‘Hey, there’s guys running wide open.’”
Of course, diagnosing the problem doesn’t mean Rhule has solved it.
“I don’t know whether it was our doing or their doing,” he said. “Overall, just not a good day offensively.”
Rhule pointed to Bridgewater signaling to receivers not to bother going in motion before the snap on certain plays because the play clock was running down.
“We weren’t very crisp,” Rhule said. “We weren’t on top of it. We weren’t getting in and out of the huddle fast. Just not a good day. That takes a toll on a quarterback, when he has to remind guys go here, go there when he’s up against the clock.”
Fortunately for Rhule, he had another day at home to watch tape, uninterrupted. So it’s possible he was able to find a key to get the offense clicking again.
“Provided we’re back in on Wednesday, I hope there will be time for introspection,” he said. “Any-time you lose, you want to go back and say, ‘Why did it happen?’ and retrace your steps.”
That can be tough to do in the heat of a season when games come one after the next and coaches need to get onto the next week’s plan. But occasionally, a team gets an opening during the season to stop, take a breath and regroup. Rhule is hoping the self-retreat he was able to give his coaches, thanks to the coronavirus, can do just that.
As long as the two days don’t turn into a season-churning week or two battling the bug.
“Providing we can practice on Wednesday,” Rhule said, “I’m good.”