Streaking Panthers buying into ‘that college stuff’

Matt Rhule’s team-first message is landing with his players

The Matt Rhule era is only five games old, but the Carolina Panthers have seemingly bought into their new coach’s team-first mentality. (Danny Karnik / AP Photo)

That college stuff won’t work in the pros.

Twenty-five years ago, when Barry Switzer took over the Dallas Cowboys, it was an old saying, and it’s just as true today.

For all their similarities, the college and pro games are just too different, as are the players competing in them. What works in one, perhaps even succeeds wildly, can fall flat in the other. A steady stream of successful college coaches keeps proving the adage: That college stuff won’t work in the pros.

For starters, in the pros, they wouldn’t call it “stuff.”

In college, players are young, many away from home for the first time. The coach has been there since they were in grade school and is a father figure. When he preaches to them about teamwork and effort, they buy it without question.

In the pros, that same coach will be speaking to grown men who have been there longer, make far more money and are the ones with the recognizable names and faces in the community. College coaches get stereotyped as coming in with rah-rah talk, and the players who have been around scoff and tune them out.

Somehow, new Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule has done the unthinkable. Coming from Baylor, and Temple before that, where he gained a reputation of rebuilding college programs from the bottom‑up, he’s taken over a Panthers team that was embarking on a rebuild of its own.

Strange as it may seem, in his first season in the pros, Rhule’s college stuff is working.

It’s not that he’s changed the message. Listening to Rhule, he’s as Joe College as they come. All that’s missing are the pep band and the letter sweater.

“I don’t really have a schedule in my mind,” Rhule said this week. “This first year, we’re just trying to find the right guys and have them buy into the process. I think they’re doing that. In that regard, even before the wins (the last three weeks), guys have been buying into the things we’re doing.”

Sure, the Panthers jettisoned several veterans in the offseason, so Rhule is preaching his college stuff to a group of players that, for the most part, aren’t that far removed from their alma maters. Still, there are plenty of jaded, world-wise veterans in the locker room — guys like linebacker Shaq Thompson, who was on the Panthers’ Super Bowl team.

“The team is coming together,” Thompson said after last week’s win over Atlanta. “We’re brothers playing for each other.”

Defensive back Juston Burris is in his fifth NFL season and on his fifth NFL team. Safe to say he’s been around the block.

“We have a lot of young hungry guys, a lot of guys that are running to the ball, a lot of guys that are trying to make plays, and we are trying to make plays for each other,” Burris said. “We are trying to be great for each other. We’re picking each other up. We’re playing for each other and it’s great to see. When we turn on the film and we see guys running to the ball and guys hitting, we can tell every player is playing for each other. That is what is helping us continue to drive and continue to get better.”

To a man, the Panthers are talking about playing for each other, at a level where you need to be out for yourself. In a league whose acronym is often said to stand for Not For Long, they’re preaching brotherhood and family.

“The week after the Buccaneers game, we could have fractured or come together,” Rhule said, and you can almost hear a classic fight song playing in the background. “We’ve come together each of the last three weeks. It’s a daily, ongoing process. You can be a great team last week and then, all of a sudden, injuries can affect you. Complacency can affect you. Discontent can affect you. Why is he playing instead of me? Why is he getting that ball? It’s just like a family. Just like a marriage. Just like a parent. I’m only as good a parent as my last interaction with my kids.”

Meanwhile, Rhule’s quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, is significantly older than any of Rhule’s kids — old enough to be a grouchy uncle to Rhule’s kids, at the very least.

“We can’t buy into what’s being said on the outside,” Bridgewater said after beating Atlanta. “As long as we come to work each day, we play for one another, everything else will fall into place. I think it’s huge and it says a lot about this team how you look out there and guys are having fun, they’re communicating, they’re high-fiving, they’re picking guys up off the field.”

In other words, that college stuff? There might be something to it after all.