Look Ahead — 2021 Coach of the Year: Close losses plagued Panthers in ’20; Matt Rhule and his team will improve

Year two could be a breakthrough for Carolina and its coach

The Panthers are 5-10 with one game remaining in the 2020 season, but first-year coach Matt Rhule has Carolina pointed in the right direction for 2021 and beyond. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

For the Carolina Panthers, this year was more about what wasn’t there than what was. Missing from the Panthers were the players who built the core of the team over the past several seasons, including quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and tight end Greg Olson.

Also missing this season were a few plays at the ends of games that could have finished off a potential game-winning drive in the final minutes. Instead, the Panthers had seven chances to tie or pull ahead late and lost all seven of them.

Clearly, it was a year of transition for the Panthers, who began the year 2020 looking for a new coach and ended it by cutting loose GM Marty Hurney.

“I think sometimes you just need a restart, refresh,” owner David Tepper said on the team’s website. “We did it last year on the coaching side. Maybe you could say it should have been done before on the GM side. Maybe it should have been. It just seems like the right time to move forward.”

With the changes on the field and in the front office, the team has ensured that one hand will help guide the team’s direction as it moves forward — soon-to-be second-year coach Matt Rhule.

Rhule received a vote of confidence when he was hired last season, as Tepper gave him a seven-year $60 million contract to lure him from Baylor, paying the first-time NFL head coach far more than most rookie coaches receive. Now it appears he’ll have more front-office juice than most second-year coaches can boast.

Tepper has promised that Rhule will be involved in the GM hiring process. His fingerprints were already on the personnel moves last offseason as the team spent all of its draft picks on defensive players and brought in backup quarterback PJ Walker, a former Rhule player.

By all accounts, Rhule has had a solid debut season. While a season spent tanking for a high draft pick seemed all but assured after the roster purge, Rhule promised the team would try to win, then went out and delivered on that edict.

While the results haven’t shown up on the field — the Panthers were 5-10 with one game to go — the team has shown progress. As the number of late-game failures shows, the team has been competitive in most of its games, right down to the end. The team has offensive playmakers to build with, even with running back Christian McCaffrey missing the vast majority of the season due to injury. The Panthers have also found building blocks on defense.

Rhule’s real impact, however, may have been off the field. The team seems to have bought into his message.

“I don’t really have a schedule in my mind,” Rhule said during the season. “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.”

Despite the mounting losses and the seemingly never-ending string of late-game meltdowns, the players — veteran and youngster alike — have continued to listen to the coach fresh out of college. That’s an accomplishment that not many coaches can pull off.

So there are reasons for optimism heading into the offseason. The Panthers still have work to do on defense, as well as the offensive line.

If things break right over the offseason, instead of year two of a tanking situation, Carolina could find itself looking to make a run at a playoff spot. While a division title or spot as a top NFC contender is still likely on the horizon, the Panthers should be able to push for a wild card.

Rhule believes it’s possible, and, from what we’ve seen from him in his year with the Panthers, it’s clear that if he believes it, so do the players.

With a young, exciting team of believers, the Panthers could easily go to the depths of the 2020 preseason purge to a return to the playoffs, far ahead of schedule.

If he pulls it off, that will be enough to earn Matt Rhule the North State Journal’s 2021 Coach of the Year Award.