The Carolina Panthers finished Matt Rhule’s first season with the same 5-11 record as in Ron Rivera’s last. However, the head coach position isn’t the only area where the team has seen change over the last year.
As last year ended, the Panthers were aging and clearly in need of a rebuild as they faced an uncertain future. After one year under Rhule, an offseason purge of veterans and a draft wholly devoted to defense, Carolina showed promise this past season but faces almost as much uncertainty as this offseason begins.
As the Panthers were thumped by the Saints at home to close out the 2020 season, two of the biggest roles on the team were unsettled.
The Panthers cut ties with GM Marty Hurney in late December and are in the middle of a wide-ranging search for a replacement. The new GM will hire a coach who is not going anywhere anytime soon, an odd order in which to fill the two most visible decision-making roles on the team. But Hurney’s term has been filled with oddities. His 10‑year run as GM ended when he was fired during the 2012 season, but he returned five years later to replace Dave Gettleman — first as interim GM and then in the full-time position.
The team and Hurney appear to be splitting for good now, and the Panthers are looking at up-and-comers and retreads alike as they aim to chart a new direction.
Gettleman came to the Panthers from the Giants and returned there after his tenure in Carolina. The Panthers may go back to the Giants connection with Jerry Reese, who led New York to two titles as GM. Jacksonville and Carolina are reportedly both interested in Reese, who has been out of the league since getting fired in 2017.
Rhule’s fingerprints were on many of the team’s personnel decisions over the past year, as Carolina brought in several players with Baylor or Temple ties. With that in mind, San Francisco VP of player personnel Adam Peters, who worked with Rhule at UCLA, is a strong candidate. Peters was a senior defensive end in 2001 when Rhule coached the Bruins defensive line. The Panthers requested permission for an interview, but they might have to beat out Denver to land him.
Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland, Bears assistant personnel director Champ Kelly, Chiefs personnel assistant Ryan Poles and director of administration Brandt Tillis, Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds, Bills assistant GM Joe Schoen and Browns VP of operations Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have all either been interviewed or permission for interviews have been requested.
Rhule appeared to lose faith in his hand-picked successor to Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater, as the year wore on. Bridgewater topped 300 yards in three of his first nine games as Panthers starter then failed to hit the mark in his last six outings. His weekly yardage output dropped by 50 yards a game down the stretch of the season. His completion percentage dropped from 71.9% in the first nine games to 64.5% in the last six, and his touchdowns to interceptions went from 11:6 to 4:5.
“I think Teddy played well early on in the season,” Rhule said after benching Bridgewater midway through the season finale. “I thought the middle part of the season, we still showed flashes of that. I’d say, really, the last month of the season, … I don’t think Teddy’s played his best football. I personally feel like ever since he got hurt in the second half of the Tampa Bay game, Teddy hasn’t played his best ball.”
Bridgewater has two years left on his contract and will likely be back next year, but what role he’ll fill is still up in the air.
The Panthers pick eighth overall in the NFL Draft, and Rhule wouldn’t rule out using the pick on a quarterback of the future for the team.
While Rhule hasn’t been impressed with Bridgewater’s play of late, offensive coordinator Joe Brady has earned some fans around the league. After one year running the Carolina offense, Brady has gotten interview requests for head coaching jobs with the Falcons, Chargers and Texans.
Brady and Bridgewater both spent time in the Saints offense, and Bridgewater’s familiarity with the offense Brady wanted to build was a big reason the team brought him in as quarterback. If Brady departs, Bridgewater’s hold on the job will get even shakier.
Offseason of change, again
Don’t expect to see wholesale changes like last year, but the Panthers’ rebuild will remain in high gear this offseason as some of the most important spots on the team remain in flux.