The Carolina Panthers made the wrong kind of NFL history this season. The Panthers lost their last seven games to finish 5-12 on the year, setting the league mark for the worst record after a 3-0 start.
Despite the late-season tailspin, it appears coach Matt Rhule will get at least one more season to try to turn things around. While four other NFL teams — all of whom had better records than the Panthers this season — made coaching changes on Black Monday, Carolina stood pat.
Rhule will need to find an offensive coordinator to replace Joe Brady, who was fired midway through the season. The team also let go three other assistants Tuesday: offensive line coach Pat Meyer, defensive line coach Frank Okam, and special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn. Fox Sports insider Jay Glazer reported that Rhule’s job security depended on him bringing in a “rock star offensive coordinator.”
The list reportedly includes Bill O’Brien, a former NFL head coach and current assistant at Alabama; former Washington coach Jay Gruden; Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell; and the reported front-runner, former Colts and Browns offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. A Charlotte native, Hamilton spent last season as the Texans’ passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“I’d like to have someone who has experience having done it, having been a coordinator,” Rhule said. “It’s one thing to have suggestions and all those things. It’s another thing to make the call and have success, not had success, learn from your success.”
The players the new offensive coordinator will be working with also represent a work in progress. The Panthers have plenty of question marks and holes to fill on offense, starting with the quarterback spot.
Last year’s offseason pickup, Sam Darnold, struggled as the starter before missing the middle portion of the season due to injury. The team signed former longtime Panthers starter Cam Newton off the street, although he was benched after Darnold returned to the active roster.
While Newton struggled at times, he earned votes of confidence from the team’s decision-makers.
“For Matt Rhule, I would have Cam Newton on my team like … forever. Any place I coached. Because of what he brings,” the head coach said.
GM Scott Fitterer was also effusive in his praise, though he left himself an out.
“I’ve never been more impressed by a player,” he said. “His leadership and what he did, during a really tough time. We’re all over the place at quarterback — the injuries and the different things. And even when it was some of those tough days in the locker room after a loss, Cam brought the energy every day. He showed great leadership, he was positive. Like I told him, I was really impressed with him as a person. So, yes, I think we’re open to it. We have to see how it goes.”
Newton, also, was positive without committing to anything.
“I’m not coming back for no 5-12, I can tell you that now,” he said, in typical Cam Newton fashion. “Winning makes everything better. So to what degree am I willing to do — whether it being the starter or not — if it’s about winning, I’m with it.”
Darnold appears to be back after the team picked up the fifth-year option on his contract in May, although he is not entrenched as the starter by any means.
“The story’s not written on Sam. He’s still developing,” Fitterer said.
The Panthers were rumored to be considering a trade of All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, although Fitterer denied it, while again still leaving himself an out.
“I look at Christian as a foundation piece on this team, one of those building blocks,” he said. “I would love for him to be here. But I will never not take a call. If somebody calls and offers something crazy — yeah, you would look at it. There’s no intentions, right now, of trading Christian McCaffrey.”
The team lost most of its top picks in this year’s NFL Draft, many of them due to the Darnold trade, but a focus of the offseason will be adding help at the offensive line. Center Matt Paradis and guard John Miller are both scheduled to be free agents, further complicating the upgrade.
On defense, the Panthers don’t have as far to go, but the team will have to deal with several potential free agents, including cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore. This year’s first-round draft pick, Jaycee Horn, is expected to return after missing most of the season with an injury, which could make one of the free agents expendable, in the team’s eyes.
“I don’t think it’s an either-or thing,” Jackson said. “I think we’ll see when it gets down to that moment. … I think we look at it as a ‘trying to get the team better’ thing. I think that’s really what it is.”
Pass rusher Haason Reddick and tackle DaQuan Jones are also scheduled to be free agents.
The Panthers have plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball, and, as all the hedging indicates, there are plenty of different directions the team could decide to go in what promises to be another offseason of upheaval.