Former NFL exec Michael Lombardi: Matt Rhule needs to show signs of progress

The Panthers coach has pieces in place for success

Panthers coach Matt Rhule enters a pivotal 2022 season in his third year with Carolina. (Charles Krupa / AP Photo)

The consensus among Panthers fans seems to be that Matt Rhule is on the hot seat this season.

Since making the jump to the NFL from college, the former Baylor and Temple coach has been underwhelming in his two years with Carolina, going a combined 10-23, including several late losses that had Panthers fans scratching their heads over his decision making.

Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi has been behind plenty of decisions on a struggling coach’s job status, and he thinks Rhule deserves a bit more time and patience.

In part one of his extended interview with the North State Journal last week, Lombardi, a former Browns GM, personnel executive with the Eagles and Patriots assistant coach, discussed the Panthers’ quarterback battle.

This week, Lombardi discusses Rhule’s performance thus far and, in his opinion, Rhule’s status with the Panthers.

Lombardi — who is a host at VSiN, The Sports Betting Network — doesn’t doubt that Rhule is on the hot seat, but he doesn’t think it’s anything new or specific to the Panthers coach.

“I think in every job, you’re always on the hot seat,” he said. “I think what the fans can’t see is progress. They only see the scoreboard, and when you own one of these billion-dollar franchises, you’ve got to be able to evaluate progress. You’ve got to see progress, and, at times, you’ve got to have confidence about it.

“This is a big year for Matt to show progress,” he continued. “To show that you’re building something bigger, so you can see the foundation being set.”

Lombardi — whose son Matt has been an assistant quarterbacks coach on Rhule’s staff, both at Baylor and with the Panthers — thinks Rhule will have things headed the right way by the end of the season.

“I think what happens is you start these processes off, and by Year 3, if people don’t get that sense of a foundation, they get worried and panicked,” he said. “I think we’ll see a foundation out of this. I think they’ve got a good young team. I think they’re worried about quarterback. I think that’s yet to be determined, but if they get that, I think it’ll make the team better. But as an evaluator of the coach, it really comes down to are we making progress?”

Lombardi has gotten to observe Rhule up close and sees something in the coach that many fans calling for his head don’t get to see.

“I think Matt is really smart,” he said. “I think he’s a really good leader, and I think his players gravitate to him.”

Lombardi likes the changes Rhule made to his coaching staff in the offseason.

“It happens a lot,” he said. “You hire your first coaching staff, and you may not have it the way you wanted it to be. You’ve got to kind of work things through. Now he’s got (Ben) McAdoo as offensive coordinator. He’s got (Chris) Tabor coming to run special teams. He’s got (James) Campen as the new offensive line coach. He’s taken a step. He’s smart. He’s engaging. The greatest thing I can say about Matt Rhule outside of all that is that he’s willing to learn at all times. He’s very curious.”

And Lombardi also likes the team Rhule has built.

“They’re not five-win talent,” he said. “If you look at this team, they’ve got good players. … I think Jaycee Horn is going to be a good player for them if he’s healthy. I think Derrick Brown’s going to be a level better this year. I think he’s really going to take off. Matt Ioannidis, if he can play at the level he did at Washington, that would help. I love (Jeremy) Chinn. I think that kid is one of the best players they have. They have the makings of a pretty good defensive situation there.”

Panthers free safety Jeremy Chinn (21) should be a key part of Carolina’s defense this season. (Adrian Kraus / AP Photo)

The offense has more question marks.

“I think Brady Christensen can play right and left tackle and move to guard, that’s going to be critical,” he said. “And look, Robbie Anderson’s got to take a step forward. They’re paying him a lot of money, and he didn’t really come through last year. I think he’s got to emerge as a down-the-field receiver. If their O-line doesn’t take the step they need it to take, and I think it positively can, and then it’s going to depend on how the quarterback plays, right? Look, they were in a lot of games, had a chance to win some games. They could’ve pulled it off, but they need better (quarterback) play. The other thing is (Christian) McCaffrey has got to stay healthy. If they win, it’s going to be because of him. You’re paying him the most money on the team. He’s got to play like it.”

The pieces are in place. The foundation is set. Now all Rhule and the Panthers need is signs of progress.

“I find it interesting that, at this time last year, everybody was talking about Matt Rhule being a guy that was really going to turn the franchise around — that he always did it after two years,” Lombardi said. “Now he’s a guy that’s going to get fired? He didn’t become a bad coach overnight. He’s still a good coach.”