FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Matt Rhule leads many lists of NFL coaches on the hot seat, but the third-year Carolina Panthers coach didn’t have to look far during this week’s joint practice with the New England Patriots to realize that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily doing something wrong.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fired from his first job with the Cleveland Browns, and now he has won six Super Bowls.
Rhule also didn’t have to look further than Belichick and what he did with Tom Brady to see the key to turning things around: a quarterback with the potential to become a franchise player.
That’s one reason the Panthers considered acquiring Deshaun Watson -- who has been accused of sexual assault and other inappropriate conduct during massage sessions in civil lawsuits filed by 25 women -- during the offseason, and why they traded with Cleveland for Baker Mayfield after the Browns got Watson.
Rhule knows finding the right quarterback won’t solve all the issues that led to only five wins each of his first two seasons as an NFL coach, but he knows it will help.
“Vince Lombardi once said football’s only flaw is that it’s over-reliant on one position – and that’s the quarterback,’’ said Rhule, whose team plays the Patriots on Friday (7 p.m. ET, NFL Network). “We’ve thrown everything we can at trying to find the guy that can go win a Super Bowl for us.’’
Could Mayfield be the difference?
Mayfield is on track to earn the starting job after weeks of intense competition against Sam Darnold, and his play could determine whether Rhule falls into that long list of coaches who failed in his first NFL job.
Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl in is fifth season at Indianapolis after being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, understands. He never had a quarterback capable of being a franchise player until he inherited Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts.
“You can win and be in the hunt without a great quarterback, but everything has to be perfect,’’ said Dungy, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. “When we got to Indy and we had that magical quarterback, I found out things don’t have to be perfect.’’
Mayfield doesn’t necessarily have to win a Super Bowl to ensure Rhule’s future, but he does need to show the potential to be magical long-term.
That’s why Belichick insists having a franchise quarterback isn’t essential to initial job security, but having a solid one helps.
“When we won the Super Bowl in 2001, I wouldn’t say Tom Brady had established himself as a franchise quarterback,’’ Belichick said. “When we won in 2014 and 2015, I’d say he was a franchise quarterback. The name was the same, but I don’t think the player was the same.’’
The Panthers are banking Mayfield isn’t the player who struggled with the Browns last season while dealing with an injured non-throwing shoulder. They’re banking he will be the player who helped the Browns to an 11-5 record and playoff win in 2020.
Mayfield isn’t concerned. He exudes the same confidence in his abilities that Rhule has in his.
“It’s not a redemption year,’’ Mayfield insisted. “I know what I am capable of.’’
QB-coach futures linked?
Rhule is not thinking about joining the list of Belichick, Dungy, Tom Coughlin, Pete Carroll, Jon Gruden and Andy Reid, coaches who were replaced in their first NFL head coaching job and won a Super Bowl with their second or third team.
He also recognizes that each of those coaches needed great quarterback play – Brady with Belichick, Eli Manning with Coughlin, Peyton Manning with Dungy, Brad Johnson with Gruden, Patrick Mahomes with Reid – to win a title.
From that standpoint, Rhule’s immediate future could be linked to Mayfield’s, and vice versa.
“I want to win in my first job,’’ Rhule said. “But the key is there’s great lessons you go through, the successes and humbling.’’
Rhule has been humbled a lot the past two seasons, from the losing to replacing many coaches from his original staff to the COVID-19 pandemic that kept him from developing the personal relationships that were key to past successes.
But his biggest failure has been at quarterback. He missed on Teddy Bridgewater as his 2020 starter and Darnold as his starter last season. He missed on bringing back 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton, who went 0-5 in 2021.
But Belichick, for one, believes Rhule knows how to coach.
“I have a ton of respect for Matt Rhule,’’ he said. “I have a ton of respect for the way he approaches the game. He’s a football guy, so we have a lot in common there.’’
Patience from ownership helps too
“If you are blessed to have Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, you’re going to be in the hunt every year, but you’re still not going to win a Super Bowl every year,’’ Dungy said. “It also takes a strong owner.’’
Dungy doesn’t know enough about Panthers owner David Tepper to know if he’ll be patient with Rhule. He doesn’t know Mayfield well enough to know if he can do for Carolina what Matthew Stafford did in taking the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl last season after an 86-95-1 record with Detroit.
But he knows way too often owners give up on good coaches like coaches sometimes give up on good quarterbacks, saying patience is a “lost art.’’
Patience has been Rhule’s strength. He had losing records his first two seasons at Temple and Baylor before winning in his third season. His past has him confident he can turn things around with the Panthers.
That past, like this week’s present with Belichick, also is a reminder quarterback play is key.
“So that’s kind of the process we’re in right now,’’ Rhule said “What we’ve tried to do is make sure we build up the rest of the team so that we have enough things in place to put a quarterback there that gives him the best chance to be successful.’’