The Carolina Panthers have the best chance of taking one of this year’s top 10 draft picks, translating that into a Super Bowl appearance the quickest in a similar journey to last season’s Bengals squad. The likeness is easy to spot. A major injury to a superstar, Joe Burrow, and Christian McCaffrey respectively, alongside an underrated and improving defense. The Panthers also present the best odds of being the first NFL team to fire their coach this season. Wait, what?
Yup. It’s true. Those nearly oxymoronic statements are actually complementary. In the last two debate videos, colleague DJ Dunson and I have appeared in together, he’s selected Carolina to hold both of those titles. While I made the correct choices of the Jets taking this year’s draft class to the Super Bowl the quickest and Dallas’ Mike McCarthy getting a premature pink slip, his predictions of Matt Rhule leading the Panthers to an NFC title and removing his belongings from team facilities are each well within reason.
DJ picked the Panthers the first time, days after the NFL Draft, when their starter at quarterback was unknown. That was a beyond-risky choice when Sam Darnold looked promising. Now that Baker Mayfield will start in Charlotte and the NFC South should have a down year with Atlanta and New Orleans rebuilding, and Tampa Bay having one eye on AARP membership, an easy path to the playoffs exists. Either Carolina capitalizes or things crumble quickly and Rhule likely goes back to the college ranks for his next job.
There’s a perception Rhule is in over his head as an NFL head coach and it doesn’t have a clear answer yet. A decade ago, he was an assistant offensive line coach with the Giants. The next year, he was hired as Temple’s head football coach. His success in Philadelphia led to his first Power Five Conference head-coaching gig with Baylor. Rhule parlayed that into his current job.
Rhule was only the head coach in Waco for three seasons. Baylor finished the regular season with a winning record once in that span, an impressive 11-1 mark. The Bears also lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to end the season. His overall record as a college head coach was 47-43. Yes, finding the next great NFL mind means trying different avenues. It’s also clear Carolina took a risk in prematurely pulling Rhule from the Big 12, a move that’s led to a 10-23 record over the last two years.
Even with a horrid-looking past, the future looks incredibly bright. For a team that went 5-12 last year, projecting a deep playoff run is rare and borderline insane, especially since a major Charlotte course-correct didn’t transpire. Carolina has several young pieces that should improve this season like wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. and cornerback Jaycee Horn. If Mayfield proves that Cleveland was actually holding him back compared to showing his roller-coaster potential, Carolina could make a deep run in the playoffs.
Landing Mayfield was the Panthers’ needle-moving transaction and not much else is needed for on-field alignment. Finding and retaining a good quarterback is the single best move an NFL team can make. In the weaker NFC, which has fewer above-average QBs compared to the AFC, an in-form Baker gives Carolina a leg up. A healthy McCaffery would’ve taken the Panthers out of the top-10 draft spots and more toward the middle of the first round. With 14 teams making the NFL playoffs every year, picking No. 19 or later isn’t that far of a jump.
What doThere’s not a team with more untapped potential in the NFL than the Panthers. Failure to quickly grasp it and join the NFC’s elite likely leads to another head coach trying to build on Rhule’s missteps. Maybe without much of a magic touch from Rhule, the Panthers could be great. If third-year turnarounds are Rhule’s thing, Carolina will be the surprise team of this season. I don’t see much of a lane for in-between sucking and thriving.