11 wins, five quarterbacks, one big mess: Inside the Panthers’ three-year passing failure

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Previously a college football reporter for CBSSports.com
  • University of Florida graduate

IN THE FINAL week of Matt Rhule’s 33-month tenure as a first-time NFL head coach, his Carolina Panthers took the practice field situated in the shadow of Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium for what should have been routine 7-on-7 work.

Routine would have been good. This was something worse, a scene of uninspired football borne partially if not totally of harsh roster realities.

Overthrown passes. Turnovers. Mistimed routes. Rhule and his coaching staff looked on, standing oddly quiet. Panthers players appeared restless, the stress of a bad start palpable and “very heavy,” as a team source described. Perhaps, in the grim prelude to a 37-15 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers that would send Carolina to 1-4 before a sea of empty seats, the entire organization had become resigned to its fate.

This team can’t win without a quarterback.

Against the 49ers on Oct. 9, offseason acquisition and former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield saw his league-worst QBR drop to a microscopic 15.5 before leaving the game with a torn ligament in his left ankle. For the 27th time in Rhule’s 27 losses with the Panthers, the opponent needed only to reach 17 points to beat Carolina. The time-honored NFL notion of winning a shootout was completely lost on the Matt Rhule Panthers.

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The next day, and less than seven years removed from a 15-1 season and Super Bowl appearance, the franchise hit rock bottom with the Oct. 10 firing of Rhule, dismissed after presiding over 11 wins in two-plus seasons, with more than four years and $40 million remaining on his contract.

The ousted Rhule and fourth-year Panthers owner David Tepper have shouldered much of the blame for the franchise’s downturn, and all threads of Carolina’s unraveling lead back to the choices made at one position — quarterback. The Panthers’ instability and dubious decision-making, which sometimes included disagreements among ownership, the coaching staff and front office, highlight the direct connection between quarterback play and franchise strength.

In all, five quarterbacks started for Rhule — the coach handpicked by Tepper in January 2020 and given control of the roster along with a seven-year, $62 million contract — a revolving door reflecting organizational efforts to locate a top passer that ultimately failed.

“They shot for the stars,” a veteran NFL coach and former Rhule staffer said. “They ended up with Teddy [Bridgewater], Sam [Darnold] and Baker.”

Those with inside knowledge of the Panthers’ three-season signal-caller saga paint a picture of bad deals, for the wrong quarterbacks, decided upon in large part by Rhule — who proved to be the wrong coach.

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