Panthers owner voices belief in Rhule, Darnold

  • Covered Panthers, NFL for 11 years
  • More than 25 years experience covering NFL, college football and NASCAR
  • Joined ESPN in 2006

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, speaking to reporters Wednesday for the first time since Matt Rhule went 5-11 and 5-12 in his first two seasons, gave a strong vote of confidence to his head coach.

Tepper reminded that when Rhule was given a seven-year deal in January of 2020 he said it could take five years to build an organization capable of sustained excellence.

He added “maybe it’ll be six years” on Wednesday.

“I believe in Matt. He has my full support,” Tepper said in a 30-minute zoom session. “… I am a fan. I don’t like to lose. Who likes to lose? I want to win. But it takes time and it takes a foundation, and it takes time to create the foundation to win. I do believe coach Rhule and [general manager] Scott [Fitterer] have done a great job of creating that foundation.”

Tepper also gave a vote of confidence to Sam Darnold on the eve of Thursday’s NFL draft in which quarterback remains on the table for Carolina with the No. 6 pick.

“I do want to say one thing, I do think we have a very good quarterback in Sam Darnold,” Fitterer said in response to what quarterbacks in this year’s draft were capable of getting Carolina to a Super Bowl. “That wasn’t your question, but I’ll just say that.”

Darnold was 4-7 last year as Carolina’s starter and is 17-32 overall since the New York Jets made him the third pick of the 2018 draft.

Tepper reminded Darnold was 3-0 last season before running back Christian McCaffrey was injured. He also noted Darnold suffered a shoulder injury that put him on injured reserve for four games.

“So there was a lot of different things that happened last year that hopefully will not repeat this year that do give me some hope,” said Tepper, whose team has gone 22-43 since he paid an NFL-record $2.3 billion for the franchise in 2018.

Tepper also is encouraged Darnold can improve with the upgrades to the offensive line in free agency and the hiring of new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.

That does not preclude the Panthers from taking a quarterback in the draft. Fitterer said on Tuesday he told Darnold the team likely would add another quarterback through the weekend either through the draft or acquiring a veteran.

Tepper understands the importance of getting the quarterback position right and how it could impact the future of Rhule.

“Unless you have that guy that for sure gets you to playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that because that’s the only thing that matters is Super Bowls,” Tepper said in December of 2020, the last time he held a news conference.

On Wednesday, Tepper talked repeatedly on the importance of patience and building a foundation. Part of the offseason emphasis on building that foundation has been the offensive line, and left tackle remains a big question entering the draft.

There’s a good chance one or two of the top three left tackles — NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu, Alabama’s Evan Neal and Mississippi State’s Charles Cross — will be available at No. 6.

“I’ve said it, ‘five years, five years, five years’ from the time Coach Rhule was hired, it’s just building that foundation, having patience to build that foundation, trying to get fans to have patience for that foundation to have sustained winning,” Tepper said.

“It’s hard to build that foundation. It’s hard. I have a new appreciation for just how stupid I am sometimes, quite frankly.”

Tepper, however, added that “winning does play” into decisions, but he likes the setup for this season.

“There is a saying, what was then is then, what is now is now,” Tepper said. “And we’re in the now. We’re not in the then.

“If we have an expectation for sustained winning we have to build it. We have to have patience. I want to win now, but I know you still have to have a foundation.”

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