Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule is the favorite. And, no, that’s not a good thing.
Rhule is in the unenviable spot of starting training camp on Tuesday as the odds on favorite to be the first NFL coach fired this coming season, a position he seemingly claimed when his teams won 10 games and lost 23 the past two seasons.
But Rhule isn’t sweating his status in Las Vegas because he’s got hopes and dreams and aspirations just like the rest of us. And the start of training camp is the perfect time for hopes and dreams and aspirations. So give them to us, coach …
“This year, I expect to win,” Rhule told reporters Monday. “I want to win. I’ve never gone into a season saying I’ve got to win this many games to keep my job. I’m not doing that. I want to win at the highest level … That’s why I woke up today ready to go, excited to be here and I like where we’re at.”
Rhule is kind of in a difficult spot. Because expectation in Carolina, including those of owner David Tepper, are that the Panthers should be good.
They should be competitive in the NFC South where Sean Payton and Drew Brees are gone from New Orleans, the Falcons are still rebuilding, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new coach and no idea how much is left in quarterback Tom Brady’s tank.
And, to make his spot more tenuous, Rhule agrees his roster is good enough to succeed.
“I think we have a really talented team,” he said. “And because we have talent we can more focus on performance of results starting right now in training camp. So I like the roster that we have, I like the additions that we’ve made and I’m excited to get going.”
Note to Rhule: If you articulate that your roster is good and the wins don’t pile up, everyone will typically be looking sideways at the coach as the reason.
Despite this, Rhule is pressing forward with a three-step plan for success he outlined for reporters. The first part of that plan is addressing the strength of the team, which is the defense that ranked second in total yards but 21st in scoring last season.
“We have to take our defense and they have to go from good to great,” Rhule said. “I think we have the players to do it — third year in the system — and we have to go from good to great on defense.”
Rhule said the focus of improving the defense is getting better in the red zone, on third downs, and in increasing turnovers.
Then the coach turned to the proverbial gorilla in the room, which is obviously the quarterback position. The Panthers this training camp are going to try to find one that’s good.
“Offensively, we have to really establish our identity,” he said. “A lot of that is personnel. We have to establish who our starters are on the offensive line. Obviously we have to establish the quarterback position, who our starting quarterback is. But we also have to establish the identity, we got a great start in OTAs, but we have to establish who we are on offense.”
Rhule also mentioned improving special teams and that’s important and all but back to the quarterback situation…
The organization was “excited” about the offseason Sam Darnold had even as trade talks for Baker Mayfield were ongoing before, during and after the draft.
Speaking for the first time since the Mayfield trade, Rhule admitted there’s going to be a competition for the starting job.
Rhule will tell the players how the repetitions will break down Tuesday morning and then announce it publicly but both veterans are expected to get a chance to win the job.
Rookie Matt Corral can also win the job if he surprises but he’s more likely trying to nail down the backup or No. 3 job which P.J. Walker also gets a chance to compete for.
“It’s going to be a lot of great competition,” Rhule predicted. “And to be quite honest with you, I think it’ll be really good for our team.”
If it’s not good for the team, Rhule may find himself right where he was at the end of last year and the gambling houses are betting he’ll return to this year, which is the hot seat.
“Last year to me is over,” Rhule said. “It’s kind of like golf, you play a bad round, you sit there and you feel terrible about your game and the next day you show up and play golf again. And it’s like, ‘I can have a great round.’
“I thought we did a lot of things well early in the year and then down the stretch I didn’t get it done. We didn’t get it done. And so, that’s our job. It’s a results oriented business. And I certainly don’t want to be a part of an organization that tolerates mediocrity and a lack of success. That’s got to start with me.”
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