CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule needed to make a statement during the bye week in an attempt to salvage a season gone awry.
And maybe to save his own job.
Firing offensive coordinator Joe Brady on Sunday was it.
That it didn’t come earlier in the week raised eyebrows, but Rhule isn’t one to make rash decisions. He wanted to spend the week studying film and evaluating every aspect of what has happened during a 2-7 skid that has the Panthers (5-7) clinging to remote chances of making the playoffs.
The film showed that Brady and Rhule weren’t on the same page, even though both repeatedly said they were in recent weeks. The film showed Brady wasn’t willing to fully give up on a pass-happy system, one that earned him the label of offensive genius at LSU in 2019, and run the ball the way Rhule wanted.
Rhule sent the message about what he wanted to Brady very publicly after a 34-28 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 17.
“We have not committed enough to running it, and that’s going to change, I can tell you that right now,’’ Rhule said the next day. “You’ll see a vastly different look moving forward.’’
The next week, the Panthers ran only 17 times in a 25-3 loss to the New York Giants that was a one-score game until 59 seconds left in the third quarter. So Rhule publicly reiterated his challenge to Brady, indicating that he wanted to run the ball 30-33 times a game.
“We needed more from the run game,’’ he said.
Brady violated Rhule’s top directive -- “Do your job’’ -- in building a program.
Now he’s gone.
This isn’t all Brady’s fault. Rhule hired the then-30-year-old two years ago with the hope that the system that turned Joe Burrow into a Heisman Trophy winner at LSU and the top pick of the 2020 draft (Cincinnati Bengals) would translate into the NFL.
That Brady never had called a complete game at any level didn’t seem to matter.
Rhule also paired Brady last season with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who ran a similar system with the New Orleans Saints when Brady was an offensive assistant, before moving on to Sam Darnold in 2021.
But even Bridgewater questioned Brady after being traded to Denver.
“I'll just say this: For Joe Brady's growth, they'll have to practice different things in different ways,’’ Bridgewater said on the “All Things Covered’’ CBS podcast.
“One of the things we didn't do much of when I was there, we didn't practice two-minute drills, we didn't practice red zone. ... We didn't practice on Fridays, but you walked through the red zone stuff, and then Saturday you came out and practiced red zone, but you got only 15 live reps.’’
As head coach, Rhule allowed this to occur, so he has to be accountable.
Firing Brady is an admission by Rhule that he made a mistake.
This mistake likely won’t cost Rhule his job this season. Owner David Tepper gave the former Baylor coach a seven-year, $60 million contract in January 2020 because he seemingly understood the rebuild would take time.
But Rhule definitely is on notice. If the Panthers, who were 5-11 in 2020, don’t show signs of improvement over the final five games this season, Rhule will be on the hot seat entering 2022.
Improvement won’t be easy. After their Week 14 game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers travel to the Buffalo Bills, then face the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice around a road game at the Saints.
They’ll do this without star running back Christian McCaffrey (placed on injured reserve during the bye week) and with quarterback Cam Newton still learning the system less than a month after going from his couch to under center.
The only certainty is Rhule should get his wish in committing to the run. He chose Jeff Nixon, a senior offensive assistant and running backs coach, to replace Brady.
Nixon was the co-offensive coordinator for Rhule at Baylor in 2019. That team averaged 36 rushes and 166.4 yards rushing per game and averaged only 31.7 pass attempts.
Nixon also has 10 years of NFL experience.
Brady got his only true NFL experience the past two seasons with the Panthers. He failed. His offense ranked 21st in the NFL last season and is 29th this season.
More failures like this will lead to more change, starting at the top.