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5Qs & 5As with Cat Scratch Reader: How do Panthers move on from Matt Rhule disaster?

“He’s somebody else’s problem now.”

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The reeling Los Angeles Rams will stay home this Sunday to lick their wounds following two-straight losses before taking on the Carolina Panthers. This is a matchup between two similarly reeling teams and one that LA desperately needs to win.

Los Angeles has only faced the Panthers once in the Sean McVay era with Carolina pulling out a 30-27 win back in 2019. Due to all the recent adversity facing the Panthers, it’s no surprise to see the Rams listed as 10-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

With Matt no longer Rhuleing Carolina with an iron fist (yes I’m also quite proud of that one), I spoke with Walker Clement from SB Nation’s Panthers blog Cat Scratch Reader to gain more insight into LA’s opposition this week.

Q - Head Coach Matt Rhule was a major disappointment since being hired by the Panthers in 2020. What was the biggest issue during his tenure with the team and what is the best path for Carolina to take after his firing?

A - He had two major issues that lost him the fanbase quickly. He couldn’t find a quarterback, yet he kept proclaiming everybody he brought in as “the guy.” Shipping off franchise legend Cam Newton for Teddy Bridgewater, then Sam Darnold, then Newton again for five seconds, then Baker Mayfield left a distinct lack of trust among Panthers fans for Rhule’s ability to evaluate quarterbacks. That was then combined with a general used car salesman demeanor in his press conferences. Everybody inside the building and inside the locker room thought he walked on water. Everybody outside the building thought that he had probably got lost on his drive home more often than not.

The truth was probably somewhere in the middle, but his losing record—including a 1-26 mark in games where opponents scored more than 17 points—makes the truth moot. He’s somebody else’s problem now.

As for the best path forward, that’s a little easier. There is no dearth of quality head coach candidates this season, including at least one assistant on the Rams. Interim head coach Steve Wilks was actually one of my favorite names for a big job in the 2023 cycle and now the Panthers get to see him in action with this roster for an extended time. They also get to scout assistants with y’all, the Buccaneers, Bengals, Broncos, Ravens, and Lions this season. And those assistants get to see the Panthers players in action. All of these teams have at least one assistant whose name is getting mentioned in candidate conversations. The Panthers have four plus months to make this decision, two or three possibly with no competition. The Panthers should absolutely take their time, ignore any candidates that are currently coaching in the college game, and find the right NFL fit for their roster.

I keep saying “their roster” because I am against the (popular) idea of a fire sale/youth movement strategy. I think there is a talented core of players in Carolina and not a lot of room for dead money next season. We’ve already lost so many seasons to past experiments that committing to losing more when there is talent at hand just tastes bitter. I also think that there will be several openings around the league this offseason and the Panthers combination of likely high draft pick and talented roster will make them an attractive destination for a qualified head coach. They shouldn’t tear up the yard if they are trying to sell the house. Sorry, you’re in LA now. They shouldn’t put the basement laundry in the dumpster if they are trying to rent an apartment.

Q - Baker Mayfield has been absolutely dreadful this year with a 71.9 passer rating, currently the worst in the league. Poor guy should’ve stayed at home with Progressive but what has been his problem and how should the Panthers address the quarterback position for the rest of the season?

A - His mechanics and timing have been all over the place. Watch his feet when he throws, kid is basically out there trying to do the splits sometimes instead of planting. Accuracy has been the casualty of that inconsistency. His high ankle sprain is unlikely to improve that condition if he plays. And that’s a big if this week, even if the team does say he is “day to day.”

The other issue is one that will persist even if PJ Walker gets the start against the Rams. That is offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. McAdoo has not had a successful offense in the NFL that wasn’t predicated on Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning being competent. He has predictably struggled with having neither Rodgers or any Manning on the Panthers roster. Interim head coach Steve Wilks, a long time Panthers fan favorite, said yesterday in his introductory press conference that he had some thoughts on how the offense might be improved and that McAdoo had been “receptive” to those thoughts. We’ll see what, if anything, that means come Sunday.

Q - There has been major criticism regarding Christian McCaffrey’s usage through the first five games. He is clearly Carolina’s most dominant player when healthy so is his usage a result of managing his workload to prevent injury or are there other factors involved?

A - Yes, and also I have no idea. The Panthers have been in a damned if they do, damned if they don’t scenario with McCaffrey for years. He has been the only consistent offense the Panthers have had since Cam Newton’s first big injury in 2018. But, when they feed him the ball at 1950s Jim Brown rates, he breaks. The Panthers have appeared more circumspect about his workload this season, but also they can’t seem to decide if he is a running back, the only running back, a receiver, or only to be used in case of emergency. The lack of identity apparent in the play calling and personnel groupings were part of what contributed to Rhule’s departure.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but we’ll have to see what we see on Sunday. You know... New coach, who dis?

Q - Last season, the Panthers finished with the second-ranked defense in the NFL. This year, they’ve had their moments but this clearly isn’t the same unit. What has been the difference between this Panthers defense compared to last year’s group?

A - Honestly, I think this unit is better than last year’s when healthy. The main difference is the offense is worse and the same, or better, defense can’t maintain their high level of play with as little rest as they get each game. They’re gassed by the middle of the third quarter every week. The Panthers offense is 15-62 on third downs. They don’t exactly put together drives, which produces whatever the opposite of complementary football is.

‘When healthy’ is also an important distinction. The starting 11 from Week 1 were already down four by the second half of the 49ers game last week. S Jeremy Chinn is on IR with a hamstring injury and we’re still waiting to hear the status of LB Frankie Luvu, S Xavier Woods, and CB Jaycee Horn for this week. All four of those guys are playmakers and key cogs in the Panthers defensive wheelhouse. Without them, a unit already stretched by time is also stretched in terms of pure talent and number of bodies.

Q - DraftKings Sportsbook has the Rams listed as 10-point favorites with an O/U of 40.5. What is your prediction for Sunday’s game and how could the Panthers pull off an upset?

A - I wouldn’t bet somebody else’s money on this game. A hungry team with a new coach could throw up all kinds of surprises, or they could fall flatter than they have all year. The Rams would be the safest money, but this is the kind of chaos that upsets are made of.

That upset, if it happens, will come from a surprisingly simplified and manageable offense under the patient command of back up quarterback PJ Walker. Walker is known for two things in Charlotte: Throwing wild interceptions and getting wins. He is technically 2-0 as a starter, but has thrown two touchdowns to eight interceptions in two-and-a-quarter years with the Panthers. If Wilks can get him to calm down and take what’s in front of him while also getting McAdoo to open up and put any damn thing in front of him then there is a chance that this offense starts to turn around. That, in turn, gives the defense a little more gas. Might be that’s all it takes to get off to the races against a Rams team expecting an easy win.