CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- “What’s up, everybody?" Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said enthusiastically as he started a Zoom call last week. “It’s kind of a hectic time right now, isn’t it?"
Hectic, indeed, particularly for the least experienced NFL staff.
What already was going to be a difficult rebuilding job for Carolina’s new staff has been made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced all NFL coaches and players to conduct virtual offseason programs.
Snow is preparing to face two surefire Hall of Fame quarterbacks twice each in Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and New Orleans’ Drew Brees, yet he "hasn't met 97% of the players." The last time Snow coached in the NFL was in 2008 as the linebackers coach for the Detroit Lions.
Joe Brady, 30, is the youngest offensive coordinator in the NFL and hasn’t called a complete game -- ever. He was a graduate assistant at Penn State four years ago.
Head coach Matt Rhule has only one year of NFL experience, when he was an offensive line assistant with the New York Giants in 2012. He has met only about 20 Panthers players in person.
Were it not for Chase Blackburn, entering his third season as Carolina’s special-teams coordinator, the individuals in Carolina’s top four coaching positions would have no NFL experience in their current jobs.
But there is one thing all three coordinators and Rhule agree on: Inexperience won’t be an excuse for failure this season.
“Coach Rhule has done a great job of not allowing us to make excuses, not letting other people make excuses for us," Brady said. “We’ve kind of taken it as a process, a mind-driven approach and finding ways to get better."
“It would have been a better situation to have been out on the field the last two-and-a-half months, quite obviously, with a new staff," he said. “But it is what it is."
Inexperienced roster, too
Carolina’s lack of experience isn’t confined to the coaching staff.
Rhule wanted to focus on defense in first draft with Panthers
Trey Wingo speaks with new Carolina coach Matt Rhule, who explains why the Panthers chose to pick only defensive players in the 2020 draft.
They’ve been replaced by mostly young, unproven players. Only eight of 88 on the roster are older than 28, and none is older than 34-year-old kicker Graham Gano. The Panthers have only 10 returning starters.
The least experienced coaching staff could have one of the youngest and least experienced rosters.
That isn’t a recipe for winning, despite some nice players in running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver DJ Moore, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, linebacker Shaq Thompson and defensive tackle Kawann Short.
If you’re looking for comparable situations, on the 2004 Chicago Bears, coach Lovie Smith and his offensive and defensive coordinators were doing their jobs for the first time, even though they had plenty of NFL experience.
That team went 5-11 -- and it didn’t have to deal with a pandemic.
Arizona went with a first-time NFL head coach last season in Kliff Kingsbury. He hired coordinators with a lot of NFL experience, but the Cardinals went 5-10-1.
“You have ups and downs. You have to learn from it," Kingsbury said at the NFL combine when asked what he learned last season. “You don’t know what you don’t know. Sixteen games is a long time. Dealing with professionals each and every day and their needs and wants are different than college players.
“Just learning on the go is tough, but you do the best you can."
That’s what the Carolina staff, with six assistants coaching in the NFL for the first time, has done.
“I’m not sure any team in the National Football League has outworked us," Snow said.
All three coordinators, including the 64-year-old Snow, agree that they’ve become better at their jobs during the pandemic because they’ve been forced to teach in new ways.
The focus hasn’t been getting to the Super Bowl. It has been improving each day. Brady hasn’t installed the entire offense he learned from two seasons as an offensive assistant with the Saints and one season as the passing game coordinator for national champion LSU because his focus has been on details.
Snow’s focus has been on assessment.
“We have programs that we can send a complete lesson, so it teaches something," Snow said. “It teaches it, then it asks a question, and then it goes on to the next subject. At the end of it, there’s a quiz.
“So the way you learn is through assessment. If you never take tests and never assess, how do you get better at something? You never know how good you are, right?"
Snow believes that has helped him get to know players better from a mental standpoint than if he had tons of on-the-field time.
“My biggest fear is what I don’t know that they don’t know," he said.
Rhule teaches his staff to prepare with "humble confidence." That's his way of alleviating some of the pressure that comes on game days.
"That was critical to me," Brady said. "You’re humble enough to prepare, confident enough to perform."
One could argue that the staff’s lack of experience might be an advantage because opponents don't know which schemes or formations the team will use.
"No question," Snow said. “Now the flip side of this: I haven’t been in the league for a long time, so I don’t know [the other teams]."
Snow understands from experience that it takes time to rebuild, regardless of experience. He was Rhule’s defensive coordinator their first year at both Temple and Baylor. Those teams went 2-10 and 1-11, respectively.
By the third years, both programs won double-digit games.
“We’ve gone in and had to change cultures," Snow said. “That’s not easy to do."
That’s where face-to-face time is more valuable than face-to-screen time. That’s where you begin to understand a player’s desire and whether he’ll run through the proverbial brick wall for you.
"There’s a transition," Snow said. “How big of a transition, we don’t know yet. I think we would know better if we were with them in person the last three months."