CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Coach Matt Rhule was working out his core at Bank of America Stadium on the Saturday before the Carolina Panthers departed for a Week 5 game at Atlanta. He was struggling to the point that he finally yelled, “I can’t do any more!”
In stepped safety Juston Burris with the words, “What’s next, Coach! C’mon!”
The next day, after Burris muffed a first-half strip-sack that could have resulted in a touchdown, Rhule ran onto the field, shouting, “What’s next, Burris! What’s next!”
What’s next happened with 8:49 remaining. The Falcons were on the Carolina 5-yard line needing a touchdown to tie the game when Burris intercepted a pass in the back of the end zone to all but secure the win.
At no point did Burris or Rhule put a question mark at the end of “what’s next.” There was an exclamation point -- just as there was next to the same words on the sleeve of Rhule’s smock, which made its NFL game debut last week at New Orleans.
“The whole point is that we’re not asking what's next,” Rhule said as he prepared for his prime-time debut as an NFL coach on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) at home against the Falcons. “We're attacking what's next. We don't care what's next. We’re just looking for the next challenge.”
“What’s next!” is at the core of Rhule’s process that turned around programs at Temple and Baylor. It has carried over to his first year with the Panthers (3-4) as they face Atlanta (1-6), a team that fired coach Dan Quinn after their first meeting.
"What's next" is what allows Rhule -- and, he hopes, his players and staff -- to quickly move on from disappointing losses such as Sunday's 27-24 setback against New Orleans.
“It’s not just a mantra that he preaches or puts up on a poster board,” said wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson, who coached with Rhule at Temple and Baylor. “Every day, when new things get thrown at us, especially with the COVID, you can see that he lives a 'what's next' life.”
That mentality is needed during a time when teams must adjust on the fly, whether to a virtual offseason or an ever-changing roster due to COVID-19.
“It’s probably the ethos of our program -- like, you learn from the past but never dwell on the past,” Rhule said. “It's just a mindset of we don't wallow, we don't worry ... we just attack.”
There was some concern about whether Rhule’s reputation, particularly when it came to physical, padded practices, would work with professionals after the Panthers hired him and gave him a seven-year, $60 million contract.
Much of Rhule’s philosophy came in his only NFL experience in 2012 as an offensive assistant under then-New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who also came to the NFL from the college ranks and had a reputation for strict, controlling guidelines.
There have been no player revolts over Rhule’s rules -- and there are plenty of rules, beginning with accepting his “what’s next” philosophy.
If players don’t follow the rules, Rhule quickly moves on, as he recently did with practice-squad player Josh Hawkins days after the cornerback was captured on Instagram dancing in a crowded Charlotte, North Carolina, restaurant without a mask.
“He's taking care of guys and at [the] same time being tough,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said.
Panthers linebackers coach Mike Siravo noticed Coughlin-like conviction when he and Rhule reconnected at Temple in 2013 after spending the 2006 season as assistants on the Temple staff.
“Him believing in nonnegotiables,” Siravo said. “Maybe not the same ones as Coach Coughiln or as many as Coach Coughlin but that there are some nonnegotiables to having a great program and confidence in we’re not going to bend on certain things.”
Some NFL coaches ease into the preparation for an opponent when players return from being off on Tuesdays. Rhule, except for in short weeks, believes in fully padded, physical practices.
“Many free agents that have come in from other places [for tryouts], you get dropped into a Carolina Panther Wednesday, it's like you're on Mars,” Siravo said. “Like, ‘What are you guys doing?’
“It's a brand out there on Wednesday, trying to just be tough and competitive.”
Another of Rhule’s sayings is “iron sharpens iron,” and Wednesdays are how he sharpens his team.
“He thinks you need one day a week of physicality. Otherwise, you're going to lose it,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said.
Rhule also believes in having his assistants run during warm-ups or after practice for players to see.
“It’s a way for him and some of us [to] run off some calories and burn off steam,” Siravo said. “People think we're crazy. We actually used to run way more. But yes, it says we're in it with the players.”
Rhule’s office walls aren’t filled with pictures or slogans from famous people. With the exception of a colored sheet of paper with the words “We Love You” from his two daughters, there’s nothing at all.
“I'm just not that kind of guy,” Rhule said.
Rhule uses his office for intense film study, meetings and, most importantly, building relationships. That was the case after a Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, when he met with first-round pick Derrick Brown after the defensive tackle made a few costly mistakes.
Brown’s play has gotten steadily better since then.
“Just him being as open as he is, it’s what’s really gotten our team close together right now,” Brown said.
During the virtual offseason, Rhule had every position coach record video meetings so he could go through them privately and later with each coach. If he thinks an adjustment is needed, he makes it.
“Early on, I had a bunch of drills, and he was like, ‘Hey, can you explain how this helps?’" Jackson said. “I say, ‘Hey, Coach, I like this drill.’ And that answer wasn't good enough. And so I eliminated a bunch of drills that I thought were cool drills that maybe didn't correlate over to the game.”
“His brain works differently than most people,” cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper said with a laugh. “His brain never stops, trying to do the small things and trying to gain the edge.”
Uncle Chuck and 'beautiful football'
Rhule will tell you that he’s having a blast this season, despite the pandemic, but the coronavirus has taken its toll.
It took the life of his uncle Chuck Sponsky just before the season began. Sponsky was a Pennsylvania Hall of Fame high school coach who gave Rhule his love of football.
“I looked forward to him coming [to] see me coach in the NFL," Rhule said.
What Rhule hopes the country sees Thursday is a tough, gritty football team that overcame an 0-2 start to win three straight before losing the past two by a combined 10 points.
The Panthers remained competitive despite losing their best player, running back Christian McCaffrey, for five games. He could return Thursday. Their best defensive player, tackle Kawann Short (shoulder surgery), played only three games.
They’ve gone through a week in which five players were placed on the COVID-19/reserve list.
The Panthers are a long shot to make the playoffs in the NFC, in which eight teams have winning records, and the winner of the East gets in regardless. The Panthers are fighting an uphill battle in the NFC South with Tampa Bay (5-2) and New Orleans (4-2).
But Rhule doesn’t look at this as a rebuild, even though many did when he moved on from quarterback Cam Newton and most of the key veterans from former coach Ron Rivera’s roster. Rhule believes the Panthers can win now, despite their inexperience and his inexperience as an NFL coach.
“If I were starting to take over a major, international corporation, I might bring this guy in to do an autopsy on my business and see how it's run," Siravo said.
Rhule is satisfied with the direction the organization is headed.
“I don't just get bogged down in, 'I want to win,'" he said. “There's something even greater than that. And that's the way that you play the game. I want to play beautiful football. That’s our purpose: to go out and play the game at the highest level, play it the right way."
When the game is over, Rhule will reiterate what he always does: What’s next!
“It just applies to everything in life," he said. “And it's something that over time becomes a great part of the program."