Senior Bowl 'unbelievably invaluable' for Panthers' staff in pandemic

Matt Rhule, left, and the Carolina Panthers' coaching and scouting staff are taking advantage of the opportunity to coach in the Senior Bowl. AP Photo/Matthew Hinton

MOBILE, Ala. -- Matt Rhule got in the elevator with one of the nation’s top college prospects last year at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. By the time he reached his floor, it was clear to the Carolina Panthers coach “there’s no way that guy will be a fit’’ for his team.

“Just the demeanor, the way he acted,’’ said Rhule, stopping short of calling the player a jerk.

The story came up last week as Rhule addressed the advantages the Panthers and Miami Dolphins had by coaching the Senior Bowl, which will be played Saturday afternoon in Mobile, with the 2021 combine canceled and scouting limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no denying that time, on and off the field, with 135 players -- something 30 other teams didn’t get to this extent -- was a huge advantage in the evaluation process heading into the April draft.

Particularly the off-the-field contact.

“Having that personal touch is really hard to not have it, right?’’ Rhule said. “[The pandemic] has changed everything. This will be the year where everybody across the NFL knows less about the players than any other year.’’

Other teams were limited to 10 people in attendance, and most sent scouts. Some didn’t use the full allotment over fears of the pandemic.

The Panthers and Dolphins had most of their coaching and scouting staffs in Mobile, in addition to top executives. Carolina owner David Tepper even showed up Wednesday.

Rhule and his staff got two hours a day on the field, two hours a day in meetings, casual time and formal interviews with the 68 players on the American roster.

And because the hotel lobby was void of the typical traffic of fans, scouts, coaches, family members and media to create a bubble, they got more time to get to know players from the National roster as well.

Other teams got 15-minute interviews and watched practice from the stands instead of 10 to 15 feet away on the sidelines as they have in the past.

“I’ll walk into the lobby and see 10 players sitting around,’’ Rhule said. “We’ll have a really good sense for these guys.’’

Coaching the Senior Bowl doesn’t guarantee success in the upcoming season. Since 2010, six of 24 teams that coached the all-star game had winning records the following season.

The 2017 Cleveland Browns went 0-16 after Hue Jackson and his staff coached the Senior Bowl. The only team to make the Super Bowl was the 2019 San Francisco 49ers.

But with the pandemic, Rhule wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for anything.

“This is invaluable to have this opportunity because nobody knows what’s going to happen after this,’’ Rhule said.

Real-time evaluation

Practice was dragging on Wednesday, so Rhule huddled the team around him as he sometimes does in Carolina and gave the players an earful.

He happened to be miked up for ESPN, and he did his best to keep it clean because “I knew my mom would be watching.’’ A few expletives slipped, but the message was clear.

“I just wanted to remind them, be coachable,’’ Rhule said. “Great players consistently want to be coached. Try to push that mindset, that identity.’’

Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell knew exactly what Rhule wanted to see.

“They’re not going to coach tempo,’’ he said. “They’re not going to coach effort. So we’ve got to be able to bring it. He’s just letting us know on this next level you get paid for it, so you’ve got to have that will and drive.’’

Being on the field and in meeting rooms gave the Panthers insight into which players had that will and drive, things at the core of the “process’’ Rhule preaches religiously.

“You can actually feel the energy,’’ wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson said. “You see how guys react, see their body language. You hear a guy smacking their lips or sighing ... see how guys react to all things.

“We get the benefit of that. When you sit in the stands, you’re kind of guessing.’’

And unlike Zoom calls, where a player can prepare, this is raw reaction.

“I can’t stand Zoom,’’ defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “Your body language, your eye contact, just a lot of different things I can see that are important that you don’t see on Zoom.

“Like, we’ve had a couple [of players] fall asleep in meetings. That’s an issue, right? You can’t concentrate for long periods of time. All that stuff is invaluable.’’

Offensive line coach Pat Meyer didn’t have anyone snooze on him, but he agreed the experience far outweighed what other teams got.

“You go test-drive a car, you get a better feel than driving a video,’’ Meyer said.

Lack of video

Grambling offensive lineman David Moore hadn’t played in a game since 2019 because the Southwestern Athletic Conference canceled the season due to the pandemic.

Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman hadn’t played in more than 400 days because he transferred from Georgia in 2019 and opted out in 2020 because of the coronavirus.

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins and Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike opted out to prepare for the draft. Michigan running back Chris Evans last played in 2018 because he was suspended in 2019 for an academic issue and didn’t play this past season.

There’s no recent film on any of them.

“It’s crazy,’’ Meyer said. “[Moore] was out there the first day doing a stretch, blowing and sweating. I was like, ‘You OK?’’’

But after a week, Meyer has a better evaluation on Moore than other teams, which is vital since he’ll basically be rebuilding his line.

The same with the quarterbacks, as Carolina could replace starter Teddy Bridgewater by attempting to trade for any of the numerous veterans available this offseason or, at least, draft a quarterback to groom under him.

A week with Mac Jones, who led Alabama to an undefeated season and national title, gave the staff a better idea whether he could be the right fit for the eighth overall pick.

“You have a chance to see his intelligence,’’ Rhule said. “He makes quick decisions. He processes information quickly. High intelligence. He’s the first guy on the practice field. He’s the first guy in the running. He’s got a lot of really, really strong traits.’’

‘One thousand percent’

Rhule was looking for a cup of coffee after meetings late Wednesday night when he ran into two players from the National team he had recruited out of high school.

That’s just one of the many examples of why he “1,000 percent’’ has no regrets about accepting the invitation to coach the Senior Bowl after several teams turned it down.

Another example: As much as Carolina loved Southern Illinois safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn coming out of the Senior Bowl last year, the Panthers didn’t know as much about him as they would have had they coached him here.

“I had no idea how intelligent Jeremy was,’’ Snow said of Chinn, who was a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. “I knew he scored high on tests and all that, but until you work with somebody and see how detailed he is, until you see he’s the first one in the building and last one to leave, you’re not sure if they’re going to do all those things.’’

But this went beyond getting to know draft prospects for the Panthers. This was the first time the coaching staff and scouting department had been together since last year’s combine because of the pandemic.

So the scouts got a firsthand view of what the coaches want out of players, helping them to find the right fits.

“Our scouts do a great job, but that’s only information from a third party, someone at the school, a coach,’’ Rhule said.

It is also the first time Rhule has worked directly with general manager Scott Fitterer.

But ultimately, the personal contact with players was the biggest benefit.

“Like, being in the elevator, you get a sense for the guys,’’ Rhule said. “It’s one thing to watch another coach coach them, but to hear Meyer say, ‘Hey, do this because this is what we do in Carolina,’ and then see the guy do it ... I would just say it’s been unbelievably invaluable.’’