Matt Rhule's rebuilding process for Carolina Panthers hampered by turnovers, QB play

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule is trying to lay the groundwork to turn the franchise around, but the results aren't showing in their win-loss record. Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Wide receiver Robby Anderson and backup quarterback P.J. Walker saw the process that Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule preaches to his team daily work when they were all at Temple.

They believe it is working in Carolina, even though the results aren’t there in terms of wins.

“It’s like when you build a house, you have to take out all the old things to put in the new things,’’ Anderson said after Sunday’s 29-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that all but eliminated Carolina (5-8) from playoff contention. “Coach Rhule made a comment the other day. He said, ‘You can go to a team and live in the culture.’

“The situation we’re in, we’re building a culture, so it’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding.’’

Rhule’s issue is that a 3-0 start to his second season raised expectations that the process had taken hold overnight. The winning covered up flaws in the foundation that already were shaky and then fell apart as injuries to running back Christian McCaffrey and an offensive line that has gone through nine different starting fives took their toll.

The underpinning -- in this case, quarterback -- hasn’t been stable enough to keep the foundation from crumbling, which has magnified Carolina’s struggles that have resulted in three straight losses, and eight in its last 10 games.

Sunday’s loss was a microcosm of the season. Quarterback Cam Newton had two turnovers that Rhule correctly described as “catastrophic.’’ His pick-six in the first half and fumbled exchanged in the second led to 13 points.

It was no different with quarterback Sam Darnold after the 3-0 start. Darnold had 10 interceptions to only four touchdown passes over his final six starts that led to a 1-5 record in that span. He was also 0-3 in games decided by eight or fewer points.

“Like many other games, just kind of self-inflicted wounds,’’ Rhule said.

Said Anderson when asked why the process isn’t showing up in results, “Just taking care of the little things. You saw the game, right?’’

Rhule noted Monday that Carolina has lost five games this season in which it committed three turnovers. He added that since one was in overtime to the Minnesota Vikings, another by three points to the Philadelphia Eagles and the one-score game Sunday, it showed his team’s grit.

It also showed how little margin the Panthers have for error in a league where turnovers are hard for any team to overcome.

Rhule reiterated that the process he’s facing at Carolina is no different than it was at Temple and Baylor, where by the third year, both teams won 10 or more games.

When it was suggested the Panthers have regressed instead of improved in Year 2, Rhule responded, “The concept of regression is there because we’re turning the ball over too much.’’

Rhule’s challenge is the little things that need correcting require big-time solutions, starting at quarterback. Darnold showed before a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve that he wasn’t the solution.

Newton, despite moments of flash, still is making the mistakes that plagued him at the end of his first go-around at Carolina.

The Panthers have lost 11 straight with Newton and are 0-9 in games decided by eight or fewer points during that span. Newton has thrown 13 interceptions to 11 touchdowns during this skid, including three picks to two touchdowns during this year’s 0-3 run.

Complicating Rhule’s challenge is he currently has only one 2022 draft pick in the first three rounds, and he’s stuck with Darnold’s $18.7 million cap hit after picking up the quarterback’s fifth-year option.

That’s a challenge because the draft class isn’t considered strong at quarterback, and the Panthers also need a solution at left tackle that seldom is found via lower-round picks or through free agency.

Carolina could re-enter the market for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, but there are obstacles. Watson is facing 22 active lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior and the Texans want three or four first-round picks for the former Clemson star.

Then there’s Watson $40.4 million cap hit in 2022 that would be tough to pair with Darnold’s cap hit.

Let’s say the Panthers use what appears to be a top-10 draft pick on a quarterback such as Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, who once committed to Rhule’s Temple team. There will be more growing pains there, something Rhule didn’t have at that position at Temple when Walker was the starter for most of the rebuild.

So that leads to another challenge. How patient will owner David Tepper be?

Tepper gave Rhule a seven-year, $60 million deal because he knew a rebuild would take time. He also wants to see improvement, and if the Panthers lose their final four games – at Buffalo Bills, vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at New Orleans Saints and at Tampa Bay – they will finish 5-12 after going 5-11 in 2021.

That’s not a picture of improvement.

That’s not a picture that the process is working.

Rhule’s process is built around everyone improving 1% every day. The Panthers are showing that in spurts, but not as a team, particularly down the stretch.

They went 2-6 the final half of the 2020 season. They currently are 1-4 in this second-half run.

They also have lost five straight at home, so fans are becoming disgruntled.

Rhule insists it’s not about lack of preparation or good coaching, even though he fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady prior to the Atlanta game. It’s about doing the things his process requires to be successful, starting with protecting the football.

“It’s real simple,’’ he said. “You look at the games when we win the turnover battle or tie it, we usually win. When we don’t win the turnover battle, we lose. That’s where we are. That’s where most teams are, to be quite honest, but that is where we are.’’