CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)The Carolina Panthers have a new head coach, two new coordinators, a different starting quarterback and a roster with more turnover from last season than any team in the NFL.
They haven’t had a practice yet to begin actually installing the playbook, and won’t have a single preseason game to make evaluations on a very fluid roster situation.
Oh, and did we mention the regular-season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders is about six weeks away?
”It’s less than ideal,” said head coach Matt Rhule, who replaced Ron Rivera after three seasons at Baylor.
Rhule couldn’t have possibly imagined what was in store for him when he was hired Jan. 7.
He moved his family to the Charlotte area in early March and three days later the city was placed under a stay-at-home order because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He immediately found himself in the midst of highly unprecedented times, conducting team meetings via video conference calls. It’s been a whirlwind ever since with the NFL’s on-field offseason a complete wash, the start of training camp practices pushed back and the preseason being chopped from four games to two, and later to zero.
Rhule said he still hasn’t met all of his players in person.
The decision to cancel preseason games, while not necessarily on top of the average NFL fan’s complaint list, does put a new coach such as Rhule at a disadvantage because it restricts a true evaluation of players, particularly those near the bottom of the roster.
”The hard part is there are always those guys that when you get into games they struggle to bring what they do in practice to the game. And some guys are the opposite, where something special is lit inside them during a game,” Rhule said.
That will put added emphasis on competition in practice, Rhule said.
He’ll rely heavily on his coaching staff and the personnel department to help with roster decisions, but the obvious assumption is the Panthers would generally lean more toward proven players than undrafted or inexperienced ones.
”This is truly a time for our players where if they have a meeting, whether it is in-person or virtually, they have to be great at it. If they get on the practice field and get a couple of reps they have to be great at them,” Rhule said. ”It’s not ideal, but it is what it is and we’re going to try to make good decisions.”
The Panthers have had only one player opt out of the season so far because of the virus.
Rhule doesn’t know if more intend to do so, but said he’ll support his players and their decisions.
Despite the schedule changes and uncertainty, Rhule is finding the positives in a strange world where he now wears a contact tracer to work designed to ensure that he stays six feet apart from his assistant coaching staff, where his players spend part of their day in separate luxury suites inside the team’s stadium away from teammates and the practice schedule remains fluid.
”There’s really nothing worse than a football coach who complains,” he said.
Rhule hopes that the lack of a preseason might actually help the Panthers, saying they could have a chance to surprise some teams early in the season because opponents won’t be sure what to expect from Carolina, particularly on offense with innovative former LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady calling the plays.
One thing is clear: Rhule is high on Teddy Bridgewater as his quarterback, calling him a ”perfect fit” for the Panthers.
Bridgewater, who replaces longtime starter Cam Newton, spent the 2018 season working alongside Brady with the New Orleans Saints. And while their relationship doesn’t approach the Tom Brady/Josh McDaniels level, Rhule said Bridgewater’s familiarity with the offensive system is vital given the team’s lack of practice time.
”He’s all football,” Rhule said. ”He’s eaten up with the game. He likes to talk about it. He likes to think about it. He’s got a great way about him. If it were up to him he would be here all day going through it all.”
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