Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

Can Matt Rhule Turn Sam Darnold Around?

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Most football fans, even the most blinkered die-hards, recognize a looming rebuild when they see one. Eighteen months ago, as the 2019 Carolina Panthers fell off again from a winning start to finish with a losing record, everybody could see a change coming. Quarterback Cam Newton was injured again, no longer the talisman he had been since the start of the decade. The front seven, for so long the key to the team's defensive success, allowed a run defense DVOA that ranked fifth worst all-time. Head coach Ron Rivera was unable to arrest the team's slide and departed at the start of December. Even shiny new rookie quarterback Will Grier, drafted in the third round as a contingency plan for Newton, went 1-for-8 with a pick-six in the final game before he, too, got hurt. Finishing a disappointing 5-11 after opening 4-2, a third straight year with a declining record, and with 12 of 22 preferred starters turning 29 or older, the Panthers were in obvious need of a reboot.

Fast forward a year, and once again, the Panthers finished 5-11 after a winning start. Again, a star offensive player lost most of the season to injury. Again, they earned a pick in the top eight of the draft. However, this time the mood is different. Newton is now in New England, replaced initially by former Vikings first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, and now by 24-year-old former Jets No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold. Rivera is now in Washington, replaced by Matt Rhule, an experienced former college head coach with a reputation for rebuilding struggling football programs. The defense went from the second-oldest by snap-weighted age in 2019 to second-youngest in 2020. This time, only three of their 22 primary starters were more than 29 years old, and of those three only center Matt Paradis returns for 2021.

This was not just youth for youth's sake, either. Under Rhule, Carolina's efficiency improved in all three major phases: offense, defense, and special teams. Despite the poor record, the team was competitive throughout the season. Their only...