Golden God Establishes College Trust Fund
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper built his Wall Street hedge fund from the ground up. In this world, Tepper was regarded as a deal closer, in an industry it pays to always be closing. It's a formula he’s looking to replicate with the football team he now owns. For the Panthers, a period of stability, then growth is required. To get his new head coach in January 2019, Tepper paid wildly above market levels for a first-time incoming college coach to the NFL. Other owners won’t be thanking him for the juicy contract and market precedent it could set. But Tepper got his man. The man once described by an investor as a ‘Golden God’ always does. With a blank slate and a 7-year deal worth $60 million, he lured Matt Rhule from Baylor in as the next Panthers head coach.
Rhule has particular experience as a head coach that turns teams around. Temple will attest to that, as will Baylor. Now the NFL beckons. I’ve written about how we’re seeing an upward trajectory in the influence of college football on the NFL. Rhule represents the next man up in this process. He has a bit more job security than college coaches that have come before him. Pro football has had to innovate and diversify so much in the last six months. The ability to transition college innovators into pro football is increasingly appealing to NFL owners. The Carolina Panthers have made bold, structural changes in the past nine months. A team that many expect to be in reorganization mode for at least a year, they have fresh ideas and offensive spark to look forward to. I’ll chart the evolution of the Panthers, before moving on to analyze the 2020 season. Panthers Unleashed Carolina was founded as an expansion franchise in 1995 and the team was competitive from its inaugural season. Charlotte-based NPR reporter Scott Jagow credits the Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl appearance as representing the arrival of Charlotte onto the national scene.
The best Panthers team to date was the 2015 team, coached by Ron Rivera and led by 2015 season MVP and quarterback Cam Newton, and star players Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen. They rolled into the 2015 Super Bowl after a 15-1 regular season record, walloping the Seattle Seahawks, the previous year's winner, and the Arizona Cardinals en route. The Denver Broncos prevailed in the Super Bowl, in a forgettable defensive struggle. Fast forward five years and Ron Rivera and his star players have moved on. Something new is afoot. A College Scheme Matt Rhule had carte blanche to bring in his own coaching staff. His 64-year old defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, was Rhule’s coordinator at both Temple and Baylor, and also coached the legendary Pat Tillman at Arizona State. Offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, is 34 years younger than Snow. As passing game coordinator with L.S.U., he helped quarterback Joe Burrow put together a historic year of offensive play. It allowed L.S.U. to storm to a national championship. Burrow was not considered a top 200 college player at the start of the season, but he ended it as the number one draft pick. Joe Brady will have a vital role with incoming quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. While working as offensive assistant at the New Orleans Saints, Brady coached Bridgewater in 2018 when Drew Brees was injured.
Rhule is not afraid to run the ball, which is important when you have a player of Panthers’ running back Christian McCaffrey’s ability. He is a player you need to build your system around him as I’ll highlight below. Transitioning With COVID-19
The immediate challenge for Matt Rhule is clear: how do you mold a team as a new head coach during a pandemic?
Talking to Albert Breer at Sport Illustrated, Rhule outlined preparing for his first season with COVID-19; “With no tryouts, and when you sign somebody it’s taking four or five days to get them in the building because of the testing protocols, it’s more like college, in that your team is kind of your team. You have to find out what people can do.”
The incoming head coach is not new to adversity. Rhule had to deal with a broken school in Baylor after sexual assault and violence issues engulfed the football team prior to his arrival. The head coach, athletics director and even the Baylor University President, Ken Starr (remember him?), all vacated their positions. Crucially, he understands how to deal with headwinds and what is required to turn an organisation around. Yes, Rhule and his coordinators are light on NFL experience with just three years combined. The team he inherited has lost a lot of senior players, most notably the leadership of the outstanding Luke Kuechly, who is now a pro scout in the Panthers front office. While all these factors will make for a challenging first season, I think this is where Rhule’s strong experience running football programs during difficult times will stand to him. The difficulty for Rhule is threading the fine line between being aggressive and creative, and getting his relatively untried team to play mistake-free football. The Swiss Army Knife The Panthers have transitioned to coach Matt Rhule and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater this offseason. But the offense designed by Joe Brady will continue to go through Christian McCaffrey.
This is McCaffrey’s team. Carolina made him the best paid running back with the off season contract. McCaffrey has fantastic vision and can find the gap whether it was created for him or not. Then he is so explosive and quick. Often, he makes up for poor offensive line work by improvising and hitting different gaps.
There were six games last season where he had more passing than rushing yards which illustrates how dangerous he is as a dual threat. It means McCaffrey is a matchup nightmare in both the running and passing game.
The Panthers have a pair of fine young wide receivers in D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. They added Robbie Anderson in free agency from the New York Jets. Fed up with seeing Anderson catching the deep ball against them, the Panthers have brought him to their building. Anderson played under Matt Rhule at Temple so there will be a familiarity there, which is even more important this season. Overall, there is a nice blend of experience and explosiveness on the offense. The Defense Phil Snow is inheriting one of the worst defenses in the league. Last year, the Panthers gave up the second most points in the NFL. Snow’s job is to assimilate some talented draft picks into a defense that is going to have a lot of new starters. Given he’s never held the defensive coordinator position before in pro football, Snow faces an uphill challenge to prepare rookies in a short time before the new season. First round pick Derrick Brown, defensive tackle, will combine with Brian Burns and Kawann Short to improve an already good defensive line. However, they are wafer thin at cornerback after losing the experience of Eric Reid and James Bradberry. Expect opposition offenses, especially Tampa, to pepper their secondary during the season.
The Queen City With Carolina’s strong offense, winning five games should be within their reach. Putting pressure on the Atlanta Falcons to finish third in the NFC South would represent an achievement for the Panthers. They can dream about competing with the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Buccaneers in the years ahead.
David Tepper is regarded as one the greatest hedge fund managers of his generation, who has been steadily returning money to client investors in recent years.
To prove that Matt Rhule is one of the best investment’s he has made in his career, he needs to be able to stay the course when, invariably, things get bumpy this season and next, and honor the terms of the contract so long as Rhule is delivering.