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After 1-4 start, Panthers fire Matt Rhule and promote Steve Wilks

The Panthers fired Coach Matt Rhule on Monday. (Jacob Kupferman/AP)
6 min

The first head coaching change of the NFL season Monday was far from surprising. The reeling Carolina Panthers dismissed Matt Rhule and promoted Steve Wilks to serve as their interim coach.

The Panthers announced the move one day after a 37-15 loss at home to the San Francisco 49ers dropped them to 1-4.

“I think that there has been progress of some sort,” Panthers owner David Tepper said at an afternoon news conference. “But, look, we’re just not getting over the hump. And we’ve got to get over the hump.”

The Panthers went 11-27 under Rhule, whom Tepper fired five games into his third NFL season. Rhule never was able to achieve the level of success he had managed in the college ranks at Temple and Baylor.

“There’s numerous reasons why you make a decision like that,” Tepper said. “Ultimately, I felt this was the time.”

Wilks, the former coach of the Arizona Cardinals, was the Panthers’ secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator.

In 2020, Tepper outbid other interested NFL teams to hire Rhule. The New York Giants reportedly were focused on him — he had been their assistant offensive line coach in 2012 — but ended up hiring New England Patriots assistant coach Joe Judge once Rhule headed to Carolina.

Rhule has more than four seasons remaining on his seven-year, $62 million contract. The Panthers reportedly owe him more than $40 million for the remainder of the deal. But Rhule could become a candidate for college head coaching jobs, and the amount the Panthers owe him reportedly would be offset by his salary from another coaching job.

Among the five NFL head coaches hired for the 2020 season, Rhule and Judge already have been fired. The other three hired during that cycle were Washington’s Ron Rivera, the Dallas Cowboys’ Mike McCarthy and the Cleveland Browns’ Kevin Stefanski.

“I just feel like we’re better than we’ve shown,” Rhule said of the Panthers following Sunday’s defeat. “It’s how I feel. But you are what your record says you are. We’re 1-4. It’s not where any of us intended to be. We’ve got to get that turned around.”

There was intense speculation about Rhule’s job security as the losses mounted. Sunday’s defeat was their 11th in 12 games, dating from last season. Rhule declined to address the topic during his postgame news conference.

“I hope you guys can understand: I’m here to talk about the game,” Rhule said then. “I’ve always been very forthright with you guys. I have nothing to say about that now. … I would never want to make this about me.”

Tepper mentioned Monday that there were “63,000 butts in seats” at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte for Sunday’s game. But he added: “Now, unfortunately, there was too many red butts,” meaning 49ers fans.

“It’s a funny thing, that thing called patience,” Tepper said. “If you ask the average fan out there, they think I was ridiculously patient. … I think you have to show the right amount of patience and see the progress that’s made: Are we winning more? Are we progressing in different ways?”

Tepper spoke several times Monday of getting over the hump and was asked what he meant.

“It’s winning,” said Tepper, who purchased the franchise from Jerry Richardson in 2018 for approximately $2.2 billion. “… By that definition, I don’t think we’re over the hump. We started off 1-4 this year. We had five wins [each of] the last two seasons. … We have to somehow change that culture, see how we can change that culture, and try to win. And whatever that takes, we’re going to try to find that.”

Rhule was unable to land a franchise quarterback, going through a list of starters that included Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker, Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and Baker Mayfield. The Panthers traded for Mayfield in July, nearly four months after the No. 1 choice in the 2018 draft was ousted from his starting job in Cleveland when the Browns traded for Deshaun Watson.

But the offense has continued to sputter this season with Mayfield and new coordinator Ben McAdoo, the former coach of the Giants whom Rhule hired in January. Mayfield suffered an ankle injury Sunday. Walker finished the game and could start Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams in Inglewood, Calif.

“It’s hard for me to talk about last year because Ben wasn’t here,” Rhule said Sunday. “Baker wasn’t here. I just try to focus on right now. … We’re not going to win unless we score more points. I think we all know that. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. But in terms of a complete and total overhaul, I don’t know that that’s the answer. … I think everything is just about trying to improve each player.”

Steve Wilks, Ray Horton join Brian Flores’s lawsuit against NFL, teams

Wilks, a Charlotte native, could be a candidate for the head coaching job on a more permanent basis, Tepper said.

The Cardinals fired Wilks in 2018 after he spent one season as their coach. The team went 3-13. In April, Wilks and another Black coach, Ray Horton, joined Brian Flores’s racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and teams. Flores filed the lawsuit in February in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The lawsuit claims Wilks served as a “bridge coach” who didn’t get “a meaningful opportunity to succeed.” It contrasted the Cardinals’ dismissal of Wilks with their retention of General Manager Steve Keim, whom they fined and suspended in 2018 after he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.

“Like many other Black Head Coaches, Mr. Wilks has never been given a second opportunity to become the Head Coach of any other NFL team,” the lawsuit said. “Mr. Wilks is unfortunately not an anomaly or an exception to the rule. To the contrary, the discriminatory treatment towards Mr. Wilks is just part and parcel to the ongoing pattern and practice of discrimination in the NFL when it comes to the NFL’s Head Coach, Coordinator and Executive hiring and employment decisions.”

Wilks becomes the NFL’s fourth active Black head coach. He joins the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Houston Texans’ Lovie Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Todd Bowles. Smith and Bowles were the only Black head coaches hired during the most recent cycle in which 10 teams changed coaches. The Miami Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel, who is biracial.