Carolina Panthers fire coach Matt Rhule after 1-4 start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The decision to fire coach Matt Rhule on Monday came down to an inability to "get over the hump,'' according to Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper.

"It's winning. It's winning,'' Tepper said. "Winning more this year than you did last year. Looking like you're going to win more than you did last year. By that definition, I don't think we're over the hump.''

Rhule was fired less than six full months after Tepper said it could take five, maybe six years to build an organization capable of sustained excellence.

The decision came less than 24 hours after a 37-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers and less than three years into the seven-year, $62 million contract Rhule was given in January 2020 to turn around the Panthers the way he did college programs at Temple and Baylor. Rhule is still owed north of $40 million.

He was fired with a record of 11-27, including this year's 1-4 start. Under Rhule, the Panthers went 1-27 when allowing 17 or more points, including 25 losses in a row. Every other team has multiple such wins in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Tepper wouldn't go into detail on when he made the decision to fire Rhule, saying only "this was the time.''

But he did notice his 74,000-seat stadium was overrun by San Francisco fans on Sunday.

"We had 63,000 butts in seats,'' Tepper said. "Unfortunately, there were too many red butts in seats this week. That was not the reason, THE reason for [the firing]. As I said, we just can't get over the hump.''

Rhule was not available for comment. Tepper said he informed Rhule of his decision Monday morning and it was "short, cordial.''

Defensive pass game coordinator Steve Wilks was named the interim coach. Wilks, 53, was previously a head coach in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, when he posted a 3-13 record and was fired following his first season. Wilks is a part of Brian Flores' lawsuit filed against the NFL and six teams alleging racial discrimination in the hiring and retention of Black head coaches.

The Panthers on Monday also fired defensive coordinator Phil Snow -- a decision Tepper indicated was made by Wilks -- and assistant special teams coach Ed Foley. Snow will be replaced by defensive run game coordinator Al Holcomb, who was Wilks' defensive coordinator at Arizona in 2018. The Cardinals finished 26th in total defense in 2018.

Rhule's firing came after Tepper in late April said: "I believe in Matt. He has my full support.''

"I'm a fan,'' Tepper added that day. "I don't like to lose. But it takes time and it takes a foundation, and it takes time to create the foundation to win. I do believe Coach Rhule and [general manager] Scott [Fitterer] have done a great job of creating that foundation.''

Asked about that Monday, Tepper said: "It's a funny thing that thing called patience. If you ask the average fan out there they'd say I've been ridiculously patient.''

What Rhule, 47, never found was a quarterback capable of sustained success.

He inherited Cam Newton, who was released in March 2020 as he rehabbed from foot surgery and an ailing shoulder that made him a shell of the player who won the NFL MVP Award in 2015.

The Panthers brought in Teddy Bridgewater, who was released one season after getting a three-year, $63 million deal. They then traded with the New York Jets for 2018 third-round pick Sam Darnold, who had gone 13-25 as the starter in New York.

Carolina brought back Newton midway through the 2021 season when Darnold suffered a shoulder injury, only to watch the first pick of the 2011 draft go 0-5.

Rhule and Fitterer made a hard push to trade with the Houston Texans for Deshaun Watson this past offseason even though the quarterback had 22 civil lawsuits filed against him alleging sexual misconduct and sexual assault.

When Watson chose the Cleveland Browns, making Baker Mayfield expendable, the Panthers began pursuing the first pick of the 2018 draft. That trade finally occurred in July.

Mayfield hasn't regained the form he had in 2020, when he led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win, as he is putting up career lows in almost every statistical category. Mayfield's 16.5 QBR is the lowest among passers with at least three games in the NFL this season while he has completed a league-worst 54.9% of his passes and has committed five turnovers (four interceptions and a lost fumble).

Since the start of last season, Carolina ranks last in yards per play (4.7), third-down conversion percentage (33%) and Total QBR (31.0), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

"That's the most important position on the field,'' Tepper said after the team moved on from Newton. "Unless you have that guy for sure that gets you to the playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that because that's the only thing that matters is Super Bowls.

"And until you have that guy, you're evaluating, evaluating, evaluating every year.''

Rhule felt the overall roster was good enough to win this season if he got good play from Mayfield. That hasn't happened, and Tepper decided Monday to make a change.

In terms of whether Wilks will be a candidate for the full-time job after the season, Tepper said that will depend on how the team finishes. While he didn't rule out hiring another college coach, he noted the success rate of college coaches in the NFL isn't great.

He also indicated the next coach likely won't get a seven-year deal like Rhule's.

"We have to figure out how to get a culture of winning, which we haven't had a long time this place,'' said Tepper, a reminder the Panthers haven't had a winning season since going 11-5 in 2017. "This team has never had two winning seasons [in a row]. So I don't really think it ever had a real culture of winning.''