table tennis? Pickleball? Coach Matt Rhule leans on team building with the Carolina Panthers

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Big questions surrounding Mel Tucker
Big questions surrounding Mel Tucker

CHARLOTTE, NC – Perhaps the most intense moment of the Carolina Panthers’ offseason program, which ended Thursday, happened last week when coach Matt Rhule went on the defensive.

Ace a football goalkeeper.

During what was similar to Carolina’s version of a bar Olympics – minus the drinking games – the third-year NFL coach kicked down quarterback Sam Darnold and ran toward a camera, shouting, “I hope you have it on tape!”

“There’s a whole other side of me that no one is ever going to see,” Rhule said with a smile. “I like to have as much fun as the next guy.”

Few got to see that page during Rhule’s first two low seasons because the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the interaction to take place via Zoom and phone calls. And those who were personal demanded masks and social distance.

So Rhule made it a priority this offseason to focus on binding, especially with a core group that he believes will be the key to turning a team that had 5-11 and 5-12 in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

It began the first week with OTAs when Rhule invited 10 players to a Charlotte restaurant and asked, “What kind of team should we be?”

It was followed by golf excursions and other non-football events that gave Rhule and the players a better understanding of each other.

It culminated last Thursday with a competitive day of ping pong, pickleball, baseball, bowling, basketball and football that took place at the Bank of America Stadium and elsewhere around the city. The team even used a few members of the local football team in the big league to defend shots on goal.

“Team binding is the most important thing,” said Adrian Zendejas, who joined alongside Charlotte FC goalkeeper George Marks. “You have to be a family. They made it.”

Rhule learned a lot, nothing more important than that the players would take responsibility and make Carolina a player-driven team. That was good news for the coach, who credits much of his success in turning Temple and Baylor into players in charge.

“This is how we have always tried to build, not just relationships, but a competitive environment where guys like to compete for small things and big things,” Rhule said.

Rhule makes it clear that the pandemic was not an excuse for his first two seasons and understands that all NFL coaches had to deal with unusual times.

But for Rhule and the other four head coaches hired in 2020 just before the pandemic, it added another layer of adversity. They had to get to know new players, coaches and people in the organization mostly from a distance.

Rhules’ situation was exacerbated by the fact that among the new head coaches – the others were Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys; Ron Rivera, commanding officers of Washington; Joe Judge, New York Giants; Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns – he was the only one who came from the college ranks with virtually no NFL experience.

“Life is about relationships,” Rhule said. “And you build relationships with closeness and closeness and spend time together.

None of the hires in 2020 had it and no one delivered good results their first two seasons. The Panthers were 10-23, the Browns 19-14, the Giants 10-23, the Commanders 14-19 and the Cowboys 18-15.

However, none of the 2020 hires are under more pressure to win this season than Rhule.

“It’s no secret I’ve been a little under the gun from everyone,” Rhule said. “The biggest thing I have tried to do is really focus on the players and my relationship with the players. These are things that have helped me succeed. ”

Rhule could easily have tried new things, which coaches during shelling sometimes do, but he did not.

“You can not say, ‘Hey, I’m a process man,’ and then you do not get the results you want and change it, ” Rhule said.” You have to double that. “

Rhule’s approach is similar to what former Carolina coach Ron Rivera did in the 2013 offseason, when he invited team leaders to dinner after successive 6-10 and 7-9 seasons and asked “what’s going on” in the locker room.

Rivera later moved into an office closer to the locker room to get to know her players better.

Carolina, after a 1-3 start, responded with a winning streak of eight games and an 11-1 finish to win the first of three straight NFC South titles.

Rhule can not promise such results. There is still uncertainty that Darnold can lead an improved list to the playoffs. That’s why the door is not closed to adding a veteran like Cleveland Brown’s Baker Mayfield or San Francisco 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo.

But Rhule likes what he’s seen and seems happier, as one staff member – and his father – remarked.

Being able to bond is a factor.

“It’s huge,” Darnold said. “The closer the team is off the field, the more successful they are likely to be on the field.”

Running back Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Shaq Thompson agreed.

“We’re a close-knit group,” Thompson said. “Boys shop.”

Rhule believes the tie times will help in tough times, as there always are during a season. He hopes a normal offseason has helped build the confidence and confidence that he believes is the foundation of good teams.

“I will never underestimate the impact of the first few years of not being able to go out and be able to have a bite to eat with someone,” he said. “Not being able to go out and sit down with Shaq and say, ‘Shaq, tell me what to do, or how do you see it?’

“These conversations are crucial.”

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