Baker Mayfield's arrival was supposed to signal a turning point in head coach Matt Rhule's tenure with the Carolina Panthers. Instead, it spelled his demise.
After a 1-4 start to the 2022 season, the Panthers fired Rhule on Monday, the team announced.
"I think that there has been progress of some sort, but look, we're just not getting over the hump," Panthers owner David Tepper told reporters Monday, explaining his decision to move on from Rhule after fewer than three seasons. "We've got to get over the hump."
Panthers defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach Steve Wilks will replace Rhule as the interim coach. Wilks, who spent one season as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, is expected to be seriously considered for the Panthers' full-time job, NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero reported Monday.
"There's a lot of season left and we'll see how the season goes," Tepper said regarding Wilks. "Ultimately, he's in a position to be in consideration for that position. I had a talk with Steve. No promises were made, but obviously, if he does an incredible job, he'd have to be in consideration for that."
Defensive coordinator Phil Snow and assistant special teams coach Ed Foley were also fired, along with Rhule. Snow joined the organization with Rhule in 2020, following the head coach to the pros after stints at Temple and Baylor. Panthers defensive assistant head coach Al Holcomb is expected to be named Carolina's new DC, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo reported. Holcomb was Wilks' defensive coordinator in Arizona.
Unlike Rhule and Snow, general manager Scott Fitterer, who was hired in Carolina after Rhule in January 2020, is staying on for now.
"Scott is our GM," Tepper said definitively Monday. "There's no thought of mind right now. Right now, my focus is Wilks and how he can have success in his new role."
Tepper did add that a "better balance" in power between the next coach and Fitterer is more appropriate than the previous arrangement under Rhule.
Rhule's arrival came with much fanfare and a seven-year, $62 million contract in 2020. The former Temple and Baylor coach quickly built a reputation as a savior, turning both programs into winners in short fashion, and Tepper believed Rhule was the man to do the same in Carolina. What they received was far different.
Rhule's time in Carolina produced just an 11-27 record over two-plus seasons, including consecutive five-win campaigns. He's the first head coach in Panthers history to serve fewer than three full seasons, and the reasons aren't difficult to identify.
The Panthers have had a bottom-five offense in several metrics since 2020, including points per game (28th), yards per game (29th), third-down percentage (31st), red-zone touchdown percentage (30th) and passer rating (30th). Rhule scapegoated former wunderkind offensive coordinator Joe Brady, firing him in 2021 amid another season filled with offensive hiccups, but no matter the coordinator, the Panthers continued to struggle.
Defensively, the Panthers were significantly better. However, thanks to this offensive ineptitude, Carolina essentially fought an uphill battle on a weekly basis, posting a 1-27 record when the Panthers allowed 17-plus points in the Rhule era, including 25 straight losses.
Much of those struggles can be attributed to a lack of stability at quarterback.
Rhule began his Panthers tenure with veteran Teddy Bridgewater handling under-center duties, but Christian McCaffrey's inability to stay healthy and a lack of playmakers elsewhere hampered Bridgewater's chances of success in the offense. Carolina shifted its attention toward reclaiming Sam Darnold's career in 2021, but he too struggled, especially after sustaining injuries that forced him out of action and sent the Panthers to Cam Newton's doorstep with a pitch to bring him back to Carolina. By the time Darnold returned to action, the brief excitement provided by Newton's return had evaporated, and Carolina trudged to a 5-12 finish, recorded largely without McCaffrey.
This theme continued into 2022, a season in which things were supposed to improve with Mayfield on the roster and a healthy McCaffrey back in the fold.
What the Panthers received from the former No. 1 overall pick, however, was more disappointment. Mayfield failed to find a rhythm in Carolina's offense, posting consistently underwhelming, struggle-filled performances marked by batted passes and missed targets. His pick-six in Sunday's loss to the 49ers was the last significant mistake committed under Rhule, sending the Panthers to 1-4 and Rhule to unemployment.
Because of his past collegiate success, Rhule is expected to receive plenty of interest from programs seeking a significant hire. Until such an offer is presented, the Panthers will be on the hook for the remaining $40 million of his seven-year contract, in which he lasted less than three years.
Upon landing a job in the college ranks, Rhule's new salary will offset the remaining money owed to him by the Panthers, Rapoport noted, a process that is likely to start as soon as 2023.