Did Matt Rhule’s petulance force Sam Darnold trade in 2021?

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Sam Darnold
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Sam Darnold /

Did Matt Rhule’s reported petulant approach to recruitment force the Carolina Panthers into trading for quarterback Sam Darnold in 2021?

One of the biggest mistakes Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper made aside from hiring Matt Rhule in the first place was allowing an unproven head coach to get almost absolute power on personnel decisions. Something that brought nothing more than 11 wins before he was rightfully fired from the job just five weeks into the 2022 season.

Rhule took great pride in his ability to rebuild struggling programs, something he was very good at in college. However, the same methods didn’t fly in a professional environment and it was evident from some way out that the former Baylor man was out of depth before being put out of his misery.

A series of failed gambles at the quarterback position formed the foundations for failure. Perhaps no more so than the move to acquire Sam Darnold from the New York Jets in 2021.

Matt Rhule was the only one who truly believed in Sam Darnold

The Panthers and Rhule, in particular, saw something in Darnold. An untapped promise that was seen to be wasted under then-Jets head coach Adam Gase.

Carolina paid a hefty price to secure Darnold’s services, giving up second, fourth, and sixth-round selections for the USC product. But after a strong start, things unraveled pretty quickly and the Panthers were back to square one.

Recent revelations surrounding Rhule following his firing are painting a clearer picture of the way he ran things in Carolina. In terms of Darnold, it appears as if the head coach was the only one that had a firm belief he’d turn things around and took a petulant approach to get what he wanted.

"One team source said Rhule preferred to reach consensus with Fitterer before taking a plan to Tepper, describing the process as “collaborative.” That differs from another team source, who said Rhule’s leadership style was to “wear everybody out” until he got his way, even in big groups, and sometimes operated impulsively. In this case, Rhule was willing to overlook Darnold’s well-documented problems with turnovers and accuracy."

Tepper pretty much conceded it was a grave error in judgment to give Rhule the keys to the kingdom, outlining a need to make things more balanced between the new head coach and general manager Scott Fitterer in 2023.

That doesn’t help the Panthers right now. Triggering Darnold’s fifth-year option was an abomination and majorly complicated their decision-making process this summer, holding out for a bargain with Baker Mayfield that left little time to develop chemistry during the preparation period.

It also explains why Rhule came to Darnold’s defense at every opportunity, opting to throw Cam Newton, Joe Brady, Teddy Bridgewater, and others under the bus instead.

Darnold hasn’t been seen in the regular season due to a high-ankle sprain. He’s back at practice, but with Steve Wilks looking to move forward with P.J. Walker, that leaves the No. 3 overall selection in 2018 battling it out once again for backup duties against Mayfield.

There will be more information coming regarding Rhule and how badly things went behind the scenes in Carolina. This is unlikely to prevent him from getting a college coaching job next year with plenty of established programs reportedly casting admiring glances in his direction.

One suspects Rhule will never get to be an NFL head coach again. And Darnold is also set to find a new home once his rookie contract concludes next spring.

This whole three-year nightmare was a complete mess. Thankfully for fans and the franchise, they can now look forward without the dark cloud of Rhule hanging over them.

Just how long it’ll take to get back into contention is another matter.

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