Perhaps the most nebulous concept in all of professional football is the idea of "culture."
When a team is winning, the culture is great. When they're losing, the culture is poor. These aren't necessarily universal truths, but this is how NFL narratives operate.
And when a first-year head coach takes over a program, there's plenty of talk about changing the culture. We saw it fail famously in Detroit three years ago. It's been wildly successful in Buffalo. And it looks like things are turning around in Cleveland.
Carolina Panthers rookie head coach Matt Rhule cares a great deal about culture. He didn't enter into a poor situation in Charlotte thanks to his predecessor, Ron Rivera, doing things the right way. But Rhule has also tried to put his own stamp on things in Carolina 11 games into a rebuild.
The main points: allowing players to have a voice, letting them know why he makes certain decisions and staying even-keel throughout his first year.
"The way I dealt with everything else: I try to reset every week and try to go 1-0," Rhule told me by phone this week when I asked how he dealt with the five-game losing streak the Panthers just snapped Sunday. "I try to make sure that we're improving. Some of the games that we've lost this year I felt really good about where we're headed and some of the games we've lost this year I wasn't super excited about the way we played. I always try — whether it's a win or a loss — deal in truths. Not get too emotional, not be a roller coaster. Come in and say this is what we do well, this is what we didn't do well, this is where we have to go.
"I think when you have that approach, people in the building, it's not volatile. People come in every week and they're not reacting to emotion. And I'm an emotional guy. It's not always a strength of mine but I think dealing with losses is a strength of mine. I think dealing with a result, good or bad, is a strength of mine."
There's a fine line between creating a culture of accountability and being perceived as a jerk, and I asked Rhule about that. We've seen several coaches make the jump from colleges to the pros just to find out quickly that what worked on teenaged amateurs won't fly with men who make millions of dollars.
He's already made some swift cuts in Year 1, like practice squad cornerback Josh Hawkins when he was caught on tape partying at a crowded restaurant during the pandemic. Or cutting Eli Apple after the cornerback refused to practice when he had what the staff perceived as the slightest of ailments.
"I think I always operate in the why. I try to always communicate what we're doing and why we're doing it," Rhule said. "I think people know that I'm not one of those 'my way or the highway' type guys. The players have a lot of say in our program and I try to listen to them. If you're someone who explains why and is always willing to listen to players and take suggestions, I think players feel an ownership in the program. We try to do those things. At the same time there's a standard for what we all need to do."
At 4-7, the Panthers won't be making the playoffs this year, though there's plenty of promise for the upcoming seasons. Five of Carolina's seven losses have been by one possession. They have three winnable games (Minnesota, Denver and Washington) remaining on the schedule, an improving defense and an offense that can keep pace with just about anyone.
First-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady is to thank for some of that, but it's also been the personnel that GM Marty Hurney has been able to assemble in Carolina. He signed Teddy Bridgewater to an affordable three-year contract and then scooped up receiver Robby Anderson on an even more affordable two-year deal that Joe Douglas still regrets.
Bridgewater has the second highest completion percentage in football, and Anderson and D.J. Moore are the only two receivers on the same team with 800-plus receiving yards apiece. The Panthers lead the league in time per drive at 3 minutes and 13 seconds and are tied for first with nine drives of 13 or more plays.
"Because we have so much speed at wideout, people play us in a more bend-but-don't-break type of a mindset," Rhule says. "As a result we have to take what's there. We're a work in progress on offense. We're getting better and better. We started with Christian [McCaffrey] and he's been banged up for most of the year. We've had some shuffling of the O line. We'd love to score quickly but again I think we come out in games and people kind of react to our speed and play a little more zone against us and we've had to matriculate the ball down the field. And for the success we've had, that credit would go to Teddy. I think he does a really good job of taking what the defense gives him, winning on third down and moving the ball down the field."
The Rhule of Law is playing out nicely in Carolina.
Stop with the Conspiracy
Do you actually think the NFL wanted to give up the primetime Thanksgiving slot? If so, I have a bridge to sell you.
The NFL has said from the start its goal was to identify and isolate the virus quickly. That's how games have been able to be played, and that's why protocols like the high-risk close contacts have been strengthened over time.
In the case of Baltimore, the Ravens had seven player positives in three days by Wednesday and more on Thursday, including quarterback Lamar Jackson. As the positives grew, so did the close contacts. The league could not confidently say there wouldn't be a player with the virus on the field by Thursday night (especially with the team needing to travel later in the day) and had to postpone the game.
The result is the NFL missing out on a ratings bonanza on a holiday they've owned on television for as long as that's been a thing. In a year where revenue will take a hit between $3-4 billion, they don't have primetime games to just throw away.
The Steelers players have a right to be peeved because for the second time this season their schedule has been adjusted through no fault of their own. But that's what everyone signed up for in this 2020 season.
Color me surprised by this stat from our CBS Research team: Matt Rhule hardly in rare company as a rookie head coach getting a shutout in Year 1.
Rhule's Panthers topped the Lions 20-0 last week, and I figured that can't possibly happen often. It's actually happened seven times since the start of the 2017 season. Vic Fangio, Matt Patricia, Frank Reich, Mike Vrabel, Vance Joseph and Sean McVay all logged a shutout in their first year as head coach.
In fact, there have been 22 shutouts by 20 different first-year head coaches since 2000.
For the first time all season I posted a losing record. I knew going into the picks last week that it was going to be a tough one, but man, I wasn't expecting to go 6-8. My year-long record is now 104-55-1, which is still respectable but I can't have many more Week 11s. I took the Texans and Washington on Thanksgiving, so I'm off to a good start. Let's go to the picks.
Ravens at Steelers
Sunday, 1:15 p.m., NBC
I hated the way the Ravens got out-muscled by the Titans yet again last week. The Steelers will out-physical Baltimore again as the Ravens are in freefall.
The pick: Steelers
Titans at Colts
Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS
It took me long enough but I'm now a believer in the Colts. Frank Reich has put together a gameplan that mitigates Philip Rivers' turnovers. He's getting the ball out quickly and letting his pass catchers do the rest. Plus, the Colts own the Titans.
The pick: Colts
Panthers at Vikings
Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX
Call me crazy but I'm going with Carolina. The Vikings seem to have their stuff together but Teddy Bridgewater has been eyeing this game ever since the schedule came out. I like the fight this Carolina team has, and I think they took a step in the right direction last week to fix their third-down woes on defense.
The pick: Panthers