Back to the future, we hope

Published 6:04 pm Friday, January 10, 2020

Before I begin the hello’s, I guess it’s best if I say a melancholy goodbye and good luck.

It’s for the Washington Redskins’ new coach – the Carolina Panthers’ old coach – Ron Rivera. Combined with making his first move naming Jack Del Rio – who served with Rivera in Charlotte – as his defensive coordinator lets me know that if owner Daniel Snyder doesn’t get in his way, those ‘Braves on the Warpath’ are going to be looking pretty good in their Maroon and Gold in a couple of years.

The Panthers? Well, it’s early, and my jury is still out.

Matt Rhule, the fire-breathing son of a preacher and a former Western Carolina assistant, is the Panthers’ new head coach.

This one is going to be real fun to watch.

For a long-term agreement that could be worth up to $70 million over seven years, and instantly making him the fifth highest-paid coach in the NFL? … well, David Tepper has shown that he may not be the smartest owner in the league, but he’s dang sure the richest. He still has to pay six million to Baylor in Texas for hijacking their coach. Shucks, he’s also handed a man who’s never been a head coach in the NFL enough money to buy the whole Roanoke-Chowan, from river to river and maybe even out to shining sea.

But is seven years enough time to change the culture of a team that’s had losing seasons three of the last four years, not to mention rebuild an unstable franchise with a somewhat sordid history? We’re about to find out.

A native of New York City, Rhule – who played for Joe Paterno at Penn State – coached at WCU before heading back to the Quaker State to coach at Temple in Philadelphia for 10 years. I witnessed his Owls team dismantle ECU in 2015 and let me just say he believes in the ‘run-and-gun’. Two years later, he took a job in Waco, Texas that nobody wanted and came within a conference championship loss this year of making the College Football Playoff. This is a coach who dragged a college program from the ashes of scandal and turned it a national power.

And he did it in two years.

He coaches toughness and smash-mouth, no-excuses football. He’s a guy that’s been known to practice with his players. But will that rah-rah mentality work in the NFL?

“He knows how to inspire, how to motivate players through communication and trust,” a former associate said. “He’ll do fine coaching pro players just like he’s done in college.”

This is also a guy who was wowed at his first press conference when he looked out and saw Steve Smith and Julius Peppers.

“I mean, Julius Peppers,” he exclaimed, like a kid meeting his boyhood hero for the very first time.

Now, with more candy – I mean, money – than he’s ever seen in his life, Rhule knows that a lot of people are watching and doubting whether a college coach can succeed in the pro game.

Look, I’m not saying it’s a bad hire. You have to admit, based on his track record that the man can coach.

I’m just wondering though, with a seven-year deal, if Tepper is asking his fans to sacrifice, say, four or five years of rebuilding for 10 to 15 years of sustained success?

Marty Hurley, the Panthers’ General Manager, says he’s going to work to get the team the talent they need. Granted, the Panthers have done pretty well with their draft talent, from Cam Newton to Luke Kuechly to Shaq Thompson to Christian McCaffrey; even Kelvin Benjamin had a ton of bright moments before he was injured.

Remember, the Panthers have the seventh pick of the upcoming NFL draft, so Rhule has an opportunity to select a player right away to build around, as Rivera did in 2011 when he selected Newton with the top pick. I have to wonder if that points toward the end of the Newton era at Carolina.

But that’s to be decided later. For now, Rhule needs to roll up his sleeves and go to work.

Okay, ex-Catamount. You’ve traded one set of cat-fur for another; now let me see your new claws.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.