Panthers coach Matt Rhule accepts blame for fourth-quarter calls

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Matt Rhule’s postgame news conferences typically are brief, designed that way so the team's public relations department can move along to get more time for players on Zoom calls -- a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But on Sunday, when reporters were told there was time for two more questions, the Carolina Panthers coach interrupted and said after the day he and his staff had in the 28-27 loss at Minnesota, he should answer all questions.

That was commendable, as the loss that all but ended Carolina’s slim playoff hopes truly deserved to be on the shoulders of Rhule and his coordinators.

“I’ve always tried to be really honest and real and direct about where I think the fault is," Rhule said. “As a coaching staff, we didn’t get the job done today."

Rhule didn’t specify game management, but that played a role, particularly down the stretch. The Panthers had a 24-13 lead with less than eight minutes remaining. Defensively, they stopped getting pressure that led to two Jeremy Chinn fumble returns to for touchdowns in a 10-second span to start the second half.

Rhule seemed to question the strategy of defensive coordinator Phil Snow on this, particularly on Minnesota’s final game-winning drive that gained 75 yards in a minute and five seconds.

“Didn’t pressure them at all," Rhule said. “Didn’t bring any blitzes and they got the momentum, and they moved the ball down the field."

That momentum started on the previous drive, when Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had plenty of time to navigate another 75-yard touchdown drive.

Rhule also wasn’t thrilled that the offense left too much time on the clock before each snap in the final two drives.

“We ran the ball down under five, six seconds," Rhule said. “I would have liked to have gotten it less. Teddy [Bridgewater], who normally snaps it under five, was around 11 on the first drive."

Then there was the third-and-goal call from the 3-yard line with 1:56 remaining and the Panthers in position to turn a 24-21 lead to 10 points with a touchdown. It started with the play not getting to the huddle as quickly as Bridgewater would have liked.

“I felt like we might have panicked a little bit trying to figure out what play call to call in that situation because it’s like, ‘Do we run the ball and get stopped, make the clock go down to a minute and 10 or throw the ball and try to score?’" Bridgewater said.

Had there been more time for Bridgewater to evaluate the defense, he might have checked to a run. Maybe scored.

Instead, the offense rushed to the line and Bridgewater badly missed an open DJ Moore, who injured his ankle trying to reach back for the ball.

“At the end of the day, it’s our job to have simple, calm plays," Rhule said.

Then there was the decision to kick a field goal for a six-point lead with 1:56 remaining instead of going for the touchdown on fourth down.

“If you look at the analytics, it would say on fourth-and-2, go for it at the end, and fourth-and-3 don’t," Rhule said. “That was the way we had it."

One of the reasons the Panthers hired Rhule was the perception he relied on analytics more than former coach Ron Rivera. Owner David Tepper hired a director of analytics last season and pledged to build a sports science department to look at data, which is what Rhule had at Baylor.

In this case, according to ESPN analytics, the win probability model didn’t agree with Rhule’s decision. A field goal put the win possibility at 90.6%, compared to 92.8% by going for it.

The Panthers needed only a 22 percent conversion rate to justify going for it, and the league average in that situation was 41 percent.

“To not be able to put the game away with the ball at the 10-yard line with two minutes left is unacceptable by us as a staff," Rhule said.

This wasn’t the first time Rhule and his staff made costly game-management decisions. But this one hurt the most.

“We have not closed these types of games out," Rhule said. “I try to look and see where the fault lies and today I would put it squarely on us as a staff, which starts with me."