I’m really starting to enjoy the NFL. For the last several years I’ve had limited attention to give to the NFL between my college football writing commitments, another role I have in life in my local Church that eats up time on Sundays, my family commitments, and then also the NFL’s constantly negative press they were drawing for a period of time.
I’d always tune in for the Super Bowl and maybe catch a playoff game now and again, but that was it. These days, like most everyone else, I’m really enjoying the NFL. The NFL is increasingly looking like the college game with greater diversity of offensive styles and tactics and defenses scrambling to catch up. It’s pretty fun to watch and there are some particular teams that are extra fun for a fan of Xs and Os, although a pair of them (New Orleans and New England) just got bounced. I took in a rare (for me) three playoff games this past weekend. Consequently, I’ve got some takes to throw out there.
Is Matt Rhule really worth that contract and commitment?
Matt Rhule is a really effective head college coach for a variety of reasons but one of them is his media savvy. The man was made to look like a lovable hero trying to do the right thing for taking a massive contract to go from G5 Temple to P5 Baylor and then leaving at the most convenient possible time for an even more massive contract with the NFL. He was “called” to come to Baylor and left when “his job was done.”
I don’t hold it against him for taking the Baylor cash and position, he did a great job with it, and he did well for himself with the NFL. Just saying, some of the soundbites seem fairly disingenuous and designed to screen the actions of someone acting decidedly out of self interest.
Another aspect to the “sell” of Rhule as a head coach deserving of the sort of commitment and investment that Carolina is making is what he did at Baylor. The common refrain is that he inherited a dumpster fire situation and turned a 1-11 team into an 11-2 team within three years, indicative of a brilliant program builder. Now it’s possible that Rhule is a brilliant program builder, it’s not like there’s zero evidence of that, but I think the Baylor situation was a little different than hinted at here.
The year one #RhuleofLaw Bears were coming off a season in which they went 7-6 with Jim Grobe sitting in the stocks in front of the media while Art Briles’ staff kept the program going up until they narrowly lost to Texas 36-35 and then gave up on trying until the bowl game (a 31-12 victory). The year before they had a likely third consecutive B12 title team that was undone by injuries to the first, second, and third string QB.
So Rhule inherited a team with only 10 returning starters that was graduating most of the OL, the best proven skill talent, and QB Seth Russell. Rhule also inherited a 2016 class that had been stripped of multiple blue chip talents including WR Devin Duvernay (great 2019) and his 3-star brother Donovan, OL Patrick Hudson (medical retirement), OL JP Urquidez (may be about to transfer from Texas), WR Tren’Davian Dickson (transferred to Houston), JUCO DT Jeremy Faulk (kicked out after accused of sexual assault), and CB Parrish Cobb (transferred to OU then arrested in Waco for robbery and convicted).
The 2017 recruiting class that Rhule had to quickly patch together included only one signee before he took the job.
However, the 2016 class wasn’t quite as barren as you’d think. It still landed for Baylor: Bravvion Roy, Denzel Mims, Grayland Arnold, Chris Miller, and Raleigh Texada. That’s five impact starters on this 11-2 team. There was also lots of room for Rhule to over-sign in 2017 with a class that included Charlie Brewer (snatched from SMU), Xavier Newman, John Lovett, Trestan Ebner, James Lynch, Terrel Bernard, and Rob Saulin. The leftovers from the Briles days even still included RB JaMycal Hasty, OL Sam Tecklenburg, LB Jordan Williams, LB Clay Johnston, S Henry Black, and LB Blake Lynch.
Rhule had lots of talented players around that would be veterans in year three and still room to quickly rebuild the roster. He did so with high upside athletes that he trusted his own process and structure to be able to develop into high level contributors. It all worked quite well.
Two other factors in the Baylor breakthrough were the 2019 schedule and the 2019 slate. The Big 12 was down in 2019 after losing Will Grier and Kyler Murray while normal stand-ins Oklahoma State and TCU weren’t up for filling the vacuum. The stage was set for one of Texas, Iowa State, or Baylor to take advantage and give OU a challenge for the league title. Tom Herman blew that opportunity in spectacular fashion and then fired both of his coordinators. Iowa State had some injuries and blew a few close games.
Baylor’s scheduler’s gave them Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State all at home and a non-conference slate who’s toughest team went 4-8 in Conference USA. Rhule maximized the opportunity by stealing Iowa State’s defense, nearly wholesale, and riding the questionably gritty play of Charlie Brewer to several close wins and a trip to the Big 12 championship game.
Things really came together for Rhule and Baylor. He had very few missteps in his process at Baylor save for years one and two on defense when they tried to run the Temple scheme against B12 opponents and got gashed.
Overall it was an impressive achievement to keep Baylor from careening off the tracks. However, his offensive schemes have been a major step down from the Briles era and where they’ve been effective (smashmouth spread schemes) they’ve been effectively largely due to following in the Briles tradition and landing a Lake Travis QB. Defensively he actually took the program backwards for a few beats from the effective 3-2-6 designs that Phill Bennett had been developing before getting back on track in time to win big in 2019.
Is the guy that went 13-14 in the Big 12 over three years and didn’t beat Oklahoma or a single top 25 at any point going to be able to take the Panthers to the promised land? I don’t know. You’re buying in on a guy that excelled at building infrastructure and evaluating young talent, both of which seem more in line with a college HC job than the NFL where ideally a GM would handle more of those matters.
In my estimation, the smartest thing that Carolina did here was invest heavily in a guy known for adaptation and program building. They don’t have much choice but to give this a chance for several years. What helped the Rhule era at Baylor work was that the Bears had the means and Rhule had the leverage to negotiate a situation where he would have the commitment and stability to lose to Liberty and go 1-11 in year one in order to build the program as he saw fit.
The Bears weren’t 1-11 because they were devoid of talent, they were 1-11 because Rhule completely reworked their approach to the game in order to sow into the long-term chances of the team. Carolina seems to be similarly invested which means that Rhule doesn’t have to give in to short-term thinking in pursuit of building a contender with the Panthers.
It’ll be interesting to see how he fills out the Carolina staff, that’s probably what will make or break the #RhuleofLaw with the Panthers. I think it’s possible that he’ll prove very adept at recognizing quality staff and managing them well. It also seems possible that he’ll be back in the college game after a half-decade or so.
The Tennessee Titans aren’t that great or that smart
I know nearly beyond a shadow of a doubt that the takeaway from the Titans win over New England for many will be that the Titan way of building that franchise was the right one to emulate. In particular, they handed the ball to RB Derrick Henry 34 times for 182 yards, controlled the clock for 31:09, and then pulled some clock management shenanigans to eat up two minutes at the end of the fourth quarter.
In every one of those regards, the Titan tactics were misguided and didn’t really help them win that game. New England lost because they lacked a single decent WR beyond Julian Edelman and even Julian dropped a wide open pass at the end of the game.
Feeding Henry for 182 yards didn’t stop the Patriots from getting plenty of chances to score more than the Titans and it only secured 14 points for Tennessee. The idea that this game was a vindication of “run the ball and control the game” is nonsense.
Accumulating penalties to eat two extra minutes off the clock before punting to the Patriots (rather than going for it on 4th-and-5) had the result of giving the slow-moving Patriots the ball at their own 11 with 4:44 left in the game. There was a realistic chance, especially had Edelman not dropped that ball, of the Patriots eating up most of that time before kicking a field goal to put them up 16-14 and leaving Tennessee to try a desperate, quick drive with Ryan Tannehill in which Henry would be next to useless.
Having Henry was useful on the next drive when the Titans were able to eat more clock with a couple of first downs before pinning the Patriots on the 1 after their own misguided attempt to block the punt.
The Titans won this game not because of clock management, which nearly destroyed them, nor because of Derrick Henry who failed to eat up enough clock or score enough points to really put the Patriots away. They won because the Patriot offense was limited and the Tennessee defense played well, particularly in forcing a pair of field goals and then keeping New England out of the red zone for the entirety of the second half. One of those field goals occurred when the Patriots had 1st-and-goal on the Tennessee 1.
Drafting a big, power back and feeding him the ball didn’t bring victory to the Music City. Nor was it ingenuity in collecting Tannehill off the scrap heap to be their starting QB. Tennessee won because of good defense of a bad opponent.
One more take here, New England’s 6-1 front they brought back to slow down Henry in the second half made them vulnerable to zone-read and other option schemes from Tannehill and the Titans. The closest they came was to having Tannehill keep on a 3rd-and-2 on tight zone and just running over the DB for a first down. Mike Sherman also struggled to realize that Tannehill’s athleticism could be utilized in this fashion.
The 6-1 front works for New England because A) inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower is really good between the tackles and B) their NFL opponents don’t run power-option or pitch options against it. Try that against Baltimore and Lamar Jackson and you’ll get smoked. In fact, you don’t have to take my word for it you can just pull up the Baltimore-New England game from this season.
The rest of the playoffs should be fun and interesting, although it’s a bummer not to be able to watch Sean Payton’s offense any longer, nor to see how Belichik vs Lamar/Mahomes would have unfolded.
Be sure to order my book if you haven’t already, which details how the passing game that dominates the NFL and will likely propel Patrick Mahomes to the AFC title game or beyond took root in the college game in the Big 12 conference.