After listening to Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule’s season-closing press conference Monday, I’d be shocked if the team did anything other than take a quarterback with the No. 8 pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.
That’s what the Panthers sound like they’re going to do — at least based on my unofficial one-year degree in Rhule-ology. And that’s what they must do.
Teddy Bridgewater may well start for the Panthers for one more year in 2021, and to cut him anytime in this calendar year would be the height of financial foolishness.
But this team needs to find a long-term quarterback who can win under duress, in the final two minutes, and Bridgewater hasn’t shown any signs of being that guy.
Rhule’s 40-minute press conference Monday was far from a vote of confidence for Bridgewater, whom the Panthers signed to a three-year, $63-million contract in March. It included lines like this from the coach:
▪ “Probably the last month of the season…. Offensively…. I don’t know that we’ve played real well. And I don’t think Teddy’s played his best football.”
▪ “Teddy has to have a tremendous offseason. It’s been a long time since he’s played an entire year. And part of being a quarterback in this league is being able to withstand the physical toll of the season, and playing your best football at the end of the year. I don’t know that I’ve seen that from him.”
▪ “With regard to the draft and players and all those things, I think we know we’ll look at every opportunity to have the best that we can have at every position. And that includes the quarterback position.”
So to recap: Bridgewater didn’t play well during the most important part of the season, didn’t handle the game’s physical toll well enough late in the year and may be getting replaced.
Other than that, things are going just fine at QB.
The good news for Bridgewater, 28, is at least he won’t require offseason surgery. The quarterback said Monday that his right ankle, which was hurt in the first quarter and wrapped in the final stages of the 33-7 loss to New Orleans Sunday after Rhule had benched him, won’t need “any medical work.”
After Bridgewater threw his second end-zone interception in the third quarter Sunday, Rhule took him out of the game and replaced him with P.J. Walker. The coach said he didn’t think Bridgewater was getting enough velocity on his throws and that he hoped Walker would provide a “spark.”
Put into a difficult situation, Walker seemed intent on throwing every ball downfield and never taking the checkdown (Bridgewater, on the other hand, takes checkdowns too often).
Walker would end up completing eight passes. Unfortunately, three of those went to the other team as Carolina finished with five interceptions for the game, tying a team record, and ended its second straight 5-11 year with an embarrassing thud.
Bridgewater in 2021? Nearly impossible to cut
Let’s review the Panthers’ salary-cap situation for a moment. Even if the Panthers wanted to pull a Dwayne Haskins and release Bridgewater right now, it would be financially irresponsible.
The salary cap is about to drop for only the second time in NFL history, perhaps by as much as 10-12%. Rhule said every NFL team was going to have to make “really austere, difficult financial” decisions over the next few months.
And Bridgewater would count for $20 million in dead-cap money if released this offseason — but only $5 million if released before the 2022 season.
So by far the most likely scenario is for Bridgewater to stay with the team, to possibly start at least part of the 2021 season, and to eventually give way to whatever quarterback the team drafts at No. 8. You see this sort of scenario over and over in the NFL.
I asked Bridgewater during his press conference Monday if he would be “upset” if Carolina picked a QB at No. 8 on April 29th, 2021, when this year’s draft is scheduled.
Said Bridgewater: “Nah. Honestly…. I’ve been through so much in my career. You know I understand business is business…. I just train every day like, ‘Man, it’s mine.’… The past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to resurrect my career… Whatever happens this offseason happens, and I’m pretty sure the team will make the best move in the interest of the team.”
0-for-8 in late-game situations
The single biggest reason that Panthers fans have grown disillusioned with Bridgewater is the most obvious one: He hasn’t won games in the clutch. I put some of the blame for that on offensive coordinator Joe Brady, too, whose end-of-game coaching was very underwhelming all season.
But the QB still has the most important role in success or failure, more so than any coach. And if Bridgewater had pulled off just one or two comebacks for the Panthers, we’d be having a different conversation.
Instead, Bridgewater went 0-for-8 with the ball at the end of the game when needing points to either tie or win the game.
No NFL QB is going to succeed in that situation all the time. But you have to succeed in it some of the time, especially when you have four different offensive players on the roster who all surpassed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2020.
Carolina didn’t, which is why they are heavily in the QB market. At pick No. 8, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson likely won’t be available (and if only the Panthers had lost that game to Washington, they would have picked No. 3).
Now Carolina and its new, yet-to-be-named GM likely will be picking from a group that includes some mix of North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask.
‘This is my team’
Let’s say the Panthers do draft one of those guys in the first round. Would Bridgewater be ready to mentor him? He would, of course, if necessary. But he neatly sidestepped that question Monday, saying: “Who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
Bridgewater has a genial nature. The local members of the Pro Football Writers Association, of which I am a member, just voted him as winner of the “Good Guy Award” this season due to his cooperation with the media. But don’t confuse that likability with a lack of competitiveness. Bridgewater certainly doesn’t want to give his starting spot up.
“This is my team,” he said Monday. “We have a great group of guys in that locker room who look toward me for leadership (and I’m) just trying to continue to be a great leader. And everything else will fall into place.”
Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.
Rhule hasn’t been afraid to be publicly critical of Bridgewater this season, particularly after plays like the quarterback’s ill-advised leap over the top against Green Bay that resulted in a lost fumble at the goal line. Rhule called that turnover “obviously a killer” at the time.
But Rhule also said Monday that Bridgewater (15 TDs, 11 INTs for 2020) had his moments, especially in a three-game win streak that briefly vaulted the Panthers into a tie for first in the NFC South at 3-2.
“I think Teddy played well, early on in the season,” Rhule said. “Offensively, I thought we looked like we had a chance to be a really good offense. I thought the middle part of the season we still showed flashes of that. Think back to the Kansas City game (a 33-31 Carolina loss) — we looked like a good offense there.”
The next game was vs. Tampa Bay Nov. 15th, and Bridgewater hurt his knee in that 23-point loss late in the fourth quarter. He would miss the next game — a 20-0 win with Walker at QB — and then come back for the final five. Carolina went 1-4 in those games. As a starter in 2020, Bridgewater went 4-11.
“I personally feel like ever since he got hurt in the second half of the Tampa Bay game,” Rhule said, “Teddy hasn’t played his best ball.”
No, he hasn’t. And there’s no guarantee that his best ball is coming back. You can’t take chances with the game’s most important position.
The only right thing to do with that No. 8 pick is clear: Draft a quarterback.