With the Panthers hiring Head Coach Matt Rhule away from Baylor, a few obvious questions were immediately presented. Who would fill out his staff? What would his responsibilities be with play-calling? Can a college coach make the jump to the NFL and still be successful?
Everything that we’ve seen from Matt Rhule suggests that he’ll find success with the Panthers in short order. Rhule first became a head coach in 2013 at Temple, a program that hadn’t seen a double-digit win season since the 1970’s at the time of his hire. As fate would have it, Rhule’s first recruiting class would graduate after winning double-digit games in consecutive seasons.
Rhule moved on to Baylor, which was a program in turmoil after numerous scandals and NCAA violations under Head Coach Art Briles. While the Bears struggled to 1-11 in Rhule’s first year, they improved to 7-6 in 2018 and 11-3 this past season.
Not many people see Rhule as a schematic genius, but rather more of a program builder and leader of men. That’s the role he’ll take on with the Panthers, but he’ll still have input on scheme, game planning and roster building.
While Rhule was a linebacker in his playing days and didn’t call plays during his time at Baylor, he’s an offensive coach at heart. Between 2007 and 2013, when he was hired as a head coach, Rhule coached quarterbacks, offensive line, and tight ends, and was an offensive coordinator. He’ll bring an influence to the Panthers’ offense, the same way he has during his time overseeing Temple and Baylor.
While Rhule’s offense has evolved from 22 personnel power football over the years, his coaching philosophy hasn’t changed nearly as much. Rhule believes in controlling football games, ideally with the running game. His teams are generally on the aggressive side, as he’s known to give his offensive coordinator a benchmark on third down that if reached, the offense will stay on the field for 4th down.
Rhule believes in physicality in the game of football and is known for being controlled but a bit old-school in his approach to contact during preseason practices. He’ll criticize effort when necessary, being open about what “1-and-11 blocking” looks like, a reference to his first season at Baylor.
While he’s unlikely to call the offense for the Panthers, he’ll undoubtedly influence the scheme and take the best parts of each offense he’s called or been part of. Looking into Baylor’s scheme this past season, there was a lot that could be translatable to the pro level, which means concepts we’re likely to see being run in Carolina moving forward.
There were a few trends that stood out with Baylor’s offense. They were predominantly in shotgun, rarely getting under center unless they were running a quarterback sneak. Speaking of the sneak, Rhule loves to run that play on second-and-short, using it nearly twice per game in that situation. If not using the quarterback sneak, he encourages his offensive coordinator to call a direct quarterback run on second-and-short, adding an extra blocker (the running back) to the concept.
Baylor’s offense deployed 10 personnel (1 running back, 0 tight ends, 4 wide receivers) or 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) between 85-90-percent of their snaps. Baylor really only ever got into 12 personnel when they smelled blood in the water, being able to impose themselves physically or salt the game away using the running game.
In their offense were some core passing concepts that you see every game on Saturdays and Sundays, such as the fade-out. However, their scheme was undeniably unique to Baylor, and that should be what gets Panthers fans excited.
Similar to many collegiate schemes, Rhule’s teams at Temple and Baylor relied a lot on zone blocking from their offensive line. One trend that continually popped up while studying Baylor this past season was the formation tendency that they chose to run their inside zone play.
Baylor almost exclusively ran inside zone away from their tight end or H-back, an interesting approach not normally seen as a base concept. Usually when running zone schemes, the quarterback will read the back-side defensive end, so the blockers could leave him unattended. However, with Baylor, they were actually blocking that player with the tight end, preventing their running back from being chased down from behind, but at the same time eliminating zone-read plays.
One of Baylor’s most popular gap schemes that they ran out of 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) involves “Down” blocking out of pistol. “Down” refers to the wing-t down series (down, sally-counter, down option, down pass), and involves down blocks from the tight end and play-side tackle, with a kick-out block from the play-side guard.
We were running this blocking scheme when I was seven years old playing Pop Warner football and running the wing-t offense, and it’s tried and true. As a coach at the high school level as a part of a program running the 3-3 stack defense, teams have occasionally ripped us up using “Down.” Baylor seemingly installed this play to counter the “Tite” front defense that Iowa State initially installed and has since influenced Oklahoma, Texas, and others in the Big 12 to implement. That variation has made its way to the NFL, and you can expect this play to remain in Rhule’s playbook as an answer against it.
Part of Rhule’s offensive system will obviously be based on the personnel that the Panthers bring back and sign moving forward. The offensive call sheet will look differently if Cam Newton is indeed the starting quarterback for the Panthers compared to others, because of his unique skill-set at the position.
If Newton is behind center moving forward, Rhule’s teams have shown multiple quarterback run variations that cater to what Newton has found success with in the past. In Baylor’s game against Texas this past season, the Bears started to assert themselves with their quarterback running game, adding an extra blocker to each concept.
Lining up in 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends), Baylor picked up chunks of yardage on straight-ahead quarterback power. This goes along with Rhule’s philosophy of getting downhill with the quarterback on second-and-short situations.
While Baylor didn’t align in 12 personnel too often, that grouping would be when they’d diversify their running game. Rarely would they show running schemes such as GT Counter (guard and tackle pulling), or GH Counter (guard and H-back pulling) without two tight ends on the field. Baylor had mobile, athletic guards, and that’s an advantage that Rhule will look to continue having upon entering the NFL ranks.
When Baylor wanted to diversify their running game, they’d line up in 12 personnel with the tight end and H-back to the same side— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 9, 2020
Play 1 - Inside Zone
Play 2 - Split Zone Read
Play 3 - GT Counter
Play 4 - GT Counter
Play 5 - GH Counter
Play 6 - QB Power off jet pic.twitter.com/AtVLcnvFhb
Rhule prefers to run his RPOs on first-and-10, second-and-long, third-and-medium, in the redzone, and when his team enters fourth down territory while not working against the clock. Rhule explained that he prefers to run RPOs on third-and-medium because of the potential to break off a big run increases with the pass option stopping defensive backs from filling downhill.
Rhule further explained that he prefers his offenses to have balance in who touches the football, and the RPO allows his offenses to operate this way. To him, his ideal rushing stats don’t include 200 yards from his tailbacks. Rather, he hopes to see 100 rushing yards from his tailback, 50 rushing yards from his quarterback, and 50 rushing yards from his wide receivers. One of the notable quotes from his presentation was that “good offenses have eight to 10 players touch the ball every game.”
Looking into Baylor’s offense this past season, these trends show up on the film. Baylor has a diverse run-pass option game, and some of the schemes should trickle up to the NFL with Rhule.
One common RPO at the collegiate level is running inside zone with a “Glance” option from the slot. The quarterback will read the “overhang” player, meaning the linebacker or defensive back that is closest to the slot receiver, who is running a slant route. If the overhang comes downhill to play the run, the quarterback will pull the ball and throw the slant route.
Baylor ran this play on a first down, and it popped for a big gain. With how much success teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles have had with similar concepts, this should make its way into the Panthers’ playbook moving forward.
Baylor found success running RPOs with the boundary receiver as the pass option. With the extended hashes in college, it’s easier for a quarterback to throw to the short side of the field to the boundary. On this rep, Baylor is running GT Counter (guard and tackle pulling) with a speed-out from the wide receiver. The quarterback has a simple read: if there is no immediate flat defender, then he should pull the ball and throw the speed-out.
While an NFL offense might shy away from this concept because of the tighter hash marks and closer alignments of pro cornerbacks, Baylor ran plenty of RPOs that could translate to the NFL game.
On a second-and-10, Baylor ran an inside zone concept with an influence block from the back-side (left) tackle. This influence block makes the defensive end rush the passer, thereby opening up the passing lane to the back side. The boundary receiver runs a slant route, and the quarterback throws it when the safety bites too hard towards the run.
Baylor’s most popular passing play out of trips predominantly came out of 10 personnel. The solo wide receiver runs a “shallow cross” or under route. On the other side of the field, the number one receiver runs a comeback route, the number two wide receiver runs a skinny post, and the number three receiver runs a hard post or “bender” route. The idea of the concept is to put a middle-of-the-field safety in conflict by having receivers run in front of and behind him, with the same conflict happening for dropping linebackers.
Successful offensive coordinators are able to sequence plays and continue to build on concepts as the season progresses. After showing this concept multiple times early in the season and forcing defenses to prepare for it, Baylor built on it by running a “Return” route from the position that normally runs the shallow cross.
The play-action pass is one of the best weapons in the NFL, and it’s reasonable to suggest that Rhule will have to diversify his play-action schemes upon making the leap. However, Baylor found success when they relied on the play-action in order to take shots down the field. Their favorite play-action was a fake zone run, still showing it away from the tight end, and then running the isolated receiver on a deep route or double move.
On the following plays, notice the fake zone runs and the solo receiver always going deep with a strong rate of success.
While there can be concerns about a collegiate coach’s scheme translating to the NFL level, Rhule has shown enough variance to suggest that his passing game will be successful. Part of that reason is because he’s had NFL-style pass protections within his scheme for a number of years, including double chips on the edge rushers.
On the following plays, Baylor chips the edge rushers while allowing their outside receivers to get right into their routes. First, their receivers run corner routes, while the running back and tight end eventually get to their flat routes. While this “corner-flat” concept is a standard of many playbooks, as previously noted, Baylor continued to build on it.
You’ll see that the next progression would be the outside receiver running a “Swirl” route, otherwise known as a fake corner route that turns into a comeback. Then, with the same protection, one of the receivers runs a corner-post route while the other runs a swirl route. Continuing to build on this protection prevented defenses from jumping any routes, while still adding extra protection for the quarterback.
Baylor did a good job of maximizing their athletic quarterback in Charlie Brewer, and Carolina has a quarterback depth chart full of mobile players. One way that could translate to the NFL is the use of roll-outs or half-roll dropbacks. In order to shorten the throwing distance to the wide side of the college field, Baylor used these and paired them with certain concepts that Brewer read well. This can be a way to create simple, shorter reads for young or athletic quarterbacks.
Baylor’s favorite concepts with these were the “Smash” concept (hitch and corner), and a variation of the “Flood” concept, which hits all three levels toward the boundary.
Each offense is known for a certain level of uniqueness, and Rhule will bring certain concepts not normally seen at the NFL level. One of those plays showed up in Baylor’s game against Oklahoma this past season. Baylor fakes the “Power-read” running play with the quarterback, leaving the play-side c-gap defender (outside linebacker) unblocked. However, the running back sprinting to the edge is actually going out for a swing pass, and the receivers to that side are both clearing out the flats.
With the running back now uncovered as the linebacker sprints towards the quarterback, it takes a simple pass to get him the running back in space for a big gain.
While Matt Rhule’s offense with the Carolina Panthers won’t be identical to Baylor’s, it’s likely to borrow many of the concepts shown above. Expect more pro-style running plays to infiltrate their playbook, but Rhule has shown a willingness to adapt that suggests he’s ahead of most NFL offensive coaches when it comes to innovation.
The trends with Baylor’s offense, such as how they preferred to run inside zone, their second-and-short philosophy, and how to sequence passing plays will stick with Rhule as he ascends to the NFL. While the rest of these concepts may or may not have their immediate place with the Panthers, having run them in the past, Rhule will be able to circle back to them at any point in time.