Pingpong? Pickleball? Coach Matt Rhule leans into team building with Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule has looked for ways to build team chemistry in his first offseason without COVID-19 restrictions, including fun and games. Chris Carlson

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Maybe the most intense moment of the Carolina Panthers’ offseason program that concluded Thursday happened last week when coach Matt Rhule went on the defensive.

As a soccer goalie.

During what amounted to Carolina’s version of a bar Olympics -- minus the drinking games -- the third-year NFL coach knocked down a kick by quarterback Sam Darnold and ran toward a camera shouting, “I hope you got that on tape!’’

“There's a whole other side of me that no one ever gets to see,’’ Rhule said with a smile. “I like to have as much fun as the next guy.’’

Few got to see that side during Rhule’s first two offseasons because the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the interaction to be via Zoom and phone calls. And those who were in person required masks and social distancing.

So Rhule made it a priority this offseason to focus on bonding, particularly with a core group he believes will be key to turning around a team that was 5-11 and 5-12 in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

It began the first week of OTAs, when Rhule invited 10 players to a Charlotte restaurant and asked, “What kind of team are we going to be?’’

That was followed by golf outings and other non-football events that gave Rhule and players a better understanding of each other.

It culminated last Thursday with a competitive day of pingpong, pickleball, baseball, bowling, basketball and soccer that took place at Bank of America Stadium and other venues around town. The team even used a few members of the local major league soccer team to defend shots on goal.

“Team bonding is the most important thing,’’ said Adrian Zendejas, who participated along with fellow Charlotte FC goalkeeper George Marks. “You have to be a family. They nailed it.’’

Rhule learned a lot, nothing more important than that the players wanted to take responsibility and make Carolina a player-driven team. That was good news for the coach, who credits much of his success at turning around Temple and Baylor to players taking charge.

“This is how we've always tried to build, not just relationships but a competitive environment where guys like to compete at little things and big things,’’ Rhule said.

Rhule makes it clear the pandemic wasn’t an excuse for his first two seasons and understands all NFL coaches had to deal with unusual times.

But for Rhule and the other four head coaches hired in 2020 just before the pandemic, it added another layer of adversity. They had to get to know new players, coaches and people in the organization for the most part remotely.

Rhule’s situation was magnified in that among the new head coaches – the others were Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys; Ron Rivera, Washington Commanders; Joe Judge, New York Giants; Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns – he was the only one coming from the college ranks with basically no NFL experience.

“Life's about relationships,’’ Rhule said. “And you build relationships with propinquity and proximity and spending time together.

None of the 2020 hires had that, and none produced great results their first two seasons. The Panthers were 10-23, Browns 19-14, Giants 10-23, Commanders 14-19 and Cowboys 18-15.

However, none of the 2020 hires is under more pressure to win this season than Rhule.

“It’s no secret, I’ve been kind of under the gun a little bit from everybody,’’ Rhule said. “The biggest thing I’ve tried to do is really focus on the players and my relationship with the players. Those are things that have helped me have success.’’

Rhule easily could have tried new things as coaches under fire sometimes do, but he didn’t.

“You can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m a process guy,’ and then you don’t get the results you want and change it,’’ Rhule said. “You have to double down on it.’’

Rhule’s approach is similar to what former Carolina coach Ron Rivera did during the 2013 offseason, when he invited team leaders to dinner after consecutive 6-10 and 7-9 seasons and asked “what’s going on’’ in the locker room.

Rivera later moved into an office closer to the locker room to get to know his players better.

Carolina, after a 1-3 start, responded with an eight-game winning streak and 11-1 finish to win the first of three straight NFC South titles.

Rhule can’t promise those kind of results. There’s still uncertainty that Darnold can lead an improved roster to the playoffs. That’s why the door isn’t closed on adding a veteran such as the Cleveland Browns' Baker Mayfield or San Francisco 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo.

But Rhule likes what he has seen and seems happier as a member of the staff – and his dad – noted.

Being able to bond is a factor.

“It’s huge,’’ Darnold said. “The closer the team is off the field, the more success they’re likely to have on the field.’’

Running back Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Shaq Thompson agreed.

“We’re a tight-knit group,’’ Thompson said. “Guys are buying in.’’

Rhule believes the bonding times will help during hard times, as there always are during a season. He hopes a normal offseason has helped build the trust and confidence he believes is the foundation for great teams.

“I will never underestimate the impact of the first few years of not being able to go out and being able to get a bite to eat with somebody,’’ he said. “Not being able to go out and sit down with Shaq and say, ‘Shaq, tell me what we need to do or how do you see it?’

“Those conversations are vital.’’