What would the Carolina Panthers’ future look like if they’d gone through with an ambitious trade-up for promising quarterback Justin Herbert in 2020?
When one examines the wreckage of Matt Rhule’s three years with the Carolina Panthers, there’s a solitary flaw that played a leading role in his eventual demise as head coach.
That, of course, is failing to find a solution at the quarterback position.
Rhule began his tenure by declaring how excited he was to work alongside Cam Newton. This proved to be the first of many false statements as the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater, releasing the former NFL MVP at a time when starting opportunities were limited elsewhere.
Bridgewater was moved on after just one season. Sam Darnold came into the fold and failed, Baker Mayfield hasn’t fared much better and Carolina even went back to Newton for a brief period ahead of their memorable Week 10 win at the Arizona Cardinals in 2021.
However, things could have been much different.
Carolina Panthers made a bad call on Justin Herbert in 2020
A recent feature on the Panthers’ failings at football’s most important position from Jeremy Fowler of ESPN indicated former general manager Marty Hurney ad other scouts were extremely high on Justin Herbert prior to the 2020 NFL Draft. Carolina reportedly ranked the former Oregon standout a close second behind LSU’s Joe Burrow and serious discussions took place about moving from No. 7 to No. 4 in pursuit of leapfrogging the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers.
Herbert had some concerns coming out of the PAC-12 following a disappointing final season with the Ducks. But the intangibles were there for all to see.
Instead of listening to scouts and Hurney, Rhule decided that sacrificing significant draft capital for Herbert would jeopardize other areas of the roster. The quarterback ended up on the Chargers en route to a Rookie of the Year title and quickly emerged as one of the best young signal-callers in the business.
As Fowler explains, even Rhule’s opening victory against the Chargers in 2020 saw those behind the scenes cut frustrated figures about missing out on such a talented individual.
“A few of the scouts who had pushed for Herbert squirmed as they watched the 22-year-old throw for 330 yards, showing the poise and command of an offense they believed could have stabilized the position for a decade or more. Even as Carolina celebrated the win, one scout remembers texting another: Man, we were right.”
Rhule and the Panthers had no problem giving away draft picks like confetti for players like Darnold, Mayfield, C.J. Henderson, and others such as Darryl Johnson that didn’t contribute. But they drew the line at Herbert, apparently. And the head coach paid the price.
This was also a blessing for Herbert. Rhule proved incapable of developing or properly utilizing talent at the position and landing in Los Angeles was the best possible fit for the hot prospect.
It’s hard to envisage Herbet having as much success in Carolina as he achieved right out of the gate. The Panthers’ offensive line was a shambles until this season and with Christian McCaffrey suffering major injury problems, it would have been extremely difficult.
It worked out pretty well for Herbert. Not so much for Rhule, who is now looking for employment after team owner David Tepper mercifully ended his stint as head coach after an embarrassing loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5.
Perhaps a new head coach paired with general manager Scott Fitterer won’t make the same mistake in 2023. Carolina has plenty of assets following their decision to trade Christian McCaffrey and there is an abundance of talent in next year’s quarterback class to potentially become the answer under center.
Would things have been different had Rhule listened to respected scouts and Hurney – whose talent for finding exceptional early picks was renowned – been different? It’s hard to say one way or another given the state of affairs in Carolina.
But it did represent a huge error in judgment to bank on mid-level veterans rather than a sustainable, long-term future.