At a certain point, it really does become only fun when you win.
Taking the helm as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, one of the more unheralded objectives for Matt Rhule was to change his team’s mindset towards football. After going 6-18 over a 1.5 year stretch, the Panthers are in severe danger of becoming a team used to losing. And most certainly, a team that had every reason to obsess over everything that could go wrong within the span of 60 minutes.
Which makes the message that Matt Rhule sent before his first game as Panthers head coach one that reverberated: According to Bill Voth, Rhule’s message in the leadup to their Week 1 contest against the Las Vegas Raiders was one that incorporated the triumph of love for the game over trepidation and anxiety.
“Let’s go out there and attack, not have a spirit of fear but a spirit of joy,” said Rhule. “Let’s play the game like 10 & 12 year olds playing Pop Warner. Let’s go out there and have fun.”
In their season opener, the satisfaction of winning eluded the young Panthers – but if their effort was any indication, the message of attacking and being unafraid was received.
Defying expectation, the Panthers created a fight out of their meeting with the Silver & Black, making a battle out of it to the last in a 34-30 shootout. Considering the youth, inexperience, and overall rawness of this new Panthers team, there was some doubt entering Week 1 as to whether or not they could hang with the Raiders, an up-and-coming team from the AFC West.
That doubt, however, wasn’t about to seep into Carolina’s helmets – not if their head coach could help it.
“We have a bunch of young players and I want them to go out there and play confidently,” said Matt Rhule Monday. “I don’t want them going out there worrying about what can go wrong and all those different things. I want them to go out there and play fearless. I want them to attack.”
In football, fear is a powerful force. And there was plenty to be afraid of: Troy Pride, a rookie, had to start at cornerback. So too did Derrick Brown at defensive tackle. And if that wasn’t enough, Rasul Douglas – fresh off the waiver wire – had to come into the game due to an injury to Donte Jackson, one of the few proven commodities on the Panthers’ defense.
The Panthers gave up their share of plays accordingly – plays which, in the end, cost them a chance at an upset. Even so, their play was reflective of a team with heart and competitive enthusiasm. One whose appreciation for the simple pleasure of playing gave the Raiders as much as they could handle.
“Obviously it’s tough to have fun when you lose, but when you’re out there and you’re competing, that’s the fun part about it,” said running back Christian McCaffrey. “ The football is the fun part, and playing the game with joy … The toughness and the grit of maybe getting a two, three yard gain and keeping your legs moving for another yard. Or picking up a block on pass pro, receivers blocking downfield, O-Line making great second efforts.
“Playing with joy, I think that’s the most important thing you can do. And those are the things that end up standing out in the end: When you look at whether you won or lost, you look at those things and how that impacted the game.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that the joy had seemed to be completely sucked out of Panthers football. Last December, the team looked to have completely succumbed to the “Here we go again” mentality, with lethargic play indicative of a group just as defeated mentally as they were physically. That could have been the case Sunday as the team entered the fourth quarter down two scores – but instead, they scored twice to take the lead halfway through the final stanza.
That losing mentality wasn’t present Sunday. Instead of going through the motions, Rhule’s words prompted the Panthers – from their rawest of rookies to seasoned veterans like linebacker Shaq Thompson – to find the energy within.
“I feel like we had energy,” said Thompson. “It felt like we had some big plays on both sides of the ball – we’ve just got to keep it going.”
Exactly how much Week 1 proves about whether or not the Panthers will be a good football team is unclear – in fact, it might not end up proving very much. But at the very least, the tone was set for what kind of team they will be under their first-year head coach: a group that plays hard, doesn’t buckle, and maintains a fighting spirit win, lose, or draw.
“At the end of the day I want them to go play. I want them to play and I want them to attack and I want them to play hard,” said Rhule. “That’s who we want to be: We want to be a tough, hardworking, competitive group, and we want to try and win as many games as possible.
“But in the games that we don’t win, we want to feel proud of our effort and we want to feel proud of what we put on tape. That’s really just what that message was.”
The message Rhule sent was one that tapped into the purity of going out and enjoying the game of football. And what was put on tape was a team that competed, made an effort, and was fun to watch – even if they didn’t win.
Evidently, the message has been received.
(Top Photo Via David Foster/Charlotte Observer)