In an age of scientific inquiry and logic-based reasoning, few branches of science have enjoyed quite the mainstream appeal as the discipline of theoretical physics and its derivatives. Ideas within theoretical physics, and how they influence the universe in discreet yet very readily apparent ways, have enthralled both the analytically minded and the layman alike through many means of consumption in popular culture.
This is especially true of the Butterfly Effect, a concept which states that small changes to an initial condition can result in large scale variation in the future state of the system – much like a butterfly flapping its wings can alter the air to the point that a tornado may spawn. A hallmark of science fiction, the butterfly effect can just as well be used to explain occurrences in pro football, where a single play – or a single man – can greatly alter the immediate and long-term future.
The Carolina Panthers’ Week One opener against the New York Jets is a reminder of just that. For had it been for a different decision by the man patrolling Carolina’s side of the field, the sidelines of both Carolina Blue and Gotham Green could have looked very, very different. We spoke to former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason, now an analyst for The NFL Today on CBS, about how Rhule’s decision has impacted both franchises in a significant way.
Following the 2018 season and the dismissal of Head Coach Todd Bowles, the long-suffering Jets had turned a keen eye to Matt Rhule, then Head Coach at Baylor, to fill the role. Then an ascending mind in the college football ranks with a reputation of taking programs out of the doldrums and into the light, Rhule – a native New Yorker – seemed a natural candidate to fill the role and become the sort of Head Coach the Jets have lacked since the days of Weeb Ewbank.
“Growing up in Manhattan, taking the subway to school, there was obviously a pull for me,” Rhule told the New York Post this week. “I remember getting the New York Sack Exchange posters out of the paper on Sundays, and putting Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko and all those guys on my wall.”
However, Rhule’s upbringing and fondness for football in the five boroughs did not supersede the prospect of the situation he was set to enter: Though the exact details are likely to remain unknow, the Jets – seemingly concerned that Rhule would hire coaches with little to no NFL experience – allegedly tried to dictate who Rhule could hire for his coordinators and assistants. After consulting with coaching idol Bill Parcells – himself a former Jets head coach – who advised him to not take any job where he could not hire his own staff, Rhule decided to pass on the opportunity, instead returning to Baylor.
With Rhule out of the picture, the Jets instead hired Adam Gase, a familiar face within the AFC East from his tenure with the Miami Dolphins, to assume the responsibility of leading their franchise to relevance and developing their prized young quarterback – one Sam Darnold – into one of the NFL’s elite.
What happened next could only be classified as a colossal and unbridled disaster: Though the Jets finished the 2019 season at 7-9, they did so after a 1-7 start that exposed their fissures. Talented players left the team, with some being sent away and others forcing their way out of a bad situation. Darnold did not become the sort of savior the Jets had thought he was, and he was an unwitting and pitiable passenger as the Jets started the 2020 season with an 0-13 record before they eventually finished 2-14, costing Gase his job and putting the Jets even further behind as a franchise than they were at the end of 2018.
In an unforgiving New York market, Gase became the target of derision over the Jets’ descent into disgrace and pointed to as the very reason it had occurred, with the idea that somebody else – anybody else – could have done a better job than he did.
Considering the case of Adam Gase’s doomed tenure, there is more than enough room to wonder where the Jets would be right now had Matt Rhule taken the job.
“It’s really hard to say,” said Esiason. “When you’re the head coach, you’re the head man, you have to make decisions, you have to trust the people around you and that they’re gonna support the decisions that you’re making, but also accept their points of view about certain things and trust their points of view that they’re not gonna undercut you in any certain way. The way the Jets went about it with Adam Gase and (former defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams and then handing a new offense to Sam Darnold just was never gonna work from the outside … The Jets just were not stable.”
“I think Matt Rhule actually saw that. I give Matt Rhule a great deal of credit – Now, I don’t know if he was ever offered the job … but if it is confirmed that Matt Rhule was offered the job and turned it down because of the way things looked, then I would have said ‘hooray for Matt Rhule.’ In other words, he made the right decision to go back to Baylor. He did. He really did.”
“To leave the Jets for Baylor, that’s saying something. That’s saying that you see that there’s something wrong about the way things are being put together.”
There is no shortage of scenarios that have played out for the Jets over the past two years that may have played out differently under Rhule. Perhaps Robby Anderson and Leonard Williams, two talented players done away with under Gase who went on to succeed elsewhere, would instead be thriving with the Jets. Perhaps All-Pro safety Jamal Adams, arguably the best player on the team, would have remained happy instead of becoming disgruntled and forcing his way off the team in a bitter contract dispute that ended with his being traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Perhaps better decisions would have been made in the Draft and in free agency. Perhaps better coaching and better in-game management would have led to more success on the field.
But the biggest what-if of all is undoubtedly the matter of Sam Darnold – and whether if, had Rhule guided him, he would still be the Jets’ quarterback today.
“Assuming that Matt Rhule was able to hire his entire staff, including Joe Brady as the offensive coordinator … I would say that it would be a better than 50/50 chance that Sam Darnold would still be here,” said Esiason. “Just simply because I have a high regard for Joe Brady and his ability to be an offensive coordinator and also bring the best out in quarterbacks. And I think this is gonna be a really good fit for Sam Darnold.”
“The way that Sam was handled in New York, it’s Quarterback Class 101 of Not How to Handle Somebody, and not allow a young man who is not mature enough yet to handle being a quarterback in the NFL. Let alone the Jet quarterback in New York City, where slings and arrows basically are like bagels and butter. They’re everywhere. It wasn’t a good situation for a young quarterback to develop in.”
All this, though, carries with it an important converse: If Matt Rhule had indeed become the head coach of the Jets, it would mean that he never would have become the head coach of the Carolina Panthers a year later in 2020. Which carries with it its own propositions and what-if scenarios.
Let’s suppose, for a moment, that Rhule were not the head coach of the Panthers right now – Sam Darnold almost certainly wouldn’t be the quarterback, and it’s reasonable to believe that Robby Anderson wouldn’t be in Carolina either. Another Head Coach would have brought in his own philosophy, personnel, and coaching staff, meaning that the players that make up the rank and file of Carolina football would be quite different – and also meaning that young and promising stars like Jeremy Chinn, Derrick Brown, and Jaycee Horn may never have selected by the Panthers.
There were indeed other options the Panthers could have pursued at head coach other than Rhule – One such candidate was Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who Esiason thought would have been a good fit. Any one of them could have guided the Panthers to a record better, worse, or the same as the 5-11 outing Rhule posted in his first year on the job.
Ultimately, though, football minds only deal in hypotheticals to a certain point. There is a tendency to believe that things work out as they should, a view that Rhule expressed both for himself and for the Jets as they begin a new era under first-year head coach Robert Saleh.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Rhule told the Post. “I think they’ve got a great coach in Coach Saleh. He’ll do a great job. I’m blessed to be here in Carolina.”
“At this point, it seems to me that it’s a good match. It’s a good fit,” said Esiason of the pairing of Rhule and Darnold in Carolina. “And I feel like the Panthers last year are where the Jets are right now. It’s just that the Jets have the second-overall pick. The Panthers are getting what is I guess colloquially known as a retread in Sam, but he’s only 23 years old so he’s got his whole career in front of him. And maybe these guys can get the best out of him.”
In the relatively short span of two years, the butterfly effect of Matt Rhule’s decision has had disastrous consequences for the Jets, while giving the Panthers a chance at a new lease of life.
Whether the Panthers or the Jets will ultimately benefit most from this is something that will likely take years to become clear, if it ever does, and, as the game kicks-off on Sunday afternoon, two sets of players will get a chance to make the butterfly play that puts their team on the path to a long-awaited for Lombardi Trophy.