Matt Rhule's Panthers contract puts pressure on team owner David Tepper to prove he's not clueless

Written By Jeff Diamond
(Getty Images)

There undoubtedly were conflicting emotions around the NFL landscape when the news broke of Matt Rhule’s surprising new contract with the Carolina Panthers.

The gnashing of teeth was from the NFL owners who surely were angry in hearing that Panthers owner David Tepper gave Rhule a seven-year deal for $70 million including incentives ($60 million reportedly guaranteed) as an unproven NFL head coach coming from the college ranks, a pathway that has rarely led to coaching success. Tepper also had to kick in a $6 million buyout to Baylor, according to league sources.

Watch every NFL playoff game and the Super Bowl on DAZN (start your free trial)

Meanwhile, there were high fives and unbridled joy among the NFL and college coaching community who are thrilled by the fact that Rhule’s contract will help give them more leverage in future negotiations and likely lead to significant escalation of their salaries.

Tepper, the second-year team owner in Carolina, better see playoffs and Super Bowls in the near future for his Rhule-led team, or the ridicule will only increase for an owner who will be portrayed as clueless in the coach negotiation process.

MORE: How Panthers will approach their breakup with Cam Newton

NFL head coaching salaries are not easily obtained by the outside world. There is no salary cap that governs them, so teams don’t have to report to the league — and certainly not to the media — the full amounts they're paying.

It's estimated that Rhule's deal — including the larger-than-normal incentive package — currently places him tied for third among active NFL coaches. Bill Belichick leads the way at a reported $12 million per year, followed by Pete Carroll ($11 million average). Then come Jon Gruden and Rhule at $10 million per year.

It's an incredible salary for the 44-year-old Rhule, who has been a college head coach for only seven years (with four winning seasons) and has just one year of NFL experience as an assistant offensive line coach with the Giants.

(Getty Images)

Rhule has had some college success, but it’s nowhere near the Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney level. Rhule took Temple from 2-10 in his first season in 2013 to 10-3 in 2016 before leaving for Baylor, where his records were 1-11, 7-6 and 11-3 this past season, including losses to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game and to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

The Giants reportedly were trying to lure Rhule back to his native New York, but Tepper gave him a Godfather-like offer he couldn’t refuse. This was shortly after the Cowboys signed Mike McCarthy, a Super Bowl-winning coach with nine playoff appearances, to a five-year deal for $6 million per year.

Think McCarthy would like to renegotiate with Jerry Jones after learning of the Rhule signing?

As a further comparison, most rookie NFL head coaches receive four-year deals worth $4 million-$6 million per year. This includes coaches such as Matt LaFleur, who has led the Packers to a 13-3 record and the NFC North title in his first season under his $5.5 million-per-year contract. And likely Joe Judge, the former wide receivers and special teams coach in New England who the Giants hired after the Rhule bidding got too high for their taste.

2020 NFL MOCK DRAFT: Panthers begin defensive rebuild

While the money Tepper has committed to Rhule has to be infuriating to his fellow owners, they surely are even more upset by the seven guaranteed years in the deal. It basically ensures Rhule will be at the Panthers helm for three or four years, as no owner would want to pay out over $30 million to a fired coach.

With this deal in place, there's going to be a bunch of NFL coaches and their agents telling their owners it’s not right for them to be lagging far behind Rhule, who has yet to win his first NFL game, much less lead a team to the playoffs.

Imagine the conversation that could take place when 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer meet at mid-field prior to or following their divisional playoff game Saturday. Both coaches are probably in the $4 million-$5 million-per-year range, with Shanahan having three years remaining and Zimmer one more year on his contract. They could exchange greetings and say, “How about that Rhule deal? What does that make us worth?”

Andy Reid is preparing for the Chiefs’ divisional playoff game against the Texans, but perhaps he put a call into his agent Bob LaMonte and suggest, in light of the Rhule contract, he could use a raise from his $7.75 million per year after 21 years as a very successful NFL head coach. Same thing for John Harbaugh, a strong candidate with Shanahan for NFL coach of the year honors after leading the Ravens to the AFC’s top seed. Harbaugh, who is making $9 million, has nine winning seasons and a Super Bowl title to his credit.

(Getty Images)

Tepper raised eyebrows around the league when he fired a two-time Coach of the Year in Ron Rivera and announced he would personally handle all elements of the coaching search. He obviously was unconcerned about the repercussions of his ground-breaking entry level contract for Rhule and the ripple effect that is sure to follow.

The carryover from this deal will not only be an inevitable big jump in head coaches’ salaries. It filters down to offensive and defensive coordinators, who already have seen tremendous increases in salaries (with many in the $1.5 million-$2 million range) and then to position coaches.

And the colleges follow the NFL, so we’ve already seen coaches such as Saban and Swinney land close to the $10 million-per-year level. Their salaries will continue to rise along with the younger up-and-comers such as Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and P.J. Fleck at Minnesota.

MORE FROM DIAMOND: Projecting Patrick Mahomes' contract

I’ve attended a lot of league meetings in the NFL, including the privileged executive sessions in which only the team owner or chief executive would be allowed in the room. I can tell you that with the Rhule contract fresh in everyone’s minds, there will be plenty of consternation expressed in the meeting room and in hallway conversations among owners at the upcoming annual league meeting in March.

Meanwhile, there will be a fascinating juxtaposition of joyous feelings from the head coaches who also will be in attendance. They’ll be lined up to pat Rhule on the back and thank him for setting up their huge future pay increases.

Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.

Latest News

NFL DFS Picks Week 3: Best sleepers, value players for DraftKings, FanDuel daily fantasy football lineups
Top Week 3 NFL DFS Values
Fantasy Football Start 'Em Sit 'Em: Week 3 lineup advice, best matchups, DFS picks
Week 3 Start 'em, Sit 'em
Is Antonio Brown playing Week 3 after being placed on COVID list? Fantasy injury update ahead of Buccaneers-Rams matchup
Antonio Brown COVID list update
Christian McCaffrey injury update: Panthers RB to miss several weeks, Chuba Hubbard to start
McCaffrey ruled out of Panthers-Texans game with hamstring injury
Josh Gordon reinstatement: Reports say NFL has reinstated the former All-Pro receiver
Why NFL could lift suspension of Josh Gordon