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Analysis: Five plays that explain why Matt Rhule and the Panthers fired Joe Brady

·6 min read

Over the Panthers’ bye week, coach Matt Rhule said he would watch tape of Carolina’s 33-10 loss against Miami before making any decisions about his coaching staff. Seven days later, he called former offensive coordinator Joe Brady into his office and fired him.

Brady’s departure is the product of more than one disappointing outcome. The Panthers’ offense hasn’t consistently threatened defenses all year. Carolina ranks 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which measures efficiency against league averages. Over the past four games, they have scored seven touchdowns. The Panthers average just 19.7 points per game; are 28th in yards (300.8) and 22nd in red zone touchdown percentage.

Worst yet, the Panthers’ 18 third-quarter points are the fewest in the league and a clear indictment on Carolina’s inability to make effective in-game or halftime adjustments. Too often Brady called plays like he was enacting the board game battleship rather than setting up early decisions for later results.

When watching film of each Panthers game, it becomes a struggle to recognize when a run call complemented the passing game. Simply put, the Panthers’ runs do not resemble their dropback game, which makes dissecting post-snaps plays easier for defenders. Brady’s designs did not put the Panthers in enough advantageous situations either. Instead, he repeatedly asked receivers to win their respective matchup rather than scheming them open. Deceitful tools like play-action throws were a limited part of his offense as well. For example, quarterback Cam Newton used play-action only nine times over the past two weeks.

It took a body of work for Rhule to fire Brady. Carolina’s dormant offense against the Dolphins made Rhule’s decision easy. Let’s review five plays from the Panthers’ 33-10 loss to Miami that highlight why it was time for Rhule to move on from Brady.

Lack of complementary plays

Play calling is an art that requires patience and foresight. The best offensive coordinators stay ahead of their opponents by viewing football like a chessboard. For that to happen, each call must relate to another. Repeating alignments or formations during pre-snap combined with running slightly different run or pass concepts keep defenses off balance.

Here is an example of Brady not setting up a route for receiver Robby Anderson. The Panthers faced a first down with Newton in shotgun. Anderson motioned from right to left, shifting the formation to a balanced two-by-two look. Dolphins’ nickel defender Eric Rowe followed him, signaling man coverage. At the snap, Anderson runs a wheel route by breaking out and then up the left sideline.

This second-quarter play was probably designed just for Anderson to run an out route based on his lack of urgency. Once Newton evaded a decaying pocket, Anderson turned upfield to break open. Eventually, Anderson opens on the sideline but this play is called back for holding.

Though Anderson’s route appears to be a two-way go, meaning he can break in or out, Rowe’s inside wasn’t threatened because Newton opens left and locks onto Anderson. Also, before this call, Anderson had not crossed the middle of the field on any route.

On this next play, Anderson runs a return route from the same slot location. He drives five yards out and breaks back inside after a few steps. Miami again deploys man coverage. In theory, this should work. Again, without Anderson attacking the middle of the field, why would a Miami defender worry about him coming inside? Also, Anderson doesn’t win his matchup on either route. The Dolphins were not concerned with Anderson or Brady’s play calling when targeting slot receivers.

Newton struggled to come off his first read all game, a clear sign of his unfamiliarity with the offense. To Brady’s credit, tight end Tommy Tremble did open at the top of the screen coming across the middle but Newton never locates him.

Cam Newton not fully ready

Rhule didn’t downplay Newton’s limited playbook knowledge. When rewatching the tape, it’s apparent his lack of complete control put Carolina in insurmountable situations. Down 14-7, Brady called back-to-back runs to start their second drive of the second quarter. Newton threw an interception on the prior series and the Panthers needed some momentum.

A Chuba Hubbard first-down run gained only a yard. Then Newton came to the line facing a nine-man Dolphins box. Miami dared Carolina to throw. Pause the below video before the snap and count how many defenders are at or near the line of scrimmage. There is no reason to run this football. Either Newton must audible to a throw or Brady should’ve signaled to Rhule for a timeout. Instead, running back Christian McCaffrey loses three yards and the Panthers punt after throwing an incomplete pass on third-and-12.

Miami coach Brian Flores outcoached Rhule and Brady all afternoon by exploiting Newton’s lack of familiarity with Brady. Facing second-and-medium, Brady tried setting up a short throw for McCaffrey. Coming out of the backfield, he ran a whip route versus a Miami defender and won.

But a protection error by Newton allowed Miami to disrupt the throw and forced an incompletion. Watch the end zone view. Miami edge rusher Andrew Van Ginkel comes free because Newton slid his offensive line’s protection to the left. Flores confused Newton by implementing simulated pressure. Notice Emmanuel Ogbah (91) and Raekwon Davis fake their initial rush before dropping into zone coverage. That leaves the Panthers’ left side of the line with nobody to block while the right side is overloaded.

Flores and the Dolphins are known for their exotic simulated pressures yet too often Brady and Newton were not ready for them. Miami hit Carolina quarterbacks 11 times. Van Ginkel had four himself.

No gotta-have-it plays

The Panthers were 4 of 14 on third down and 2 of 3 on fourth-down tries. One of those fourth-down conversions came via a fake punt. When the Panthers needed a play, Brady didn’t come through enough. Plenty of times Panthers players didn’t execute either. However, the example below exemplifies a coaching error that cannot occur.

On their first third-down play of the third quarter, Brady put Newton under center with Hubbard behind him and Ameer Abdullah offset left. At the snap, Abdullah took a handoff and probed horizontally down the line of scrimmage.

Carolina doesn’t block it well. But linebacker Elandon Roberts rushed free and blew the play up. He was unaccounted for and would’ve had a straight shot at Abdullah regardless. Hubbard set up as a pitch option but Jerome Baker perfectly split the difference between the two backs.

There was no way Abdullah was going to beat Roberts outside considering their initial alignment. This play may have worked as a speed option with Newton pressing down the line on a keeper and pitching to Hubbard but instead Brady worked backward with a handoff and allowed Miami to key a run left.

The Dolphins exposed the Panthers’ incomplete game plan upfront and on the perimeter. Flores knew Newton wasn’t fully prepared. That falls on Brady to implement a plan more favorable to his new quarterback rather than leaving him in dire situations.

It wasn’t just Newton. Sam Darnold never looked fully prepared, either. The entire offense is lagging. That doesn’t all fall on Brady but he made too many mistakes to stick around.

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