Oct 9, 2022; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule reacts in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Ron Rivera was talking about his current team, but he might as well have been discussing his former one.

When Rivera riled up the masses Monday with a one-word answer to explain the Washington Commanders’ struggles relative to their NFC East rivals — “Quarterback” — the pearl-clutching in defense of Carson Wentz’s honor was immediate and resounding.

Yet Rivera, other than vastly overstating the abilities of the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones, wasn’t wrong: When a franchise lacking a premium player at the sport’s most important position fails to solve that deficiency, it’s very hard for any coach to succeed.

That reality certainly applies to the team Rivera coached from 2011 to 2019, the Carolina Panthers, who earlier that day had underscored his point in emphatic fashion.

Owner David Tepper’s dismissal of Matt Rhule after two seasons and five games can be traced to many factors, most glaringly an 11-27 overall record. To be sure, there are things Rhule could have done differently, and it’s possible that interim coach Steve Wilks will implement some changes that give the Panthers a bit of a bounce.

The bottom line, however, is this: Carolina still doesn’t have a legitimate quarterback — and unless and until that changes, the person wearing the headset is likely to experience an abundance of headaches.

Since former league MVP Cam Newton’s body began to break down in 2018, the Panthers have trotted out the following QBs as starters: Kyle Allen, Will Grier, Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker, Sam Darnold, Newton (ah, what a heartwarming redemption story that might have been) and Baker Mayfield.

During that span, Tepper has fired two coaches (Rivera and Rhule), ticked off his fellow owners by giving Rhule what was viewed as an obscenely overreaching contract (seven years, $62 million) and, as of Monday’s news conference, declined to commit to retaining the general manager he hired in January 2021, Scott Fitterer, beyond this season.

It’s easy to see why any owner, let alone a relatively new and wealthy one, would be frustrated by the current state of affairs. However, the Panthers aren’t that far away from competing for a playoff spot. They have a deceptively strong defense, a much-improved offensive line and a plan in place to add some important pieces after this season.

The biggest issue is — you guessed it — finding a real solution at quarterback.

Mayfield, acquired in a trade this summer, isn’t the answer. Darnold, acquired in an April 2021 trade and currently on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain, isn’t the answer, either. It’s theoretically possible that 2022 third-round pick Matt Corral, who suffered a season-ending foot injury during the preseason, could eventually be the answer, but it’s certainly not a given.

More likely than not, the Panthers — who previously tried hard to trade for Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford, and failed — will have to make a dramatic move, and they will have to be right.

In the meantime, Wilks — who got the shaft in his previous head coaching gig, surviving only one season in Arizona with rookie Josh Rosen and washed veteran Sam Bradford as his quarterbacks — will try to turn water to wine and impress Tepper enough to keep the gig. Great news for Wilks: Tepper said on Monday he’d be open to considering that “if he does an incredible job!”

So no, Wilks doesn’t have much of a chance. Did Rhule? Well, he’d argue that the team’s deficiencies at QB hamstrung him from the start, while his critics would point out that he bears plenty of responsibility for his record.

Rhule, who was so successful as a turnaround artist at Temple and Baylor, struggled to connect with the prevailing NFL culture, at first coming off as a no-nonsense disciplinarian and later pivoting to a more player-friendly stance.

Rather than ending practice in traditional NFL fashion — by gathering the team and invoking some quick, parting words — Rhule would let the final period play out without fanfare, with players simply walking off and heading to their lockers.

When, last December, the coach closed a press conference following a blowout defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a Jay-Z analogy he said he had frequently shared with his players, he was lampooned as “Ja Rhule.” And no, unlike his hip-hop namesake, the coach was not “Livin’ It Up” on game days.

All of that may have contributed to Tepper wanting to make an abrupt change, as did the Panthers’ dispirited effort in the latter stages of a 37-15 thrashing by the visiting San Francisco 49ers last Sunday. The biggest reason, however, was — wait for it — money.

By getting rid of Rhule before the college hiring cycle plays out, Tepper is banking on a turnaround-seeking university president greenlighting a mega deal. Given the offset clause in Rhule’s contract, that could save Tepper tens of millions of dollars.

Then again, if I were a college president — and if I were Rhule — I’d negotiate a heavily backloaded deal that included artificially low salaries in the 2023 through 2026 seasons. I’d also try to align the letters on the page to spell out “Suck It, Tepper” in diagonal rows. But hey, that’s just me.

Assuming Wilks doesn’t work miracles, and assuming Fitterer survives to help hire the next coach (he certainly deserves the opportunity), look for a wide-ranging search that includes people with and without NFL head coaching experience, and no bias toward either offensive or defensive expertise.

Fitterer has history in Seattle with current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator (and former Atlanta Falcons head coach) Dan Quinn, so that’s one obvious candidate. And anyone open to hiring a defensive-minded coach would be crazy not to look at the man partly responsible for Sunday’s butt-kicking at Bank of America Stadium: Niners defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who should have plenty of suitors, including the Panthers.

On paper, it’s a pretty solid opportunity — with one obvious caveat, which can be expressed in a single, three-syllable word.

Just ask Rivera.

Roughing the viewer

It’s one thing for Tom Brady to get game-changing calls — as great as the quarterback is, he’s also been the most blessed when it comes to the whims of the officials. There are many, many examples of this. It’s not Brady’s fault, but at this point it’s kind of a cliche.

Thus, when the Bucs — trying to close out a game last Sunday while hanging onto a 21-15 lead over the Falcons — extended a drive thanks to a defensive holding call on a third-down incompletion with 3:15 remaining, it was almost predictable.

It turned out that was only the appetizer. Three plays later, Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett sacked Brady on third-and-5. In the process, he made the tragic mistake of — as far as I can tell — bringing the quarterback to the ground. You know, his job. Sorry, Falcons: Jarrett was flagged for roughing the passer, allowing Brady and Tampa Bay to ice the game.

And amazingly, it would not stand up as the most alarmingly absurd roughing-the-passer call of Week 5.

That occurred late in the first half of Monday night’s game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, and it was a doozy: K.C.’s Chris Jones descended upon Raiders QB Derek Carr and repossessed the football in an act that sent both men careening toward the Arrowhead Stadium turf. In an effort to avoid falling on top of the quarterback with all of his weight — among the many major no-nos that pass rushers must confront, at full speed — Jones braced his fall with one hand while holding the football with the other.

And somehow that, too, was deemed to be a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

The NFL being the NFL, no one — from referee Carl Cheffers to commissioner Roger Goodell — has come out and admitted what a horsebleep call that was. Nor has the absurdity of the rule, as it’s currently written, been commented upon by the powers that be.

Something has to be done to fix this madness, and Jones, in the wake of the Chiefs’ 30-29 victory, offered one idea: “Look at roughing-the-passer as a league, like they did pass interference a couple years ago, where we can review pass interference — I think that’s the next step we have to take in the league for all these roughing-the-passers.”

I hated the one-year experiment to subject pass-interference penalties to replay review before it was implemented, and I detested it for the duration of its sad, inconsistently applied existence. In general, I’m not into over-officious replay solutions, especially when it comes to subjective calls.

Yet at this point, I’d be willing to give Jones’ idea a try, unless the powers that be decide to be honest with themselves (and us) and come up with a different way of addressing this mess.

Turn out the lights

Nathaniel Hackett has faced an inordinate amount of scrutiny and stress in his brief coaching career, beginning with his debut on Monday Night Football and extending to last Thursday night’s gruesome game between the Indianapolis Colts and his Denver Broncos. Part of the problem, for Hackett, is that his missteps and misfortunes have been so conspicuous. The Broncos played nationally televised night games in Weeks 1, 3 and 5 — and, right on cue, they’ll make it 4-of-6 when facing the Los Angeles Chargers this coming Monday night in Inglewood.


Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) talks with head coach Nathaniel Hackett during the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Hackett badly needs an uneventful evening in the spotlight, which is a lot to ask given the current state of his offense. His best hope may be that his Chargers counterpart, Brandon Staley, makes a fourth-down decision that overshadows whatever happens on the visitors’ sidelines.

To paraphrase Carrie Underwood: Tell me you won’t be waiting all week for Monday night.

Bill’s still got it

Since the summertime, I haven’t been shy about proclaiming that the New England Patriots face some stiff challenges this season, especially with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge running the offense. Yet as much as I criticized Bill Belichick for that decision, and as much as I’ve pummeled him for various other past transgressions, let’s be clear: The man is a true gangsta when it comes to scheming it up.

Belichick reinforced that Sunday when he faced the Detroit Lions, who arrived in Foxborough with the NFL’s No. 1 offense (in terms of both scoring and yards) and went out like lambs, recipients of a 29-0 beatdown from one of the greatest defensive strategists the game has ever known.

The Lions were held without a point, while Belichick made his loudly and clearly.

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