Pingpong? Pickleball? Pickleball?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Maybe the most intense moment of the Carolina Panthers’ offseason program that concluded Thursday happened last week when coach Matt Rhule went on the defensive.

As a soccer goalie.

During what amounted to Carolina’s version of a bar Olympics — minus the drinking games — the third-year NFL coach knocked down a kick by quarterback Sam Darnold and ran toward a camera shouting, “I hope you got that on tape!’’

“There's a whole other side of me that no one ever gets to see,’’ Rhule said with a smile. “I like to have as much fun as the next guy.’’

Few got to see that side during Rhule’s first two offseasons because the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the interaction to be via Zoom and phone calls. Masks and social distancing were necessary for those who were present in person.

Rhule made it his priority to bond with the core group this offseason, especially since he believes that they will be crucial to turning around a team which was 5-11 in 2020 and 5-12 2021, respectively.

It began the first week of OTAs, when Rhule invited 10 players to a Charlotte restaurant and asked, “What kind of team are we going to be?’’

This was followed by golf outings, and other events that allowed Rhule to get to know the players better.

The competition culminated in a day of pickleball and baseball, as well as basketball, pingpong and bowling at Bank of America Stadium. Other venues were also available. A few players from the local Major League Soccer team were even brought in to help defend goals.

“Team bonding is the most important thing,’’ said Adrian Zendejas, who participated along with fellow Charlotte FC goalkeeper George Marks. “You have to be a family. They nailed it.’’

Rhule gained a lot of valuable information. The most important thing was that players wanted to be involved in making Carolina a player-driven organization. The coach was happy with this development. He attributes his success at turning Temple and Baylor around to the players taking responsibility.

“This is how we've always tried to build, not just relationships but a competitive environment where guys like to compete at little things and big things,’’ Rhule said.

Rhule makes it clear the pandemic wasn’t an excuse for his first two seasons and understands all NFL coaches had to deal with unusual times.

Rhule, as well as the four other head coaches who were hired in 2020 right before the pandemic hit, had to deal with additional challenges. They had to meet new coaches, players and other members of the organization mainly remotely.

Rhule’s situation was magnified in that among the new head coaches – the others were Mike McCarthy, Dallas CowboysRon Rivera Washington CommandersJoe Judge New York Giants; Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns – he was the only one coming from the college ranks with basically no NFL experience.

“Life's about relationships,’’ Rhule said. “And you build relationships with propinquity and proximity and spending time together.

The 2020 hires did not have that record and they didn't produce great results in their first two seasons. The Panthers were 10/23, Browns 19-14 Giants, Giants 10/23, Giants 10/23, Commanders 13/19, Cowboys 8/15, and Giants 10/23.

Rhule, however, is more under pressure than any of the 2020 hires to win this season.

“It’s no secret, I’ve been kind of under the gun a little bit from everybody,’’ Rhule said. “The biggest thing I’ve tried to do is really focus on the players and my relationship with the players. Those are things that have helped me have success.’’

Rhule easily could have tried new things as coaches under fire sometimes do, but he didn’t.

“You can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m a process guy,’ and then you don’t get the results you want and change it,’’ Rhule said. “You have to double down on it.’’

Rhule’s approach is similar to what former Carolina coach Ron Rivera did during the 2013 offseason, when he invited team leaders to dinner after consecutive 6-10 and 7-9 seasons and asked “what’s going on’’ in the locker room.

Rivera later moved into a office nearer to the locker room in order to better get to know his players.

Carolina won the NFC South title after a disappointing start of 1-3.

Rhule can’t promise those kind of results. There’s still uncertainty that Darnold can lead an improved roster to the playoffs. That’s why the doOder isn’t closed on adding a veteran such as the Cleveland BrownsBaker Mayfield or San Francisco 49ersJimmy Garoppolo.

But Rhule likes what he has seen and seems happier as a member of the staff – and his dad – noted.

It is important to be able to bond.

“It’s huge,’’ Darnold said. “The closer the team is off the field, the more success they’re likely to have on the field.’’

Running back Christian McCaffrey Linebacker Shaq Thompson agreed.

“We’re a tight-knit group,’’ Thompson said. “Guys are buying in.’’

Rhule believes that the bonding time will be helpful during difficult times, just as it is during a season. Rhule hopes that a normal offseason helped to build the trust and confidence that he believes are the foundations for great teams.

“I will never underestimate the impact of the first few years of not being able to go out and being able to get a bite to eat with somebody,’’ he said. “Not being able to go out and sit down with Shaq and say, ‘Shaq, tell me what we need to do or how do you see it?’

“Those conversations are vital.’’

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