As the aftershocks of the Carolina Panthers’ all-in move for Matt Rhule subsided on Tuesday afternoon, the lasting effects of his hiring began to set in. Not only did the Panthers change the calculus of four different coaching searches — including their own, and that of the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns and Mississippi State University — the impact of Carolina’s seven-year, $62 million deal is going to be an adrenaline shot for elite NFL and college coaches.
“Insane — but great for coaches,” said an agent who represents college and NFL coaches.
“Crazy,” added another. “Leverage is a beautiful thing.”
That was the general consensus of many contract negotiators on Tuesday, along with some sneering across the league about the predicament the Browns now have following the Rhule deal. We’ll get to the Cleveland fallout in a moment, but first consider the basic staples of Rhule’s deal and how it will set a trend:
For coveted college coaches who make the jump to the NFL, the standard five-year deal is going to be challenged from this point forward. Having long-term security is a massive priority for college coaches when they make the leap because there is typically an adjustment period that must be weathered. Rhule just put a hammer lock on an extremely generous amount of runway to get himself going in the right direction in the NFL. And every first-time college-to-NFL coach is going to hope to land the same thing. That’s great for guys like Lincoln Riley, David Shaw, Pat Fitzgerald, Jeff Brohm and Matt Campbell — who could all get the NFL call someday. Now each and every one can say, “You want me? I need the seven-year commitment that Matt Rhule landed.”
Big contracts float all boats in the NFL — and you can bet that everyone who comes up for their next new deal will be working off the Rhule salary. That means anyone and everyone who isn’t entering a negotiation from a desperate place is going to expect to get their salary expectations either dragged up by Rhule’s numbers, or in the case of the best NFL coaches, set a bar for them to jump over and exceed. Regardless of whether they’ve signed a recent extension or not, anyone even close to Rhule on the salary scale will be looking for a nice adjustment if they win the Super Bowl this year. That includes the San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Andy Reid, the Baltimore Ravens’ John Harbaugh, etc.
You don’t have to be an NFL coach to be helped by Rhule — not with the reflexive nature of college football. Top echelon college coaches who receive NFL attention can now say to their administrators, “Here’s the deal Matt Rhule got in the NFL and I have NFL interest.” Drawing the league’s eye gets college coaches paid more, plain and simple. Even the ones like Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, who are unlikely to land in the NFL anytime soon. But as one negotiator pointed out, you don’t have to be in the NFL or always draw that attention to get a bump in pay.
“It’s kind of a cascading effect,” one agent said. “Someone like Saban is making nearly $10 million because of what he has done — but also because of the NFL market, too. Dabo, too. But then you get the next wave of guys who are a tier down, and all they have to do is show that they can compete with guys like Saban or Swinney and it impacts them positively, too. Think of it like Matt Rhule’s deal helping Nick Saban’s deal, Nick’s helping Dabo’s and then Dabo’s helping Lincoln Riley and so on. They’re all related, right up to the guys who jump into the NFL.”
What does this mean for Josh McDaniels and the Browns?
Of course, the college ripple is one end — with the NFL being the other. And in this case, Rhule’s deal won’t just have some ramifications down the line. It will have some potentially immediately for the Browns, who now have to get a deal done with someone following the Rhule template. Cleveland is caught in the wake and Josh McDaniels remains a Browns target. The same Josh McDaniels who comes with a massive amount of success under his belt as an offensive coordinator — and who will almost certainly expect to rival if not exceed Rhule’s deal, given that McDaniels is more accomplished on the NFL level and the two men are represented by the same agency, Athletes First.
With the Browns representing the last head coaching vacancy, it’s inarguable that McDaniels doesn’t have Rhule’s leverage at this late stage. He carries a pair of black marks on his résumé, having failed as a head coach with the Denver Broncos and backing out on a commitment to the Indianapolis Colts in 2018. But the reality is the Browns are currently led by the least stable ownership in the NFL when it comes to the level of patience extended to head coaches. That alone made it highly unlikely McDaniels would head to Cleveland for anything less than a top-level deal. With Rhule getting a massive commitment of seven years and now representing the sixth-highest paid salary among NFL coaches, it cements McDaniels being in line for a massive windfall if he indeed lands the Browns job.
“It’s a tough spot for Cleveland if [McDaniels] is who they’re really pushing to bring in,” one agent said. “Especially with the two being in the same [agency], it sets up some expectations from the coach in terms of the negotiation. You could even say [McDaniels] could look for steeper numbers if you look at the total value of Rhule’s deal with his buyout at Baylor included. Then it’s nearly $70 million from a value aspect, without even considering incentives. … It’s possible Josh could be a $10 million-a-season guy. If you’re aggressive, that might be what you’re aiming for.”
We’ll find out soon enough if Rhule’s deal shakes up the direction of the Browns’ search. We’ll also be feeling the aftershocks of this one for a long time coming, and in virtually anyplace in college or the NFL where candidates are prioritizing the length of a deal, the value of a deal … or both.
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