CHARLOTT, North Carolina. Perhaps the most intense moment of the Carolina Panthers’ off-season program that ended Thursday came last week when coach Matt Rule went on the defensive.

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Like a football goalkeeper.

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During the Carolina Bar Olympics — minus the drinking games — a third-year NFL coach knocked down quarterback Sam Darnold and ran to the camera yelling, “I hope you got that on tape!”

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“There is a completely different side of me that no one will ever see,” Rule said with a smile. “I like to have fun just like any other guy.”

Few saw this side of Rhule’s first two off-seasons because the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the interaction to be done through Zoom and phone calls. And those who were in person demanded masks and social distance.

So Rule has made it his priority this off-season to focus on rallying, especially with the main group, which he believes will be key to changing a team that has been 5-11 and 5-12 in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

The first week of the OTA began when Rule invited 10 players to a Charlotte restaurant and asked, “What team are we going to be?”

This was followed by golf games and other non-football activities, which helped Rula and the players to understand each other better.

It culminated last Thursday with an afternoon of ping pong, pickleball, baseball, bowling, basketball and football competitions at Bank of America Stadium and other locations around the city. The team even used several members of the local major league football team to defend against shots on goal.

“Team cohesion is the most important thing,” said Adrian Zendejas, who competed alongside fellow Charlotte goaltender George Marks. “You must be family. They did it.”

Rule learned a lot, and nothing more important than that the players wanted to take charge and make Carolina a player-driven team. That was good news for the manager, who credits much of his success with the transfer of Temple and Baylor to the players taking charge.

“That’s how we’ve always tried to build not only relationships, but also a competitive environment in which guys like to compete in small things and in big things,” Rule said.

Rule makes it clear that the pandemic was no excuse for his first two seasons and understands that all NFL coaches have had to deal with unusual times.

But for Rule and four other head coaches hired in 2020 just before the pandemic, it added another layer of adversity. They had to meet new players, coaches and people in the organization, mostly remotely.

Rule’s position was made worse by the fact that new head coaches included Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys; Ron Rivera, Washington Commanders Joe Judge, New York Giants Kevin Stefansky, Cleveland Browns – He was the only college graduate with virtually no NFL experience.

“Life is about relationships,” Rule said. “And you build relationships with kinship and intimacy and spend time together.

None of the 2020 rookies have had this, and none of them have shown great results in the first two seasons. The Panthers were 10-23, the Browns 19-14, the Giants 10-23, the Commanders 14-19 and the Cowboys 18-15.

However, no one hired in 2020 is under more pressure to win this season than Rule.

“It’s no secret that I’ve been a little under the gun from everyone,” Rule said. “The most important thing I tried to do was to focus on the players and my relationship with them. That’s what helped me succeed.”

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

“You can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m a process specialist,’ and then not get the results you want and change them,” Rule said. “You should double down.”

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

Rivera later moved to an office closer to the locker room to get to know his players better.

Carolina, after starting 1-3, responded with an eight-game winning streak to finish 11-1, winning the first of three consecutive NFC South titles.

Rule cannot promise such results. It remains unclear if Darnold will be able to take the improved roster to the playoffs. That’s why the door isn’t closed to adding a veteran like Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns or Jimmy Garoppolo of the San Francisco 49ers.

But Rule likes what he saw and seems happier, as noted by one of the employees and his father.

The ability to communicate is a factor.

“He’s huge,” Darnold said. “The closer a team is off the field, the more success they can achieve on the field.”

Running back Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Shaq Thompson agreed.

“We are a tight-knit group,” Thompson said. “Guys are buying.”

Rule believes that the time of convergence will help in difficult times, as it always does in the season. He hopes a normal offseason has helped build the trust and confidence he believes are the foundation for great teams.

“I will never underestimate the impact of the first few years when I couldn’t go out and had a meal with someone,” he said. “It’s impossible to go out and sit with Shaq and say, ‘Shaq, tell me what we need to do or how do you see it?’

“These conversations are vital.”