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Why successful college coaches like Matt Rhule fail in the NFL; plus, the five most rugged running backs

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first an examination of an enduring football question ...

Successful coaches across the sports spectrum who change teams and/or elect to rebuild downtrodden programs typically spawn the same series of questions:

Is the fit right? Will positive culture from the old locale transfer to the new spot? What is the shape of the inherited roster?

When the best of the best continue to prosper, we're all reminded of an old adage: Winners win.

Sometimes it's just that simple. In college football, certain coaches can swap out the logos on their polos and continue building championship-caliber teams with strategic overhauls and tried-and-true developmental plans. Just look at the likes of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, three coaches who've boosted multiple college programs into national prominence.

Matt Rhule was considered one of college football's premier turnaround specialists for his impressive work at Temple and Baylor. This success as a program builder prompted David Tepper and the Carolina Panthers to hand him the keys to the kingdom with a seven-year, $62 million contract.

Rhule arrived in Charlotte with great fanfare ... but he couldn't even make it through Year 3. After starting the 2022 season at 1-4, the Panthers fired Rhule on Monday.

Finishing his Carolina tenure with a ghastly 11-27 record -- including a staggering 1-27 mark when the Panthers allowed 17-plus points -- the longtime college head coach just couldn't procure a franchise quarterback. Furthermore, he struggled to fix a patchwork offensive line that could not create holes for Christian McCaffrey or protect the revolving door of passers attempting to throw to a solid set of skill players.

In the wake of Rhule's dismissal, the football world is pondering a familiar question: Why do successful college coaches struggle in the NFL?

Although Rhule's the most recent example of this trend, he's certainly not alone. Check out how the past 10 coaches have fared in the college-to-NFL move:

Table inside Article
Matt Rhule Baylor to Panthers 11-27
Urban Meyer Ohio State to Jaguars 2-11
Kliff Kingsbury* Texas Tech to Cardinals 26-27-1
Bill O'Brien Penn State to Texans 52-48
Chip Kelly Oregon to Eagles/49ers 28-35
Greg Schiano Rutgers to Buccaneers 11-21
Jim Harbaugh Stanford to 49ers 44-19-1
Pete Carroll* USC to Seahawks 121-76-1
Lane Kiffin** USC to Raiders 5-15
Bobby Petrino Louisville to Falcons 3-10

* Kingsbury and Carroll are still coaching their respective NFL teams.
** Kiffin was the USC offensive coordinator before taking the Raiders job.

So there you have it: Seven of the 10 coaches have posted losing records, with Bill O'Brien barely clearing .500.

Only two boast great success. Not coincidentally, those two had significant NFL experience before taking the job listed above. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh returned to the NFL having already spent substantial time coaching (Carroll) and playing (Harbaugh) in the league. (Harbaugh also served as the Raiders' QB coach for two seasons before initially venturing into the college coaching ranks.) The lessons learned while interacting with pros and coaching against some of the brightest minds in football prepared both of them for NFL success in the big chair. From understanding the importance of outstanding communication and relationship-building with the players to their mastery of situational football in games that are frequently decided by tight margins, coaches who have spent ample time in the NFL have a better understanding of the challenges that they will face on a weekly basis.

Strong communication with players -- and more specifically, full buy-in from your best players -- is essential to succeeding at the NFL level. Some college coaches struggle with that dynamic after spending most of their formative coaching years working with 18-to-22-year-olds who are expected to do what they are told without challenging authority. In the NFL, the team is more collaborative, with coaches and players expected to build a mutually beneficial partnership that leads to success on the field and more money in each other's bank accounts down the road. NFL coaches must demonstrate to their players why certain schemes and techniques will help their chances of playing well and securing the bag.

As a young player on the Green Bay Packers, I remember late, great defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur encouraging a unit that featured future Hall of Famers Reggie White and LeRoy Butler to "pour into the pot before dipping out of the pot." This analogy was the veteran coach's way of imploring each defender to sacrifice his own agenda for the team and trust that individual rewards would come. As a head coach, it is important to build partnerships with each of your players, particularly the five-star talents, to ensure that the overarching message is well-received by the team. When the best players and team leaders believe in the vision of the program, the wins can come in bunches. It takes college coaches some time to appreciate the value of coach-player partnerships, having typically spent most of their coaching days in a more dictatorial role that did not seek much input from the players.

College coaches can also struggle with the developmental process of players at the NFL level. If they have been blessed to coach at a college powerhouse with vast resources, they are used to guiding five-star players who are able to dominate opponents with raw size and speed instead of refined skills. The college game is all about recruiting and stockpiling the roster with elite talent, and then just overwhelming overmatched foes.

Now, the NFL obviously also relies on strong player acquisition, too, but the playing field is level for everyone, due to the draft, free agency, trades and a salary cap that makes it nearly impossible to completely flip a roster like a college head coach. There is no transfer portal to supply downtrodden teams with premier, instant-impact talent that can spearhead a quick turnaround.

Although some former college coaches have successfully utilized the NFL draft and waiver wire to build championship-caliber squads (SEE: Pete Carroll), the overwhelming majority of them fail to understand how to rebuild without bottoming out. That last part is crucial, because in a win-now league, patience is not a virtue -- at least among the folks writing the checks. It requires some luck and magic to win while rebuilding, but some pro coaches have a better understanding of what it takes to turn around a program without having a roster full of YOUR guys. Last season, as a Jaguars team analyst, I watched Urban Meyer struggle mightily with that last concept.

As I touched on above, Meyer has an elite résumé as a college program builder. He overhauled the rosters at Utah, Florida and Ohio State to amazing success, including three national championships. But the aggressive rebuilding strategies he utilized at the college level just didn't play in Jacksonville. Meyer was overwhelmed by the daunting task of building a champion without the inherent advantages that he had at his previous stops, and the toll of losing wore him out before Year 1 had even reached its midpoint.

College coaches also underestimate the importance of situational football and the weekly tactical adjustments that are needed to win in this league. Most NFL games are decided in the fourth quarter. Head coaches must deftly manage the game to help the team chalk up a win. Small decisions made throughout the game -- including fourth-down gambles and two-point conversions, as well as complementary football plans and general clock management -- determine who ends up in the winner's circle.

To put it simply: In college, it is more about the Jimmies and Joes than the Xs and Os. If you walk into a college stadium with a team featuring more four- and five-stars than your opponents, you automatically have a great chance to exit with the W.

The same cannot be said for the NFL, given the immense parity that defines this league. It's quite challenging to string together wins with so much competitive balance. The best coaches will search high and low for an advantage that will make a tiny difference on game day. Given the slim margin of error in the pro game, it's crucial that the head coach hired by an NFL team has a clear understanding of how games are won and lost in this league.

Without significant NFL experience -- and the accompanying wisdom gained -- it's a steep uphill battle to win in a league that features the best and brightest minds in the sport.

Top five most rugged running backs today

Hats off to my NFL Media colleague Kyle Brandt for creating one of the best segments on daytime television: "Angry Runs." On a weekly basis during NFL Network's Good Morning Football, the former Princeton RB celebrates a handful of ball carriers who exhibit violent running skills with the ball in their hands, showcasing the physicality, toughness and effort that I covet in workhorse runners. I myself was a product of a college option offense at the University of North Carolina that produced Natrone Means and a collection of other pros (Randy Jordan, Leon Johnson, William Henderson and Jonathan Linton). I have always appreciated how rugged runners wear down an opponent in a four-quarter game. The cumulative effect of tackling a big, bruising ball-carrier not only tests the toughness and courage of defenders, particularly defensive backs, but it can be outright demoralizing to opponents.

Last week, I watched Texans running back Dameon Pierce pummel the Jaguars on an assortment of hard-nosed runs between the tackles, frustrating a defense that views itself as the baddest bully on the block between the lines. Measuring 5-foot-10, 218 pounds, the rookie is a tank rumbling through the hole with a forward lean and churning legs that make him difficult to bring down with a one-on-one tackle.

I'm not ready to pronounce Pierce a lock as an All-Pro or anything, but he is certainly a monster with the ball in his hands, and opponents must put on their big-boy pads to have any chance of slowing him down between the tackles.

Given the limited practice time and tackling drills NFL teams conduct each week, the hefty runners (215-plus pounds) with violent running styles have an advantage over their opponents. The combination of size, strength and physicality enables them to beat up defenders on the way to chalking up 100-yard games on the ground.

After surveying the landscape, I've identified the running backs who best exhibit the characteristics that should earn them a spot among Kyle Brandt's list of angry runners, possessing physicality, violence and a grind-it-out mentality:

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · Year 7

The two-time league rushing champion is a bulldozer with exceptional size, strength, length and speed. Standing 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds. Henry's superior physical dimensions, tough-guy demeanor and Deontay Wilder-like stiff arm make defenders shake in their shoes when they are forced to tackle him in the hole or on the perimeter. Given a choice to hit Henry straight up to prevent him from making a key first down or touchdown, the overwhelming majority of defenders are likely to opt for the business decision and skirt direct contact. 

Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · Year 5

The two-time league runner-up for the rushing crown (and current rushing leader) is a human bowling ball rolling through the middle of defenses. Measuring 5-11 and 227 pounds with exceptional strength, power and balance, Chubb is one of the few big-bodied runners with the capacity to run over or around defenders on the perimeter. The fifth-year pro leads the NFL in yards after contact through five games (478, per Next Gen Stats), while exhibiting the bully mentality that sets the tone for the Browns' top-ranked rushing attack.

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · Year 4

It is not a coincidence that Josh McDaniels has started to hand the ball to Jacobs early and often as he attempts to create a tough-guy mentality around the Raiders, letting Jacobs log 20-plus carries in each of the past two games. The fourth-year pro is on his way to chalking up his third 1,000-yard campaign while averaging 5-plus yards per carry for the first time in his career. With Jacobs showcasing impressive balance, body control and leg drive while pulling out of arm tackles in the hole, it is not a surprise that he ranks third on Next Gen Stats' list of players with the most yards after contact (421) this season.

Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · Year 5

Finally healthy again in 2022, it did not take long for the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year to remind the football world that he is a unicorn at the position as an explosive runner with Barry Sanders-like wiggle and a hard-nosed mentality. After missing most of 2020 with a torn ACL and then finishing with an underwhelming 593 rushing yards in 13 games last season, Barkley has clearly regained his form as a heavyweight jitterbug on the perimeter -- and he's also started to throw a nasty stiff arm to complement the shoulder drop that he uses to lower the boom in the open field. The workhorse runner -- and sometimes Wildcat quarterback! -- is punishing opponents as an extra-large single-wing playmaker.

Dameon Pierce
Houston Texans · Rookie

The rookie has already made his mark as a dominant runner in the league. Pierce exhibits a combination of strength, power and toughness that makes him a headache to deal with as a punishing runner who prefers to do his damage between the tackles. As the Texans continue to feature him as a designated RB1, the football world will recognize and appreciate his talents as a beefy workhorse runner. His toughness exemplifies the Texans' brand as a hard-nosed football team under Lovie Smith. And man, check out this statistic:

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