CHARLOTTE, N.C. — David Tepper thought he’d nailed it this time.
After firing Matt Rhule in October 2022, the Carolina Panthers owner was determined to get his second head-coaching hire right. Tepper, the hedge-fund billionaire who bought the team in 2018, ran a more thorough search in looking for Rhule’s successor, focusing on coaches with offensive backgrounds after missing on what he called a “CEO coach” in Rhule.
After interviewing nine candidates, Tepper decided on Frank Reich, the former Indianapolis Colts coach and the starting quarterback for the first game in Panthers history. Tepper, with a net worth north of $20 billion, gave Reich a four-year deal and provided him the resources to hire an all-star staff that would help develop a rookie quarterback.
But halfway through Reich’s first season, Tepper already was contemplating another coaching change.
With No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young struggling and the Panthers owning the league’s worst record, Tepper warned Reich in early November he needed to see improvement on offense. Tepper had mortgaged the team’s future to move up to draft Young. The rookie’s development was stagnating under an avalanche of sacks and hits in the pocket.
After the Panthers scored just 10 points with Reich again calling the plays in back-to-back losses against Dallas and Tennessee, Tepper fired him Nov. 27. The Panthers were 1-10 under Reich, whose tenure was the NFL’s shortest in 45 years.
Panthers’ anemic offense and 1-10 record led to only choice — firing Frank Reich
During a news conference the day after Reich’s firing, Tepper declined to elaborate on his decision, telling reporters they could “speculate as to that.”
The offensive problems and Young’s development doomed Reich. But there was a lot going on behind the scenes on Reich’s staff.
The Athletic spoke to more than 20 Panthers coaches, players and other league sources, some of whom were granted anonymity so they could speak freely. They painted a picture of dysfunction inside the Panthers’ offices, with assistant coaches undermining other coaches as many went into self-preservation mode when it became clear Reich’s days were numbered.
Team sources described a “Hunger Games” culture at Bank of America Stadium. Coaches said they believed other staff members were text messaging Tepper behind Reich’s back about issues they saw with the team. In one instance, general manager Scott Fitterer and an offensive coach went to Tepper with a coaching suggestion for the quarterback.
“People just finger-pointing hoping they don’t get exposed,” said one assistant.
Days before Thanksgiving, with the team spiraling and Young getting pummeled, Tepper told Reich to fix the rookie’s footwork. Fitterer and others had told Tepper that Young’s feet were the cause of some of the Panthers’ protection issues. They believed Young wasn’t dropping back deep enough on his pass sets.
Tepper has been criticized for micromanaging and getting hands-on with football decisions. Prior to the 2019 season, he persuaded then-head coach Ron Rivera to switch to a 3-4 defense — which Tepper was familiar with as a former Pittsburgh Steelers minority partner — and drove the team’s interest in Deshaun Watson before the quarterback was traded to Cleveland in 2022.
Tepper’s instruction about Young’s footwork came after weekly conversations between Tepper and Reich on Young’s development and early struggles.
League sources said Tepper struggled with the decision to fire Reich. But the combination of Young’s difficulty understanding Reich’s offense, specifically the reads, timing and ball placement, as well as Young’s lack of protection, convinced the owner the organization wasn’t helping its quarterback, but ruining him.
Reich’s firing came 10 months after he was named the first offensive-minded head coach in Panthers history. At Reich’s introductory news conference, Tepper boasted of Reich’s ability to build a top-10 staff that “should be an absolute standard.” With Tepper supplying the capital, Reich assembled one of the NFL’s largest staffs, stocked with a pair of former head coaches (Dom Capers and Jim Caldwell), two ascending coordinators (Thomas Brown and Ejiro Evero) and several other well-known assistants.
Tepper also encouraged Reich to go outside of his “circle” with some of the hires. As such, many of the offensive coaches had never worked together and brought different philosophies to an offense that would be led by a rookie quarterback from Week 1. Besides the disagreements in scheme, there were personality conflicts and factions formed on a staff that included two main holdovers from Rhule’s staff — offensive line coach James Campen and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, both of whom were retained at Tepper’s urging.
After Tepper named Tabor interim coach last week, one of Tabor’s first moves was to fire quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and running backs coach Duce Staley, who was on Philadelphia’s staff with Reich in 2017 when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Staley was still with the Eagles two years later when McCown played for the team.
The 44-year-old McCown logged 17 seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback. McCown twice interviewed for the Houston Texans’ head-coaching vacancy, but his Panthers’ role was his first NFL coaching job.
Some in Carolina thought Reich and McCown weren’t tough enough on Young as the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama got off to a bumpy start.
Reich, Fitterer and the offensive coaches decided the priority before Young’s first season was preparing him to call plays in the huddle for the first time and giving him time to absorb a playbook that blended Reich’s system with wide zone concepts Brown bought from the Los Angeles Rams. Any tweaks or changes the Panthers wanted to make to Young’s mechanics would wait until the offseason.
But Young has been taking a beating. He’s been sacked 44 times and is on pace to finish with 64, which would be the fourth-highest total in NFL history. Some in the organization believed inconsistent depth on his dropbacks was at least part of the issue for the 5-foot-10 quarterback.
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After Tepper delivered the message to do something about it, McCown began working with Young on his footwork before the Panthers’ Week 12 game at Tennessee — three months into the season. Veteran backup quarterback Andy Dalton said Young’s dropbacks were among the teaching points during the Panthers’ Thanksgiving week practices.
“Footwork’s a part of playing this game. And it’s not changing his footwork,” Dalton said. “I think it’s just an emphasis on just keeping it consistent. I went through it, too. On certain throws, you want your footwork to look similar and all that kind of stuff. So I think it’s just more of an emphasis on that.”
One source said he didn’t notice much change in Young’s dropbacks against the Titans, who had four sacks and six hits on Young in a 17-10 loss that dropped the Panthers to a league-worst 1-10. As he left the visitors locker room in Nashville, a visibly irritated Tepper shook his head and yelled, “F—!”
Reich was gone by the next morning, fired after the NFL’s shortest head-coaching stint since 1978 — and for the second time in as many seasons. Reich went 40-33-1 in five seasons in Indianapolis before being let go in November 2022.
Reich, who turned 62 on Monday, would often use the phrase “diversity of thought” when describing his staff. But trying to incorporate Brown’s ideas into his system — featuring shotgun sets and a horizontal-stretch pass game — proved to be clunky.
“It’s just not a good offense,” one staffer said. “You didn’t see Indy’s offense when they (were second in) the league in rushing (in 2021). You didn’t see Philly when he was there or when he was with the Chargers and those dynamic offenses. You didn’t see any of that.”
But many in league circles — including talent evaluators with other teams — question whether Fitterer surrounded Young with enough playmakers after the GM sent No. 1 receiver DJ Moore to Chicago as part of the deal for the first pick. The Panthers are 13-33 since Fitterer arrived in 2021, a .283 winning percentage that is tied with the Bears for the worst mark over that span. Fitterer has been given no assurances about his future in Charlotte, according to a league source.
With the Panthers 0-6 at the bye, Reich turned play calling over to the 37-year-old Brown, who coached running backs and tight ends with the Rams but had never called plays. After the Panthers beat Houston 15-13 in the first game after the change, Reich gave Brown a game ball and later got choked up talking about the moment.
But the Houston win was followed by losses to Indianapolis and Chicago, both of which had losing records and were missing their starting quarterbacks. The Panthers managed just 13 points in both losses and failed to score an offensive touchdown against the Bears.
The heat was turning up on Reich, with The Athletic reporting after the game against the Bears that ownership needed to see more progress on offense. Reich was getting the message as well: On the Monday following the Week 10 loss at Chicago, Reich announced he would be calling plays again.
Reich’s reversal further divided the offensive staff, with one assistant saying, “That was shocking.”
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After seeing Young play well in hurry-up mode at the end of a couple of lopsided losses early in the season, Reich wanted to use more no-huddle offense and thought he was better equipped than Brown to run it. In Reich’s first game back as play caller, a 33-10 loss to Dallas, the Panthers finished with a season-low 187 yards and Young was sacked seven times. In fairness, the Cowboys are top five in the league in yards and points allowed and rank seventh in sacks.
The wounds from Reich’s reversal on play calling haven’t healed yet. When asked last week about Reich’s impact on him, Brown called it a “loaded question” before adding he was fortunate for the opportunity Reich gave him.
The Panthers’ defensive assistants, nearly all of whom had worked with Evero previously, have been more aligned, according to sources.
But that has not been the case on the offensive side. At one point, several coaches wanted to bench Young in favor of Dalton, who had the Panthers’ only 300-yard passing game when Young missed the Week 3 game at Seattle with an ankle injury. But those conversations never reached Reich, Fitterer or ownership, according to high-ranking team sources.
Other coaches felt they couldn’t voice their opinions without being viewed as malcontents.
Several sources said Reich would call out Young for mistakes during team-wide film reviews — as he did other players — early in the season but backed off in recent weeks, with Young’s confidence in mind.
“You can coach a player hard,” said one staffer, “without killing his spirit.”
But one player said it wasn’t Reich’s nature or coaching style to be overly critical of any player or position group.
There also have been issues with scheme fits.
Brown’s background is with the Rams’ mid-zone and wide-zone runs, which weren’t a great match for some of the Panthers’ offensive linemen. Right guard Austin Corbett ran the scheme during three seasons in L.A., including the Rams’ Super Bowl season of 2021. But Corbett missed the first six games this year while recovering from ACL surgery, then injured his MCL in the same knee against Dallas in Week 11 and was lost for the season.
Center Bradley Bozeman conceded his more bruising skill set wasn’t ideal for the wide zone, best suited for quicker linemen who can occupy defensive linemen early in the play and then get to the second level.
“Running downhill is what I love to do,” Bozeman said. “That’s what I’ve made my money on. Unfortunately, we didn’t have many opportunities to do that.”
Reich experimented in training camp with putting Young under center, which Young did infrequently in college. Some concepts that might have helped negate an opponent’s pass rush, including play-action passes, are more effective when the quarterback is under center. But when the season started, Reich — Jim Kelly’s backup in the Bills’ K-Gun offenses during the 1990s — had Young lined up in pistol and shotgun sets almost exclusively.
With Brown back calling plays Sunday in a 21-18 loss at Tampa Bay, Young was under center for seven of the Panthers’ 13 first-quarter plays. But the familiar issues soon resurfaced; Young was sacked four times and threw an interception on his final pass to end any comeback hopes.
Reich’s efforts to boost Young’s confidence — some players viewed as overprotectiveness — continued through what turned out to be Reich’s final offensive play with the Panthers at Tennessee. Trailing by 7 and facing a fourth-and-6 at the two-minute warning, Young saw the Titans line up in what he believed to be Cover 0 — man coverage with no deep defender — and checked to a wide receiver screen to DJ Chark.
Chark caught the ball four yards behind the line of scrimmage and was tackled for no gain by safety Amani Hooker, allowing the Titans to reclaim possession and run out the clock. After the game, Reich said it was the right check by Young and that Chark might have gotten too far behind the line of scrimmage. A clearly agitated Chark insisted the Titans were not in Cover 0 and the Panthers should have stuck with the original play call.
A former NFL head coach agreed, saying the Titans fooled Young into thinking they were in Cover 0 before dropping their backside safety to the post area.
That the postgame spotlight fell on one of the receivers was not a new development. The group’s difficulties getting open has been a season-long narrative.
“I don’t think we got the brunt of coaches’ criticism. But I do feel like we do get a lot of the blame when it comes to the success of the offense,” Chark said last week. “Obviously, when you talk about offense, the first thing that we say (is), ‘You’ve gotta give Bryce weapons,’ and things like that.”
The offensive problems have persisted all season: The Panthers are averaging 15.9 points a game and haven’t topped the 20-point barrier since a 42-21 loss at Miami on Oct. 15.
Bozeman isn’t sure whether the problems stem from scheme or personnel. “The fact of it is we didn’t really score many points this season,” he said. “We never could execute and get it to that point.”
The Panthers need someone who can get Young untracked and playing closer to the level of Texans rookie C.J. Stroud, Young’s friend and former AAU basketball rival in southern California. Tepper again is expected to focus his search on coaches with offensive backgrounds, with Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson — who canceled his interview with the Panthers last year — viewed as a top target.
Johnson is a native of Asheville, N.C., who played at North Carolina. But it might not be easy to lure him to Charlotte: Some in the Panthers’ organization, according to a league source, have been texting Johnson about how complicated it’s been to work in Carolina this season.
While Tepper prepares to start another coaching search and Reich, Staley and McCown contemplate their next moves, the players and remaining coaches will try to avoid becoming the first 1-16 team since the NFL adopted a 17-game schedule.
“I can honestly say I don’t think (Reich) was the sole problem and everything is fixed now,” Chark said. “We’ve still got a lot of stuff we have to fix.”
(Top photo of Bryce Young and Frank Reich: Wade Payne / AP Photo)
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