The Carolina Panthers were the first team of 2022 to fire their head coach, now they’re the first to hire a replacement. Frank Reich was announced as the team’s new head coach on Thursday, representing the most boring, least imaginative hire possible. Now he’ll be tasked with an offensive rebuild, which presumably begins by finding a franchise quarterback in the draft.
Reich is fine. The hiring is fine. If you’re looking for some stability and a .500 record, then a guy like Frank Reich is the man for the job. Any expectation that he has the ability to take a team to the next level, or push them deep into contention for any kind of championship is a fool’s errand.
There’s some merit to the idea that stability in Carolina was needed after the horrific Matt Rhule experiment, but the hiring process that led to Reich becoming head coach reeked of confirmation bias. The Panthers interviewed nine potential head coaches, seven of whom came from offensive backgrounds compared to just two with defensive experience. Owner David Tepper clearly had a preference for an offensive minded head coach, and whittled down his choices from there — rather than taking a holistic approach to the search.
In the end the decision came down to Reich and Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
From our breaking news segment on @nflnetwork: The #Panthers’ final interview with #Cowboys OC Kellen Moore gave them a lot to think about, but they went with a known commodity in Frank Reich, who now gets to mold a franchise QB — whoever that ends up being. pic.twitter.com/PYBC0ZipuZ— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 26, 2023
Unfortunately, and unfairly, this meant that interim head coach Steve Wilks never really had a shot of being hired — despite reports to the contrary. Carolina locked in on an offensive head coach before the search began, and Wilks’ success was an annoyance they had to work around for as long as possible. It should be made abundantly clear that Panthers players overwhelmingly advocated for Wilks to return, but their preference was ignored.
Wilks took over following a horrific 1-4 start by Matt Rhule and was given one of the worst rosters in the NFL to work with. The cards were further stacked against him ahead of the trade deadline, when the team traded away its best offensive player in Christian McCaffrey, and parted ways with their No. 2 receiver Robbie Anderson.
What followed was one of the most remarkable coaching efforts in the NFL. Wilks took his hobbled roster and led the team to a 6-6 record on the back of a strong defense, pushing for a playoff spot all the way to the final game of the season when the team lost to the Buccaneers by six points. With a real quarterback, and time to build an offensive staff of his choosing there’s no telling how far Wilks could have taken the Panthers — now we’ll never know.
Meanwhile, we do know what Reich is capable of as a head coach: Occasional playoff appearances and middling results. While it’s certainly true the Colts had massive QB instability during his time, the team also never did anything remarkable outside of one feel-good playoff push with an aging Philip Rivers. The Panthers longstanding motto has been a desire for “sustained success,” which precipitated firing Ron Rivera and installing Matt Rhule. Now the Panthers have reverted into hiring a coach who made the playoffs twice in five seasons while in Indianapolis.
The saving grace for Panthers fans is a Hail Mary that a high draft pick and ample capital will allow the team to get “their guy,” with the current presumption being that Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud is the player the front office wants. That should be a possibility, with the current belief being that Bryce Young and Will Levis will be selected as the first two quarterbacks in 2023, but this is very early in the process.
Carolina’s new normal isn’t proof of success or input from football minds, it’s the whim of the man at the top. To this end David Tepper isn’t so different from Colts owner Jim Irsay, who is hurtling towards re-hiring his golf buddy Jeff Saturday to continue running his franchise into the ground.
There should be no expectation from Panthers fans that hiring Reich will have an impact on Carolina like Andy Reid did on the Chiefs, or more recently Doug Pederson in Jacksonville. Any assertion that he has that kind of talent as a coach is a blind gamble. That said, Reich should be able to clear the extremely low bar that Matt Rhule couldn’t: Not lighting the franchise on fire and throwing everyone in his orbit under the bus. That’s improvement.
When the dust settles, feel how you want to feel. Every coaching hire is about confirming biases and then doing mental contortions to justify a move. Personally, I just thought this was time a time Carolina had a really great coach under their nose, and someone who deserved a real opportunity not to get tossed aside like he was in Arizona when ownership saw a shiny new toy in Kliff Kingbury and chased it like a stoned teenager.
Frank Reich will be fine. He’s the coaching equivalent of having breakfast for dinner. The job is functionally filled with the least amount of possible effort, and when time creates distance nobody is going to remember this era of Panthers football.