Unlike the Matt Rhule firing nearly 14 months ago, there was no expansive news conference from team owner David Tepper that sought to reset the on-field footing of the Carolina Panthers. Instead, it was just an irritated and seemingly defensive NFL franchise owner explaining his third massive course correction in four years.
Head coach Frank Reich is out. The football answer key for the Panthers remains elusive. And what once seemed like a simple math problem for a self-made billionaire now feels like solving calculus in the dark — with a breadstick as a pencil.
To be fair, Tepper’s news conference on Tuesday probably wasn’t the best time for a “trust me” sales pitch. For a fan base that has heard a litany of promises before — but experienced only seven winning seasons in 29 years — there is little he could have said after the firing of Reich that would have resolved the acute frustration that has accrued over the past five years. When a franchise touches its lowest point, it’s hard to hear in that same moment that it will get better. NFL history, however, has shown us there is a way to salvage something like this. It can be done.
But first let's recognize that Tuesday was about taking some level of responsibility. Tepper tried to do that, albeit in a very brief, very vague and occasionally very defensive manner. So much so, he eliminated any detailed explanation of why he fired Reich before opening for questions.
“I’m not going to get into the individual sort of things,” Tepper said. “You guys can just speculate as to that.”
That challenge has been accepted. Most of it relating to who made the call on quarterback Bryce Young being selected with the No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick. On that point, I can say this: Multiple sources with direct knowledge of Carolina’s draft meetings have said the three key decision makers — Reich, Tepper and general manager Scott Fitterer — all had Young as their top pick. That aligns with how most draft boards were stacked across the league last April. Regardless of how Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud has performed, or how Young has struggled, history can’t be rewritten by excluding a shared assessment across the league.
So there’s that. Of course, there are also some more widely varied vantages of how things were running around Young. What led to Reich’s firing wasn’t a single clean fracture in the organization, leaving us to stare at one or two uncomplicated problems. This was a wine glass shattering in the middle of a kitchen. There are a lot of shards, some big, some small, and many likely to be discovered for months.
Why did Frank Reich's coaching regime fail Bryce Young?
Without delving into every person’s version of events, what’s clear is that first and foremost, there was an immense amount of energy thrown at getting Young acclimated in Reich’s scheme and then trying to kickstart his progress repeatedly in the face of failure. For the most part, it wasn’t working. The reasons why are a soup of explanations. There are some complaints about lack of creativity in Reich’s scheme and who should or shouldn’t have been calling plays. There are fingers pointed at the vast number of injuries on the offensive line. There are admissions that, yes, the skill positions are nowhere near where they need to be and there is a problematic shortage of draft capital — something that is expected to be navigated with Carolina’s solid salary-cap space in the next two offseasons.
Beyond all of those issues, it’s clear that the coaching staff was not humming along like a fine-tuned unit. There was some element of disagreement inside the coaching staff. The word “infighting” has been used as a descriptor. In terms of placing blame, there is certainly a line being drawn to Tepper wanting Reich to field a staff with significant experience, which led to multiple coaches with different styles, strengths and ideologies being plucked from different places and spackled into one unit. Not to mention two holdovers from the previous staff whom Tepper favored being retained by Reich: special teams coach Chris Tabor and offensive line coach James Campen. With Reich’s dismissal, Tabor has now elevated to the position of interim coach.
The problem with a staff like this, as one source described it to Yahoo Sports, is that many of the coaches had never worked with each other. They’d come from different cultures or schemes, with skills that didn’t always fit together well. And the result is that a staff is forced to expend energy learning each other, earning trust in each other and then melding together, which is particularly challenging in the midst of immense losing that invites disagreement. Especially when the disagreements are about how to carry out detailed planning, play-calling, game management and other aspects that even familiar and well-oiled coaching staffs struggle to excel at.
Now add all of that to a roster that had 18 players on injured reserve at one point. Or a starting offensive line that has gotten down to its sixth different guard this season. Or a skill position group that is at least one offseason away from adding reinforcements. And once you get beyond all of that, look up into the ownership box, where Tepper is wearing his frustration on his sleeve to the point of dropping frustrated f-bombs in front of the media after a loss.
Why didn’t it work? Maybe the better question is why would it ever be expected to work once things started breaking down? And more to the point, what has Tepper learned about setting an expectation for the types of assistant coaches he wants his head coach to hire? With this particular staff, was that a positive outcome? Or is there something to be learned with the next head coach about trusting the new hire to build a staff the same way many successful staffs have been built for decades?
All of this turns back to that shattered wine glass. This all turned into another mess because of a multitude of reasons. But someone dropped the glass. Tepper says the responsibility lies with him. When he says it, gladly agree with him and ask what he's learned not to do. Because if this whole situation is "evolving" as he said Tuesday, there needs to be some kind of evidence that it will crawl upward, not just morph from one iteration of failure to another.
A turnaround can happen — if David Tepper picks the right coach this time
The bright side for Tepper is that we’ve seen this kind of quagmire before. There was a time when San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York was panned as being in over his head and ranking among the worst members of NFL ownership hierarchies. It wasn’t that long ago when York’s 49ers fielded four different full-time head coaches — not interims — in a span of just over three years. And on top of that, two different general managers in the same span. What changed is that York found the right coach from the right football lineage and turned over the entire set of keys to him. This after years of inserting himself into the middle of power struggles and infighting between general manager Trent Baalke and (pick a head coach) Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly.
What York ultimately learned in that experience is that at some point, you need to hire someone with a proven football foundation and then trust them to run an operation the way they see fit. And in that effort, he paired Shanahan with a very controversial general manager hire, John Lynch — a former player who was working in television and had no background in personnel — because he felt Lynch was capable of evaluating players and helping Shanahan build the roster and coaching staff exactly the way he wanted it.
That is very much how head coach Doug Pederson ended up with the Jacksonville Jaguars, jump-starting the career of Trevor Lawrence after the Urban Meyer debacle. Despite winning a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pederson ran into disagreements with ownership about decisions inside his coaching staff. When he refused to make changes that ownership deemed necessary, the two sides parted company. After a one-year hiatus, he ended up in Jacksonville, molding a staff as he saw fit, making the changes that he believed were most necessary to turning Lawrence into the right direction.
Reich might not have been the correct coach to do that with Young in Carolina. It’s almost certain that the ownership-inspired imagining of his coaching staff wasn’t something that should be put on the positive side of the ledger at this point. And Tepper might have been right to recognize all of this and once again pull the plug on something that he knew wasn’t working.
But Tepper has to come to the realization at some point that the math seems to be getting only more difficult when it comes to solving what is wrong with the football side of the Panthers. And that math features a common denominator. It’s him.
Even in the dark — and it’s as dark as it can get for the Panthers — that answer is readily available. Tepper just needs to accept it and move on to the next problem.