MOBILE, Ala. — Frank Reich inherited a big job in Charlotte. The Carolina Panthers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2017, and their top-heavy roster has already them over the 2023 salary cap.
The defense was good in 2022. The offense was the opposite of good — in large part because of one of the league’s worst quarterback situations.
But fixing the roster shouldn’t be Reich’s most pressing concern as he settles into the job. There’s an issue even more fundamental that should be his first order of business: Winning over a skeptical locker room.
Carolina Panthers’ Frank Reich Has Long To-Do List
Put simply, there are players who privately think that David Tepper hired the wrong candidate. There’s a faction within the building that was rooting for interim coach Steve Wilks to get the job, and they were disappointed he did not.
Wilks went 6-6 after taking over for a fired Matt Rhule in October, and even had the Panthers in the playoff hunt late in the season. The product was much improved with Wilks in charge, a reflection that he knew the right buttons to push.
The Panthers had talent, particularly on defense. Rhule could not maximize it. Wilks could.
And so, as the season neared its conclusion, some of the team’s biggest names began lobbying Tepper through the media to give Wilks the job on a permanent basis.
“We ride behind Wilks,” linebacker Shaq Thompson told the team’s website in December. “He came in here, he’s a true alpha, he’s a true leader, and guys follow behind him. He’s done amazing. Look what we’ve been going through.”
Thompson’s argument was compelling. But it wasn’t enough for Tepper, who last week decided to hire Reich just months after he had been fired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
The decision was panned by many who saw Wilks as just the latest qualified Black candidate to get passed over for a head coaching position. Wilks is part of a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the NFL, and his attorneys last week were quick to condemn the Reich hire.
“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into Playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the Head Coach position by David Tepper,” attorneys Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis said in a statement.
“There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
Tepper on Tuesday defended his franchise’s record on diversity and inclusion.
“We have probably the most diverse executive team in the NFL right now,” Tepper said. “We are probably a minority of white men on our executive team right now. That’s where it starts. That’s America.
“How do you break that old boys’ network? How do you break that process? You break the process by trying to get the best people possible in every role you can do. Whether it’s the new [general counsel] we hired, who happens to be an African American woman. Whether it happens to be Frank Reich, who is a Caucasian male.”
Meanwhile, the locker room that had rooted for Wilks to get the job took to Twitter to support him after the job went to Reich.
“Nothing but absolute love for this man! Can’t wait to see what his future holds,” punter Johnny Hekker wrote.
Added linebacker Frankie Luvu: “Thank you for all you done coach! All the best to you and the family! Much alofas.”
Alofas is a Polynesian word for love.
Carolina Panthers’ Quarterback Problem
Perhaps in time, the locker room will come to love Reich as well. But it’ll take some work.
Reich suggested at his introductory news conference Tuesday that he’s already begun that work.
“I’ve just started to reach out via text to make sure they all had my number,” Reich said. “That when I call and try to connect. Obviously, it’s been two days. Like I said, that will be the highlight to get with these guys one on one. To get with these guys together.”
When the team gathers for offseason conditioning in a couple of months, the quarterback room will surely look far different than it did when the season ended nearly four weeks ago.
Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker are both free agents. The only two Panthers QBs currently under contract in 2023 are Matt Corral and Jacob Eason — who have thrown 10 career NFL passes, combined.
MORE: Which Quarterback Is Best for Panthers Head Coach Frank Reich To Build Around?
Tepper might be tempted to bring in a veteran who can take a solid roster and turn them into a playoff team. But Reich surely doesn’t want to go down that road again. His decision to roll the dice with Carson Wentz in 2021 and Matt Ryan in 2022 probably got him fired by Jim Irsay.
But the draft is no easy task either. Wilks might have won too many games for the Panthers to have a shot at one of the top three quarterbacks without a trade up.
The Panthers pick ninth. Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Will Levis all could go in the Top 5. The Cardinals at 3 and the Seahawks at 5 are the most logical trade partners.
It seems unlikely the Bears would want to move the whole way from 1 to 9. Doing so would almost certainly cost them the opportunity of drafting Georgia’s Jalen Carter or Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr., the top two players on PFN’s Big Board.
“You’ve got to have stability at quarterback,” Reich said Tuesday. “You want to have stability at quarterback. The good thing that I’ve learned in my past experience here and the past experiences in the few years is we’ve learned how to adapt to different styles of quarterbacks, but that’s not the ideal situation.
“We, Mr. Tepper, Scott [Fitterer], myself have to commit to, what’s our blueprint? How are we going to maintain stability at quarterback? Make a plan and then execute that plan.”