CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The moment another Carolina Panthers’ season veered off the rails and crashed did not come during a game or with a head-scratching, strategic blunder but during a midweek news conference Wednesday at Bank of America Stadium.
That’s where Panthers first-year coach Frank Reich pulled the ultimate flip-flop, announcing he was resuming the offensive play-calling three games after giving it up. The move reeked of desperation from a coach trying to do what he could to save his job, and in the process tainting the job prospects of one of his top assistants.
Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown has interviewed for head-coaching positions the last two hiring cycles, and the former Georgia running back and Sean McVay disciple will undoubtedly wind up in a better place, likely somewhere far, far away from Charlotte and this rotting hulk of a season.
And let’s be clear: The offense stunk during Brown’s brief tenure overseeing it — much like it did under Reich. But Reich admitted that the Panthers’ problems are greater than one man can fix, and said he doesn’t believe the demotion will hurt Brown’s career arc.
“Anybody that knows Thomas knows he’s brilliant and that he’s a great leader, alpha male, fast on his feet. This is a three-game sample size on a team and an offense that’s been struggling,” Reich said. “Was it supposed to be magic his first time calling it in three games? So this will have little or no impact on Thomas’ long-term trajectory. He’s too good of a coach, person, the whole deal.”
So if Reich didn’t expect any magic after handing the offense to Brown after the bye week, why do it in the first place?
Reich said it was something he thought about during his second stint as a head coach, though conceded he figured it would be after a year or so. It was a big deal for Brown, who joined Eric Bieniemy and Brian Johnson as the NFL’s only Black offensive coordinators calling plays.
When the Panthers (1-8) upset the Houston Texans 15-13 in Brown’s first game calling the offense, Reich presented Brown with a game ball and gave him a big hug. Reich later became teary-eyed talking about the moment with Brown.
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Just two weeks later, Reich stood behind the same lectern and explained his decision to take over the play calling.
“This is not about Thomas. This is about me. It’s about the team,” Reich said. “I’m in the position I’m in because of years of being a successful offensive coordinator and play caller. We have eight games left and I just want to give my attention and everything I can do … to help the offense take the next step.”
The next positive step the offense takes will be its first, which is not sitting well with Panthers owner David Tepper. Things came to a head after last week’s 16-13 loss at Chicago, where the Panthers failed to score an offensive touchdown.
In the visitors locker room at Soldier Field, rookie quarterback Bryce Young voiced his frustrations with a postgame speech that included a lot of yelling, according to running back Miles Sanders.
Sanders summed up Young’s message as such: “Get our s— together.”
While Young fumed, Reich took some time over the mini-bye weekend to think about reclaiming the play calling. And when he told reporters Monday he was still thinking about things, the writing was on the wall for Brown, a big piece of the star-studded, well-compensated staff that has been trumpeted since Jim Caldwell, Dom Capers, Josh McCown, Ejiro Evero and Brown arrived.
But some in NFL circles have questioned the practicality of the all-star staff, considering that many of the assistants — including Brown — had not worked with Reich previously. Reich has tried to incorporate elements of the Rams’ offense that Brown brought from Los Angeles with his own scheme, and it has not looked like the smoothest merger.
For instance: The Panthers are using the Rams’ wide zone as part of their run package with an offensive line that showed at the end of 2022 that it is much more effective blocking downhill.
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The Panthers managed just two offensive touchdowns in three games under Brown while averaging 237.3 yards and 16.3 first downs a game. The numbers from Reich’s initial, six-game stretch: Ten offensive touchdowns, 294.7 yards and 20.7 first downs a game.
But Reich said statistics didn’t dictate the switch — nor was he given an ultimatum by Tepper. He just felt it was the best thing for an offense ranked 30th in total offense and 29th in scoring.
It could be one of the last big decisions Reich makes as the Panthers’ coach, and Brown paid the price.
“The thing that’s hard is people on the outside just always assume the worst and assume it must’ve been (Brown’s) fault. But at the end of the day it’s the players,” tight end Tommy Tremble said. “The play calls he called were perfect plays. We just gotta execute it.
“That’s the thing that sucks the most. People are gonna blame him. But we’ve gotta take accountability and be able to do what’s called and do it the right way.”
(Photo of Frank Reich: Amy Lemus / NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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