Frank Reich steps into top spot with Panthers

The team welcomes its first-ever coach with an offensive background

Panthers head coach Frank Reich answers a question during Tuesday’s news conference in Charlotte introducing him as the team's new head coach. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers introduced Frank Reich as their head coach on Tuesday, putting the team under the control of a coach with an offensive background for the first time in franchise history.

Reich, a former quarterback himself who took the first snaps at the position in Panthers history, will take over a team that has been unsettled at the position in recent years. It’s a situation he’s very familiar with.

Since the start of the 2018 season when Reich took over as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, the average NFL team has had 5.3 different quarterbacks start a game. Many only started one, filling in for an injured starter, but still, on average, teams in the league go through a little more than one new starter a year.

Obviously, some teams with well-entrenched starters have been more stable. The Packers, Vikings, Seahawks and Raiders have each had only two quarterbacks start games over that span. The Bucs, Chiefs and Chargers have had three.

At the other extreme, four teams have had eight or more starting quarterbacks. That list includes both Reich’s new team and his old one. Ironically, the places where the Panthers’ last two coaches went after leaving Carolina are the other two teams — the Broncos (nine quarterbacks) and Ron Rivera’s Washington Commanders (12).

Reich had plenty of big names quarterback for him in Indy, including three likely Hall of Famers in Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan. Two were in the final years of their careers, however, with the jury still out on Ryan, who went 3-5-1 for Reich this past season before the coach was fired midyear. Reich went 10-6 with Luck and 11-5 with Rivers, the two years that Reich led the team to the playoffs.

Reich has also relied on Jacoby Brissett and Carson Wentz to start games for him, going 7-9 and 9-8 with the two, respectively.

Now the new coach, a quarterback who spent most of his career as a backup, will try to cobble together Carolina’s unsettled situation at the most important spot on offense.

“When you have a head coach that’s (got a background in) offense, that’s played the position, he knows what looking through that lens of quarterback looks like,” said Panthers GM Scott Fitterer.

Fitterer has previously brought in Teddy Bridgewater, Baker Mayfield and a returning Cam Newton, all since departed, as well as holdover Sam Darnold in unsuccessful bids to solve the team’s quarterback quandary.

“He knows how to call a game through that eye,” Fitterer continued. “There are a lot of advantages to having an offensive head coach. That’s not the sole reason he was hired, but he has a quarterback background — calling plays, understanding the position. We didn’t hire the guy based on just picking a quarterback. He was hired based on getting the organization to a championship level.”

In Reich’s introduction, however, he didn’t sound much like a quarterback as he discussed the keys to a successful team.

“Our defense has been a real strong suit,” he said of the Panthers team he inherits. “But we’re always looking to get better. A top-10 defense gives you a chance in every game, but a top-five defense can elevate you as a team. Not only are you in every game, but you can find a way to win every game. The league is offensively driven in many ways, but the secret sauce is on defense.”

While looking to improve the defense, Reich will also lean on the Panthers’ running game. Back D’Onta Foreman, who starred for the team following the midseason trade of Christian McCaffrey, was one of the only current Panthers players Reich mentioned by name in his first press conference.

“We want our offense to get downhill vertically,” he said. “It’s a passing league, but you have to run the ball to be a championship team. We want to be effective running the ball and efficient running the ball.

“I’m excited about the roster because I know we can do that. We’ll get the passing game right, but we’re going to run the football. Offense is about trying to create conflict in the defense, to plant a seed of doubt in the defender’s mind, and you do that with play action, RPOs and that all relies on the run game.”

Reich’s stated philosophy seems to track with his approach in Indianapolis. The Colts had a top-10 defense in points allowed in three of his five seasons but was never higher than No. 9. With Luck at quarterback in his first year, the Colts were in the top 10 in passing yards (sixth), touchdowns (second) and yards per pass (ninth) but finished in the top 10 in any of the three categories just once over the next four years. The run game, meanwhile, improved from No. 20 in yards to No. 2 by his fourth year and No. 16 in touchdowns to sixth and fifth in years three and four, respectively, as the team added star running back Jonathan Taylor.

Taylor battled injury this past season, which Reich indicated led to his downfall.

“In four years, we established that we were running the ball, like we’re going to do here,” Reich said. “This year, the run game disappeared. We didn’t get the ball vertically down the field because of that.”

The difference between the playoffs and being fired can be an injury at a key position, which also fits with Reich’s outlook as he takes over the Panthers.

“This is the NFL,” he said. “The difference between winning and losing is really small. Every year, you see it. You see teams going from big-time losing to big-time winning in the space of one year. It’s possible. The difference is in the margins. In the details. One player, one play, one detail at a time.”

An unsettled quarterback picture, combined with a solid defense and run game, gives Reich plenty of details to focus on.