Frank Reich starts to build Panthers’ staff

Ex-coach Matt Rhule filed a suit against the team as his replacement got to work

Ejiro Evero, pictured when last season with the Broncos, was hired to be the Panthers’ defensive coordinator under new coach Frank Reich. (Steve Luciano / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers introduced Frank Reich as their new head coach last Tuesday. Deciding who would fill that position didn’t mean that the coaching drama was over for the team, however.

Matt Rhule, who was the reason for the head coaching vacancy in the first place, stepped back on stage last Wednesday. Rhule coached the Panthers from 2020 through Week 5 of this past season before he was fired with the team at 1-4 and fan apathy obvious at home games. Three years into a seven-year, $62 million contract with the Panthers, Rhule was let go with about $34 million left on his deal. He later was hired to coach the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

At Reich’s introductory press conference, Carolina owner David Tepper admitted that he made a “mistake” with Rhule, his first major hire since buying the team.

“Listen, I’ll self-admit — we could have run a better process last time,” Tepper said. “And I am learning. … With all humility, I could have done better, OK? I’m not saying that Rhule wasn’t a good coach. I’m not saying that. Please don’t interpret it that way. I’m saying I could have run a better process last time. I do believe that.”

Perhaps Rhule took offense to the comments or maybe it was just coincidence, but the following day he filed a lawsuit against the team seeking $5 million in offset severance compensation. Neither Rhule nor the team commented on the situation.

Rhule’s early-season firing led to Steve Wilks, who started the season as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, taking over as interim coach. Wilks was a candidate for the permanent job and was one of two finalists, along with Reich. Wilks was hired by the 49ers to be their defensive coordinator, according to reports on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Reich has begun assembling his staff of assistants and has already made several hires. Among his first moves was retaining the team’s special teams coach, Chris Tabor. In his first year with the team, Tabor improved Carolina’s special teams from 28th in the league to fourth. Reich also retained offensive line coach James Campen, who joined the team last season as well. The line, a perennial problem for the Panthers, also improved last season, particularly in the running game, which Reich said will be a priority going forward.

Reich brought in former Eagles running back Duce Staley, who served as Philadelphia’s running backs coach while Reich was offensive coordinator for the Eagles. Staley left a similar position with the Lions to join the Panthers, although his role has not yet been announced with Carolina. It’s possible he is a candidate to serve as Reich’s offensive coordinator. Reich has already gotten permission from the Jaguars to interview quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter for that role, however. Cooter worked with Trevor Lawrence this past season and has also worked with Reich in Indianapolis.

Currently, there are no reports of Reich seeking any other candidates for the coordinator role, although there may be some candidates on the Eagles’ staff who will enter the fray following the Super Bowl. In the meantime, Staley is under contract and waiting for his ultimate role to be determined. One of the running backs he coached last year, Jamaal Williams, led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns and will be a free agent this offseason.

The big splash came on the other side of the ball, however, when Reich hired Ejiro Evero as defensive coordinator. Evero has worked for the Bucs, 49ers, Packers and Rams as an assistant, winning a Super Bowl as Rams secondary coach and passing game coordinator last season when his unit contributed 19 interceptions. This year, he was defensive coordinator of the Broncos and, despite a disappointing win-loss record, the defense was one of the best in the NFL, finishing in the top 10 in total defense and rushing defense.

Evero interviewed for the Panthers’ head coaching job this offseason. He has worked with Dom Capers — the first head coach in Panthers history — and Vic Fangio, the team’s first defensive coordinator.

The Panthers’ defense performed well last season, but Reich said in his introductory press conference that he was looking for it to take another step.

“Our defense has been a real strong suit,” he said. “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.”

It appears that Evero will be changing the scheme, as he used a 3-4 defensive front at Denver (three linemen and four linebackers) instead of the 4-3 the Panthers have used in recent years. That likely means that Brian Burns, a defensive end for much of his career, will instead be an edge-rushing linebacker in Evero’s scheme.

There’s still plenty of work to be done, but with two of the Panthers’ head coaching candidates now in Carolina working together, the team appears to be putting pieces into place quickly.