Could the Panthers have salvaged their season?

As the team looks for another wholesale change, we look back at what might have been

Panthers owner David Tepper, right, moved on from general manager Scott Fitterer, left, leaving Carolina to hire both a new GM and coach this offseason. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP Photo)

Did it have to be this way?

The Carolina Panthers made it a clean sweep on Black Monday, firing GM Scott Fitterer.

“As we move forward with the new direction for our franchise, I have made the decision that Scott Fitterer will no longer serve as our general manager,” owner David Tepper said in a statement. “I appreciate Scott’s efforts and wish the best for him and his family.”

The move came a month and a half after coach Frank Reich was fired and a day after the Panthers finished a 2-15 season.

Tepper and the team will now start over. For the first time since 2002, Carolina will hire both a GM and coach in the same offseason. The last time didn’t work out so badly. The Panthers hired Marty Hurney as GM and John Fox as coach back then. The following year, Carolina improved from 1-15 to 7-9. A year after that, the Panthers were 11-5, and the following year, they made it to the Super Bowl.

The team will try to get another quick jump to contention as the Panthers find replacements for Fitterer and Reich. The team already has one piece in place with quarterback Bryce Young, the top pick in last year’s draft. The team gave up this year’s pick, which would have been first overall, to take Young, and opinions are still mixed on whether he will be the long-term answer or it was another missed opportunity in Tepper’s quest to build a contender.

While we’ll have the entire offseason of moves to look forward, as we put a wrap on the 2023 Panthers season, we’ll take a look back at a frustrating year for the team and its fan base. Were the Panthers doomed to a 2-15 year or could the season have been salvaged, along with the Carolina tenures of Reich and Fitterer, and perhaps Young and Tepper?

Here’s a look at what could have been different for the Panthers, and what a difference it could have made.

Fork in the Road 1: Your new head coach

After parting ways with Matt Rhule at midseason in 2022, David Tepper wanted an offensive guy to help mold the quarterback he hoped to pick early in the draft. So despite interim coach Steve Wilks winning the locker room, showing stability and leadership on the sideline, and fitting well in the job as the permanent choice, Tepper bypassed him to hire Reich. None of the affected parties will be playing in the first weekend of the playoffs — Reich because he didn’t last the season, Tepper and the Panthers because they fell far short of the postseason, and Wilks because the 49ers, who hired him to run the defense, got a bye as the top seed in the playoffs. The first move in the alternative history is to give Wilks the job and find a hot offensive coordinator to mold the quarterback.

Fork in the Road 2: Stay the course on draft day

An easy narrative would be to choose CJ Stroud, the likely 2023 rookie of the year, instead of Young with the top pick, but it’s not yet time to cut bait on the Panthers’ choice. Young stepped into an impossible situation, with playcalling chaos on the coaching staff and a line that couldn’t protect him. So while we continue on the same path at this fork, we fix that issue with…

Fork in the Road 3: Your opening day starters

Young starts the season on the bench, with veteran Andy Dalton starting against the Falcons on opening day. Young will get a series or two in the second quarter, as he gets the opportunity to slowly come up to speed without running for his life. This more relaxed development would have him ready to make his first start after the bye when the schedule gets lighter with home games against Houston and Indianapolis and a trip to Chicago. The Panthers won the Houston game on our current timeline, and Young would have had a better start to his NFL career had the ramp been moved to increase his odds of success. Instead, the then 0-6 team used the bye week to change play-callers for the first of several times, further eroding Young’s ability to develop.

Would the key moves have created a contender? Probably not. The line was still a problem, and the Panthers needed more skill position players. Of course, with a solid defense and a weak division, Carolina would have been able to stay in contention into the final weeks instead of playing spoiler for a month.

Perhaps it all would have blown up in the alternative timeline as well, and post-mortems would be talking about how the team should have brought in an offensive mind like Reich to help mold the new quarterback.

When we’re starting over again in the present, however, it’s always fun to look back at how the past could have been different.