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Is It Time For Carolina Panthers To Panic About Bryce Young?

Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young
Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) is sacked by Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) in the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Young’s first season in the NFL has gone about as badly as it possibly could.

He has struggled mightily, his team is 1-12 and two of the people in charge of his development, head coach Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach Josh McCown, were abruptly fired two weeks ago.

This isn’t how Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper and general manager Scott Fitterer expected things to go last March when they traded four draft picks and the team’s best wide receiver, DJ Moore, to the Chicago Bears for the first pick in the draft and the opportunity to select Young.

They weren’t foolish enough to think the former Alabama star would lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl as a rookie. But they weren’t thinking of a 1-12 dumpster fire either.

Young was considered the top quarterback in the draft. He threw for 8,200 yards and 79 touchdowns in 27 starts for Nick Saban. Yeah, his size — he’s just 5-10 1/8 and 204 pounds — concerned some NFL teams. But the Panthers were confident he was the right guy to turn around a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season since 2017.

They thought they had hired the perfect coach to develop Young in Reich, a former NFL quarterback and a respected offensive mind. They gave him carte blanche to assemble the best coaching staff money could buy.

Reich hired Sean McVay disciple Brown as his offensive coordinator and McCown, who had spent 16 years as a player in the league, as his quarterbacks coach. Also hired another well-regarded offensive thinker, Jim Caldwell, as a senior offensive advisor.

But 13 games into the season, Reich and McCown wee gone, the Panthers are 30th in the league in scoring, and Young’s poor play has raised questions as to whether Carolina blew it when they traded up from 9 to 1 and took him over C.J. Stroud.

Young is at or near the bottom of just about every pertinent NFL passing category. He has a 58.5 completion percentage (29th), is averaging just 5.26 yards per attempt (30th) and has thrown just nine touchdown passes in 12 starts. He’s already been sacked 48 times, which is second only to Washington’s Sam Howell (58).

“There are just a lot of fundamental and technical things going on with him and that offense that are just, I don’t want to use the word unconscionable, but just shocking,’’ said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, an analyst for The 33rd Team. “In their offense, at least a third of the passes are at or behind the line of scrimmage — quick screens, bubble screens, RPOs. The ball’s out fast. Yet, he's been sacked 48 times and has one of the worst completion percentages in the league. That just shouldn’t be.

Bryce Young's passes

“His footwork is atrocious. Because they’re almost always in the (shot) gun, he hasn’t learned the three-step drop, the five-step drop, the seven-step drop. When he gets the ball from center, he just casually takes a step back and throws the ball. So, nothing is in synch as far as the timing and rhythm of the passing game. He doesn’t understand about trusting his feet because his feet are all over the place. Consequently, he misses a lot of throws, which is why his completion percentage is so low.’’

Stroud, meanwhile, is having a terrific rookie season for the Houston Texans, who took him with the second pick after the Panthers grabbed Young. The Texans, who won just three games last season, are 7-6 and in the hunt for a playoff spot.

The former Ohio State star owns the league’s best interception percentage (just five picks in 441 pass attempts) and is second in passing yards (279.3 per game), third in yards per attempt (8.2), and ninth in touchdowns (20). He’s the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year and even has been mentioned in league MVP conversation.

“Right now, if you talk to people, they’ll say that if the Panthers could go back and do it over, they should’ve taken Stroud,’’ Gannon said. “But you can’t spend a lot of time looking in the rear-view mirror. You’ve got to figure out how to fix the problem you have.

“The kid’s talented. He can be a very good quarterback in this league. You just need to figure out how to re-train him and build his confidence back up and put a better offensive line in front of him and get him some playmakers and get somebody who can coach him properly.’’

Young has thrown for more than 200 yards in just four of his 12 starts (he missed one game because of an ankle injury). In the Panthers’ last six games, he’s thrown just two touchdown passes and completed only 50.3 percent of his passes.

Takes a Licking, Keeps On Ticking

The one bright spot in Young’s rookie season is that he’s still standing. Despite all of the pre-draft concerns about his durability, he has taken a licking and kept on ticking. He has answered the bell for all but one of the Panthers’ 13 games.

Young hardly is the first rookie quarterback to struggle. Steve Young threw 11 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions in his first two seasons with Tampa Bay and is in the Hall of Fame. Peyton Manning threw a league-high 28 interceptions as a rookie. Trevor Lawrence’s rookie passer rating was just one point higher than Young’s. Matthew Stafford’s was 10 points lower.

“The most important thing for any quarterback coming into the league is where they go. Period. Period,’’ said former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz, an analyst for The 33rd Team. “When you’re the first pick in the draft, and you come into a dysfunctional atmosphere where nobody can teach you how to play the game in the NFL, it’s tough.

“Steve Young comes into the league and goes to Tampa Bay. He had the worst passer rating in the league his first year there. They trade him to San Francisco and he becomes a Hall of Fame quarterback. Troy Aikman’s struggled big-time in his first two years with the Cowboys. Then they hired Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator and he had a Hall of Fame career.

 “I think what’s happening with Bryce Young is a little bit like what happened with Trevor Lawrence his rookie year in Jacksonville. The Jags made a (coaching) change after his rookie season and he takes off. I think the same thing can happen in Carolina, assuming they bring in the right people to coach and develop him.’’

Reich seemed to be the ideal guy to develop Young. He did it in Philadelphia with Carson Wentz as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl in Wentz’s second season in 2017. Wentz was well on his way to being the league MVP that season before tearing his ACL in December.

But being the head coach is different than being the offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach. You’re the CEO, in charge of the entire team. You don’t have the same hands-on relationship with the quarterback that you do as the offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach.

“It’s unfortunate because I thought he was walking into a good situation,’’ Gannon said. “They had Frank, an ex-NFL quarterback. They had Josh McCown. But he either wasn’t being coached properly or was able to get away with some really poor fundamentals and mechanics of playing the position. He seemed to develop some really bad habits.

“I watched some of their early games and saw some things, and I’m thinking, OK, that’s going to be immediately corrected on Monday. But I don’t know if they felt, you know what, we’re not going to fool around with him now. I don’t know what their coaching philosophy was. I wasn’t in the building, so I’m not going to speculate.

“But my personal opinion is that approach didn’t help the kid. Because it never got better. It never improved. When I watched him, he was never in synch. When you watch a quarterback – the drops, the timing – it never was in synch. The rhythm and the footwork issues, you’re not trusting your feet, and then you lose your confidence.

“What happens is when a young quarterback develops bad habits, sometimes they’re hard to break. It’s like breaking a wild horse. Whoever they bring in to replace Frank, they’re going to have to start all over next year and break those bad habits. But he’s going to need some really good coaching. He’s not a developed enough player yet to be able to self-correct. Tiger Woods can go back and watch some video of his swing and self-correct it. But a young quarterback like this kid, he doesn’t know how to fix it.’’

Given the time restrictions that the league’s collective bargaining agreement puts on coaches as far as offseason contact and instruction with players, Reich was more focused on making sure Young learned the Panthers’ offense, than improving his mechanics and fundamentals and other deficiencies. Reich often was heard telling the rookie, “We’ll work on that this offseason.’’ Well, now that will be somebody else’s job.

Where is the Offensive Help?

Fitterer, who has been the Panthers’ GM since 2021, hasn’t done Young any favors. The offensive talent around the rookie isn’t very good, and the blame for that falls on the team’s personnel chief.

“It’s not like he’s surrounded by a ton of talent,’’ Gannon said. “The left tackle (2022 first-rounder Ikem Ekwonu) has played really poorly and should be playing guard. He’s not a tackle. And the interior three have not played well. They haven’t run the ball well. And their best receiver is a 33-year-old aging player (Adam Thielen) that the Vikings moved on from. The tight end position is virtually non-existent. Hayden Hurst had like 18 receptions before he got hurt (head injury in Week 10). So they’re not getting any production from that group.’’

Martz agreed.

“They need to improve the cast around him,’’ he said. “But the other part is going to be who is coaching him and how they bring him along. Right now, the kid is in survival mode. He’s just trying to survive and get through this season.’’

It’s unclear whether Tepper will again focus his attention on hiring an offensive coach. The Texans hired 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who brought Bobby Slowik with him from San Francisco as his offensive coordinator and that has worked out just fine for Stroud.

“What they don’t need is five voices talking to him and telling him how and what he should be doing,’’ Martz said. “That’s when things go haywire. The coordinator should have direct access and control over the quarterback. And the quarterback coach should basically be just trying to reaffirm what the coordinator wants. That’s the way it should go.’’

Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young
Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) is congratulated after he scored a 2-point conversion against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Martz doesn’t think drafting Young was a mistake. “God, no,’’ he said. “He’s definitely not a mistake. I promise you, he’s not a mistake. He’s fine. He’s a special player. He’s got a terrific future ahead of him. They just have to get the right guy in there (as head coach) and get some better players around him.’’

When the season started, Reich handled the play-calling. But after an 0-6 start, he turned over the play-calling duties to Brown, who had coached running backs and tight ends for the Rams and had never called plays before.

The Panthers beat Houston, 15-13, in Brown’s first game as the play-caller. But they lost the next two to the Colts and Bears and failed to score an offensive touchdown in the loss to the Bears. Reich took back the play-calling duties after the Bears game but was fired two games later. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor was named the interim head coach, and Brown is calling plays again. None of this has been beneficial to Young.

“All that works against him,’’ Gannon said. “He’s going through the vicious cycle that a lot of young quarterbacks go through on a bad team. First player taken. They fire the coach. They’ll bring in a new guy. Now, he’ll have to throw away the playbook he learned this year and basically start over.

“It’s like being a freshman in high school, and you take Spanish. Then you come back the next year, and they say, ‘Well, we’re going to start over and teach you German this year.’ Then, your junior year you’re trying to learn French. You never have any foundation. You never have anything to build on. You’re constantly having to start over. That’s basically what we’re going to see from him next year.

“What you worry about now is that after the season ends next month, he’s going to get on a plane and fly out to California and get an independent coach. One of those so-called gurus who never played the position and never coached the position at the college or NFL level. And that guy starts changing his fundamentals, changing his footwork, changing his mechanics before the new Panthers coaches even get a chance to work with him.’’

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