The Carolina Panthers are going with experience over youth and offense over defense for their next head coach.
The Panthers are hiring 61-year-old Frank Reich, the team announced on Thursday.
Reich was the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach from 2018 until he was fired by owner Jim Irsay earlier this season. He had a 40-33-1 record with the Colts and took them to the playoffs twice in his four full years there.
Reich got the Panthers' job over Steve Wilks, who was named Carolina's interim head coach after Matt Rhule was fired following a 1-4 start this season, and Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
“I think Frank is a good fit for what they’re looking for there,’’ said Joe Banner, a former NFL executive and analyst for The 33rd Team. “Time will tell whether he’s the right answer. But he’s a very solid, steady, smart guy. Anybody who ever has worked with him or played for him has walked away with a lot of respect for him.
“He’s not going to come in and take a lot of risks. He’s not going to lead the league in going for it on fourth down or throw the ball all over the field. But he’s got a steady, dependable philosophy on things that he’ll stick with.’’
Others interviewed for the Panthers job included former Saints head coach Sean Payton, Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and former Lions and Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
Wilks, who was the team’s defensive coordinator under Rhule, resuscitated the Panthers and guided them to a 6-6 finish that almost was good enough to win the NFC South title.
Reich and Wilks were brought back for second interviews Wednesday before owner David Tepper and general manager Scott Fitterer decided on Reich.
Reich’s offensive expertise appears to have been the deciding factor in his hiring. He was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 2017 when they won the Super Bowl. The Eagles finished third in the league in scoring that season, and quarterback Carson Wentz was a league MVP candidate before tearing his ACL late in the season.
The Colts finished in the top 10 in scoring three of the four full years Reich was their coach.
“They interviewed some defensive people, but it seems pretty clear they preferred to go with an offensive coach,’’ Banner said. “Frankly, I never favored that approach. You usually have five to eight new head coaches each year. Most years, just one turns out to be really good. In my view, to eliminate someone because of which side of the ball they come from, all you’re doing is reducing the chances of getting somebody really good.
“That said, in the end, whether they had the right approach or not, I think they ended up with a solid guy who will do a good job there.’’
The Panthers hired Rhule in 2020 after he successfully turned around two college programs – Temple and Baylor. His 2019 Baylor team went 11-1. But bad personnel decisions, particularly at the quarterback position, plagued him in Charlotte.
The Panthers went 5-11 his first year and 5-12 his second. He was fired five games into his third season and replaced by Wilks.
Wilks became just the fourth Black head coach in the league. With his not getting the Panthers’ job and Lovie Smith getting fired in Houston, that number is down to two – Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles. Four other head-coaching jobs – in Houston, Arizona, Indianapolis and Denver – are still vacant.
Carolina’s offense finished 20th in scoring and 29th in total yards this season. They traded for Baker Mayfield, but he was eventually released.
Sam Darnold started the last six games and played well enough to help the Panthers win four of those starts. But he’s not expected to be the long-term answer at quarterback. The position will need to be addressed in the offseason.
“This move [to hire Reich] is all about the quarterback," said Mike Tannenbaum, analyst for The 33rd Team and former front office executive for the Jets and Dolphins. "Currently, Carolina has the ninth pick in the draft and clearly they will be acquiring a quarterback, most likely in the draft. Frank Reich has a long track record of developing quarterbacks and that will be job No. 1.”
In The 33rd Team's latest mock draft, the Colts trade up to No. 1 to select Kentucky's Will Levis. However, Banner says there are multiple quarterbacks in this draft who should be available where the Colts currently sit at No. 4. Or Indianapolis could acquire one in free agency or trade.
“There are better opportunities to find one this year than there have been in a while,’’ Banner said. “In the past, you had to be so bad that you had to get the first or second pick in the draft. This year, the quarterback class in the draft is deeper. There also are some pretty good quarterbacks who are either going to be free or available in a trade, like (the Raiders’) Derek Carr.
"So, the Panthers are going to have some options. They just need to figure out which one is the best.’’
Reich is expected to move quickly to hire a defensive coordinator. Former Broncos coach Vic Fangio’s name has been one name mentioned. But Fangio is believed to be close to taking the defensive coordinator’s job in Miami on Mike McDaniel’s staff. It’s too early to know whether Reich will keep any of the current Panthers assistants.
Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.