Frank Reich, Panthers Agree to Contract as New HC; Spent 4-Plus Seasons with Colts

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 26, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - OCTOBER 02: Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts takes the field before the game against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 02, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers announced Thursday they're hiring Frank Reich as their next head coach.

In an unexpected move, the Indianapolis Colts fired Reich after a 3-5-1 record through nine games. They tabbed former six-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, who had never coached at the college or pro levels, as his replacement.

Indianapolis went 40-33-1 and made the postseason twice in Reich's four-and-a-half years in charge.

After playing quarterback in the NFL, Reich specialized as an offensive coach prior to getting his first head-coaching opportunity. The 61-year-old has the profile to fit a franchise that might be looking for a new quarterback.

The Panthers admitted they made a costly mistake when they fired Matt Rhule in October. He was in the third year of a seven-year contract, one that still had more than $40 million in outstanding payments.

Rhule had an 11-27 record in his two-and-a-half seasons on the sideline.

The coaching change triggered a reshuffling of the Panthers' priorities. They stopped short of a total teardown, reportedly turning down a trade offer of two first-round picks and a second-rounder for edge-rusher Brian Burns.

However, Carolina did ship out Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson ahead of the trade deadline. The former's move to the San Francisco 49ers netted picks in the second, third and fourth rounds of the 2023 draft and a 2024 fifth-rounder.

Making a public sales pitch to prospective coaching candidates, general manager Scott Fitterer argued the Panthers were set up well for the long term.

"I think this is a very, very attractive job on the outside, where people are looking at it," he told reporters Jan. 9. "Hey, look, this is a young team. This division is up for grabs here in the next few years. There's no dominant quarterback. They look at our defense; they look at the offensive line, some of the pieces that we have, and the way we're growing right now."

The NFC South is lining up nicely.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the division with a losing record and might lose starting quarterback Tom Brady. The Atlanta Falcons are still rebuilding and could be looking for another new starting QB. The New Orleans Saints went 7-10 in Dennis Allen's first season as head coach and aren't on an upward trajectory either.

Burns leads a young defense that should take a step forward in 2023. Of the team's 10 top tacklers, seven were 25 or younger.

On offense, D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard filled in nicely for the departed McCaffrey. Together, they combined for 1,380 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. You could do much worse than building the passing game around DJ Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr. as well.

But nothing is more important this offseason than identifying an upgrade at quarterback.

The Baker Mayfield experiment was a bust in 2022, and Sam Darnold doesn't look suited for a starting role. The former New York Jets signal-caller has thrown for 3,670 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in two seasons with the Panthers.

Bleacher Report projected Carolina to take Kentucky's Will Levis with the No. 9 overall pick in its latest 2023 mock draft:

"Beggars can't be choosers in the case of the Carolina Panthers. The organization has been dead set on acquiring a franchise quarterback since David Tepper became its owner. Yet the Panthers failed to do so at every turn.

"Carolina can rationalize this pick based on two factors. First, Levis fits the prototype as a 6'3", 232-pound quarterback prospect with a big arm and good movement skills. Secondly, his downturn in production could stem from losing his top two wide receivers, the Wildcats' best two blockers and their offensive play-caller from the previous season."

If the draft is the route the franchise chooses, hiring the right coaching staff will be imperative. It won't stop with Reich since he'll need identify an offensive coordinator and high-level assistants who can set up a young QB to succeed.

If Fitterer goes in a different direction at quarterback and sticks with Darnold, then the same logic applies. Darnold isn't a finished product and requires more work to reach greater heights.

The Panthers could instead use the draft capital they got from the 49ers to pursue a veteran quarterback in a trade. That would mean significantly increasing the level of expectations, which brings challenges of its own for the incoming coaching staff.

For Fitterer, hiring Reich is the first step of what will be a busy few months.