Last year, the Panthers fired Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start. Interim HC Steve Wilks then led the team to a 6-6 finish that left it still in the NFC South race until Week 17. Despite many of the same cornerstone players in place, Carolina’s 2023 edition has the NFL’s worst record.
Trading up significant assets to secure Bryce Young at No. 1 overall, the Panthers were never viewed as a team that would truly contend this season. But their disappointing first half has many around the league wondering if David Tepper will bail on the power structure he signed off on in January. One member of Carolina’s power duo may be on a hotter seat than the other, but both Frank Reich and GM Scott Fitterer do not appear certain to retain their jobs beyond this season.
Many around the NFL are eyeing this situation, with the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora noting there is a strong sense Reich will become a one-and-done. Even within the Panthers’ building, La Canfora adds the belief is jobs are on the line going into the season’s second half. This would be a stunning flip-flop from ownership — especially after Rhule went from receiving a seven-year contract to being canned after Week 5 of his third season — but Tepper has not exactly gained a reputation for stability during his early years running the NFC South team. Indeed, Tepper’s reputation is driving the speculation Reich will be canned after just one season, Sportskeeda’s Tony Pauline adds.
Tepper is believed to be irked by Young’s performance thus far, an NFL personnel exec informed La Canfora while adding the sixth-year owner drove the bus for the Alabama prospect. When the Panthers obtained the No. 1 overall pick, rumors of Reich preferring C.J. Stroud surfaced. Those steadily faded, as Young won the organization over despite his slight frame. The Panthers have seen Stroud hit the ground running with the Texans, and despite Carolina’s only win coming over Houston, the team has taken significant steps back compared to how it finished in 2022.
Among qualified passers, Young ranks only ahead of Ryan Tannehill in QBR this season. The former Heisman winner sits last in yards per attempt — at just 5.4 — and has thrown eight touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions. Young’s struggles should probably have been expected, given Carolina’s skill-position deficiencies. The team gave Miles Sanders the top RB contract in free agency; Chuba Hubbard has since leapfrogged the ex-Eagle for the starting role. Adam Thielen has gone from Vikings cap casualty to the Panthers’ No. 1 target, in his age-33 season. Thielen has been productive in Carolina; no one else in this skill group has. Neither DJ Chark nor Hayden Hurst — the latter receiving the top tight end deal this offseason — has topped 230 receiving yards this year.
After pointing to Thomas Brown being in consideration to call plays this offseason, Reich handed the duties off during the team’s bye week. Three games in, Reich took back the reins from the young OC. The Panthers did not top 15 points in a game during Brown’s short run calling the shots, and while the veteran HC said this about-face is not indicative of Brown’s long-term future, the quick change was certainly notable.
Reich beat out Wilks for the Panthers’ top job, with Tepper preferring an offense-oriented HC. The five-year Colts leader is the Panthers’ first offense-geared sideline boss. Well respected, Reich being fired from two HC jobs in two years would undoubtedly drop him back to the coordinator tier moving forward. Reich, 61, did pull back the curtain a bit on Tepper’s style earlier this season by pointing to the owner being heavily involved in football operations via the two’s weekly meetings. After the experience Reich had with Jim Irsay in Indianapolis, this is familiar territory.
But Reich may also not be the likeliest Panthers power broker to go. Fitterer should not be expected to weather this storm, according to Pauline. Fitterer arrived in 2021 to work with Rhule, following a successful tenure as a Seahawks exec, and was left in power ahead of the 2022 trade deadline. The veteran staffer pulled the trigger on a Christian McCaffrey trade, giving the Panthers four draft choices, but did not accept a Rams offer of two first-rounders for Brian Burns. The young defensive end was not believed to have drawn similar interest at this year’s deadline, which came after the Panthers could not extend him this offseason. A franchise tag is now expected for Burns, but it is far from certain Tepper will have Fitterer making that call.
Some members of the Panthers’ organization do not believe this is a well-assembled roster, and the team’s 1-8 record supports that. Despite being in a seller’s position, the Panthers pursued wide receivers — months after trading longtime No. 1 target D.J. Moore — at the deadline. Fitterer, who took a backseat to Rhule, has final say over Carolina’s 53-man roster. The Panthers lost to a Bears team missing Justin Fields; Carolina being in position to potentially hand over the 2024 No. 1 pick to Chicago would present difficult optics for Fitterer, who received a vote of confidence from Tepper after the Rhule firing.
Tepper firing Reich after one season would not make this a particularly attractive job, though the owner’s past authorizing big contracts for HCs and paying top dollar for assistants will help. This will be a situation to monitor during the season’s second half.