CHARLOTTE — OK, so that all happened.
Our regular week got thrown off-schedule by the coaching change, so this Mailbag's coming in 12-15 hours later than usual. It happens, apologies.
But it's clearly not a normal week, nor will they be normal for the rest of the year. The decision to part ways with head coach Frank Reich 11 games into his first season was obviously an unexpected turn and a situation no one imagined. And it's not just me; survey the landscape of the NFL media all offseason. The fact an experienced coach and a staff full of exceptional offensive minds didn't create the desired result surprised everyone.
And yet, the results this year made it an inevitability because the offense never came together in any kind of stable way.
So the Panthers hit reset and will get through the rest of the year with interim coach Chris Tabor leading the way and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown calling plays with some advice on the side from senior assistant Jim Caldwell. It's not an ideal set-up, but nothing about this year has been ideal.
At any rate, we know you all have a lot of questions, so we'll get to as many as we can before practice since we all have a lot of work to do. But we're all adults here, so we appreciate your patience.
Hi Darin, what do you think was the last straw that caused Frank Reich, Duce Staley, and Josh McCown to get fired? (Of course, aside from the win/loss record) Also, who would you like to see as the new coach for the 2024 season? Do you think Bryce Young can hold up to his expectations with a new head coach and QB coach? — Matt, Stanley, NC
Other than 1-10? I mean, that's generally enough. But the coaching change wasn't as much about the short-term record as the larger trends on offense. In short, it didn't work, and it never seemed to adapt.
The Panthers are 29th in the league in scoring and 30th in yards per game. They're 28th in rushing and 30th in passing. Nothing about it was functioning. Reich ceded playcalling at the bye week, took it back three games later, and with the chance to put his mark back on it, saw his offense put up a pair of frustrating 10-point outings against the Cowboys and Titans. They haven't scored more than 15 since the bye and were at that number or lower seven times in 11 games. And too many times this year, games were defined by that one drive where everything looked right, only to never follow up on it.
The amount of punishment Young has taken was likely also a factor. He's been sacked 40 times in 10 games and 11 in the last two. Injuries have played a big part in that, as he got five combined games played from starting guards Brady Christensen and Austin Corbett this year before they each ended up on IR. The Panthers have used seven different right guards this season and three in Sunday's loss at Tennessee alone. But the pressure he's taken hasn't been the kind of thing you can put at the feet of personnel or bad luck and call it a day.
The design of the offense didn't create the kind of separation it needed for receivers. The depths of Young's drops were largely static at a time when pressure became the expectation rather than a wrinkle teams threw at him. Things he did so well at Alabama, like moving the pocket and throwing on the run, never became staples of what they did from week to week. And a run game that worked so well last year was never consistently deployed to give him a chance to breathe or to set up any play action that might have allowed him to move the ball downfield. He averaged 8.8 yards per pass attempt at Alabama. With the Panthers, it's an anemic 5.4.
That's a long way of saying the thing this staff was brought here to create never came together.
Young's still talented. And no matter what anyone tries to tell you now, the league agrees. So the Panthers will go out and find a coach who can hopefully maximize his talents and the talents of the people around him, which will obviously be augmented this offseason.
It's a big job, but having a quarterback to build around is still the hardest part, and they've got one.
Why didn't the Panthers wait to draft Drake Maye of UNC instead of Bryce Young? Young doesn't seem to have the talent or physicality to play QB in the NFL. — Michael, Stockbridge, GA
There it is. That train's never late. The best quarterback class in the history of the draft is always next year's draft class. It's been a tradition since 1983 and probably beyond.
Maye's a wonderful player. He could have left school a year ago and been a top-five pick, and he'll be one this year for someone.
But you know who else would be a top-five pick in this year's draft? Bryce Young.
He didn't just stop being talented, and the idea that he's physically incapable of playing in this league is ridiculous. He has had great success in the past, and smarter people than me believe he will. He just needs to be part of a functional offense, and this wasn't, for a lot of reasons this year.
And because he's a talent, there won't be a shortage of people interested in coaching him. All the stuff you read about him before the draft remains true.
Well, after the game, I was going to make some comments about past front-office moves more so than critique Bryce Young. I think he will be a fine QB at some point. It's just that I personally have always thought that an OK QB behind a really good offensive line and decent targets is more likely to have success than a great and talented QB behind a porous OL and any group of receivers. Way back, I was hoping we'd hang on to Sam Darnold and PJ Walker, as well as Christian McCaffery and DJ Moore, and bolster the OL behind some Big Mollies. I can accept that Bryce may be way better than Darnold or Walker, or even Stroud et. al. But if we still had those guys and PJ Walker behind a vastly improved OL, I don't think we'd be sitting where we are now. Even letting Hasson Reddick go on defense has stuck in my craw for a couple of years. I believe I would've held on to McCaffery, Darnold, Walker, and Moore and traded down, not up, to get some much-needed help up front. I think we put the cart in front of the horse. But that's all history.I hope we can learn from history and move forward. I do like that since the trigger was pulled and Chris Tabor is in for now, he calmly made moves that he felt were necessary, and it will have his stamp on it. Been there, done that myself a time or two. Being a special teams coach, he always has to deal with a revolving door roster due to injuries on offense and defense, so he won't panic. He will just deal with it. I'll say one thing about our defense: the system must work pretty well because the players are almost pulled out of a hat before every game. I'm still holding out hope for 4-2 in the NFC South. Everyone is below .500. In fact, 17 of the 32 teams in the league are at .500 or below. More than half!!! Yes, we are at the bottom, but we aren't that far from being several teams away from the bottom. — Tony, Chiang Rai, Thailand
To address Tony's letter from back to front, yeah, Tabor has the kind of temperament to handle being an interim. And while wins would be nice, just having a sense of stability for the next six weeks would be preferable. Tony's correct that in his special teams role, Tabor is used to changing tires on a moving car, so this isn't going to rattle him. And he has the kind of upbeat attitude and personality that a team can benefit from when things get weird (and we're there). Also, stay tuned to Panthers.com later this week for some cool Tabor content we have dialed up, including some EXCLUSIVE interviews.
As to the first point, as Cam Newton would say, "hindsight is always 50-50."
The Panthers were stuck on a wheel of rentals at quarterback since injuries made the end of the Newton era a sad inevitability. So they decided to get off the wheel and build around a top pick. Moving Moore and McCaffrey was a painful but necessary step toward that end.
It was a conscious decision, and once you make it, you're set along a path, and the only reasonable response it to follow it through to its natural conclusion.
Also, let's look back at that last sentence and marvel at it as the jewel it is: "Yes, we are at the bottom, but we aren't that far from being several teams away from the bottom."
Put it on a T-shirt.
In fact, I'm making Tony this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and getting the appropriate honorarium on the way to Thailand for that alone.
How soon do you think that this team can and will be competitive enough to be able to compete and try and win something for once? It's been six long years, and I'm sick and tired of watching all these teams have successful winning seasons and playing in January while we, as a team, are both miserable and not participating in the winning activities. I feel like we, as an organization, have been embroiled in chaos and infighting instead of trying to win. It's really frustrating. I feel for guys like Byrce, Taylor Moton, Shaq Thompson, Brian Burns, Donte Jackson, Derrick Brown, and guys like Adam Thielen and Tommy Tremble. I'm not sure how much longer I can bring myself to be excited for Panthers football before the NFL season, just for the same old same old to happen and be stuck disappointed every year by Thanksgiving. It sucks, and I'm tired of this loss and chaos. It's not fun at all for the players or the fans. *— Nengeh, Kissimee, FL *
To Tony from Thailand's point, the NFC South is such a trailer park that becoming the president of the HOA isn't that big of an accomplishment. But that also makes it attainable.
And while the Panthers are an easy mark at the moment because of the record, it's not as if you can't see a path forward, just from the players you mentioned.
A defense that includes Brown, Burns (who you reasonably expect to be franchise-tagged), Thompson, Jackson, Jaycee Horn, and a couple of trusted veteran safeties in Vonn Bell and Xavier Woods gives you a chance to succeed. If they keep Frankie Luvu (a pending free agent) and add some parts, it's fair to think that they could be a solid group.
They obviously need to add help at receiver and along the offensive line, but the kinds they add should be consistent with what the new coach wants. If they do it coherently, it could improve significantly in a hurry. Also, when you're 1-10, improvement is also an easier level to achieve.
With all the changing offensive linemen due to injuries, how does James Campen prepare those who start and those who are brought up from the practice squad on gameday to provide depth? It appears far too many defenders are able to get off blocks to fill holes or to chase down runners from behind on running plays, and it appears as if there is no consistent ability to slow or stop rushers other than Ikem Ekwonu's patented wave-at-the-defender block, on passing plays. How do we get better week-to-week and during the offseason? — Thomas, Garner, NC
The good news is that Campen's one of the best teachers in the game. He built his reputation in Green Bay by taking a lot of fourth-rounders and lower and building top-shelf lines. Obviously, it helps that he had an All-Pro quarterback to work with, but the point stands.
And it's a good thing he's good at his job because he's been forced to adapt at a ridiculous rate. By the end of the Titans game, the guards were a guy who started the year on another team's practice squad (Brett Toth) and an undrafted rookie (Nash Jensen). Not ideal. But they'll add to that group this week and try to get through the next six weeks.
I'll also be curious to see if the offensive adjustments they make help Ekwonu as much as anyone. After a rough start to his career allowing three sacks against premier pass-rushers last season, he then went 10 games before he allowed another one. So it's not like he can't pass block.
But if they run more down the stretch (Ekwonu's specialty) and adjust some things in the passing game, there's a chance he could look a lot better. He clearly needs to improve, and as talented as he is, there are times he's not as consistent with his technique as you'd prefer. But Campen's a teacher, and I keep going back to last spring when he'd get on all fours on the practice field and manually put Ekwonu's feet where he wanted them to be. He was building a left tackle from the ground up, and he's a guy you trust to do the building.
Hi Darin. My first-ever submission here. I hope all is well with you. Been a Panthers fan since 1995. I'm watching the Panthers/Titans game, and I see major needs on our offensive line. Poor Bryce Young doesn't even have a chance to learn and grow as he is facing pressure on every snap of every game. Do you believe this is an area the coaches will focus on any time soon? I have faith in our team, I understand there are some major growing pains to go through, but there must be something they can do to address this problem. Also, our fans must stop with negative talk. New team, and new staff, it will take some time, but the Panthers will be winners again in the future. Keep Pounding. — Zack, Tamaqua, PA
Welcome Zack. We have a Zach around this Mailbag, but I'm assuming he's in class at the moment since it's Wednesday morning.
Obviously, the biggest factors will be health and the preferences and style of the next head coach. But if you think about 2024, the Panthers will enter the year with Ekwonu, Moton, Christensen, Corbett, Bradley Bozeman, Jensen, Chandler Zavala, Cade Mays, and tackle project Ricky Lee under contract. Depending on how you deploy certain guys, that's a solid start.
Designing an offense to protect Young and maximizing the talents of those guys is possible.
And even though I'm not going to start telling fans how to fan now, I at least appreciate the absence of yelling.
Woke up this morning feeling very Zen for some reason, even after hearing the news that Frank had been fired. Seems like everyone has strong thoughts and opinions on who should be following him out the door, but listening to the Around the NFL podcast as they recapped the games yesterday made me stop and reflect on something they said.How often in the NFL does a brand new owner come in, and everything works perfectly? Yes, historically, our team did amazing at the start, and therefore with a new owner, but are we really surprised that a new owner who had no background in football seems to have made some mistakes in his staffing decisions?
As a fan base, we've been fortunate more than we haven't, as a whole. We play in a division that, to adapt one of your adages, is akin to a trailer park that has to pick its HOA President. This has allowed us to stay competitive in the playoffs race long after we probably should be year after year. We almost always have multiple Pro Bowl-caliber players on the roster, especially on defense, it seems.
I get it. We are a proud fan base. We want more than what we've been getting these last few years. But let's all take a breath, take a break, and try to enjoy the bright spots that we can find.
PS: What's the process for changing my address here? Do I just start using Charlotte once my move is official on Friday? Or is there a change of address form? Does Lukka need to also fill one out as (MB)FOTM? Moving is stressful, Darin, I seriously have no idea how I am zenned out right now. — Nate, Grand Prairie, TX
I mean, you have two choices in how you approach life. You either freak out and start yelling, or you control what you can control and move forward. I admire Nate's stoicism.
(And while I know this wasn't Nate's intent, this is my Mailbag, and I'm entitled to crawl up on my soapbox occasionally. Firings are never anything to celebrate. You can want your team to do better, but I appreciate everyone being mindful that there are human beings on the other end of these transactions. Reich is a good and principled man, and he brought a lot of people to Charlotte with him who packed up young families and moved halfway across the country or more, and now they face uncertain futures. Most of those people are still here in the building today working despite the situation that wasn't exactly as they imagined, because that's what adults do.)
As for the owner, he wants to win. He's put a lot of resources into the effort. He wants to get it right. David Tepper talked on Tuesday about self-reflection. And since they can't even interview a coach who works for another NFL team until Jan. 22, there's time to create a plan for the next steps.
But the best news is that Nate from Grand Prairie is about to be Nate from Charlotte, and bringing good dogs with him. Our community gets better every time someone brings positive energy into it. With Nate and some other pending incomings, this is going to be a happier place soon, indeed.
And on that note, let's go lightning round, brought to you by the patron saint of the lightning round Jeff from Fuquay-Varina, to close it out this week.
Five words: Luke Kuechly for head coach! Is it possible? — Stephen, Black Mountain, NC
Anything's possible. 'Tis the season for wish lists and using a coaching vacancy to hustle up a raise from your current employer. But the Panthers Radio Network might match anything the football team might offer. Luke's too valuable to lose.
Bring Cam Newton back as a backup quarterback, and we might win some games. It might help Bryce Young. Thoughts? — Tammy, Cameron, NC
Cam is a national treasure. I'm not sure how much utility he'd be to a 1-10 team six weeks from another coaching change, but it would certainly make things more interesting. Maybe he'd bring Bryce some hats. That would be cool and I would enjoy seeing that.
Tell team to give CAM the rock the last 4 games. (Let B Young take a breather!) Cam is 100% & Ready. Put FANS in the STANDS for final games!! He will by sheer WILL POWER score more than 13 points a game. If the D continues to "Ball Out", He & I guarantee it!! Let him go out in style ...Fighting to the End....Again!! — James, Gastonia, NC
No thoughts, just enjoying the random capitalization. Dig your passion.
Hell, call me. I can run this organization. — Stephen, Wilmington, NC
Miles again, with another one of my super-deep questions. So usually, at this point in the season, I would say, "Hey, it's not great, but at least we get a high draft pick (looking at you, Marvin Harrison)." But because our pick goes to Chicago, I'm struggling to find anything good that could happen with the rest of this season and beyond. Want to help out? — Miles, Durham, NC
Miles was last week's FOTM, and he's back this week. Love it when young people show up consistently and when they ask good questions.
You could watch for signs of hope from the quarterback. You could wonder about the potential of young players forced into bigger roles and whether it signals future depth. Or, you could just get together with your people and enjoy their company during a game. The shared experience will be remembered more than the score of a particular ball game.
OK, that's it for this week. See you next Tuesday, promise. I mean, unless something else weird happens.