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Carolina Panthers

How Thomas Brown and Frank Reich blended offensive philosophies

Thomas Brown, Frank Reich

CHARLOTTE – For all the ties on the Panthers' experienced coaching staff, Thomas Brown and Frank Reich hadn't really crossed paths until they got to Carolina.

The two offensive minds – one a Super Bowl-winning coordinator and the other a first-timer at the position in the NFL – each had to make some concessions when they blended ideas for an all-new playbook this spring. Brown took a leading role in the nuts and bolts of the design, while Reich will carry out play-calling duties as he did in his last head coaching stint at Indianapolis.

Brown's a notable branch off the Sean McVay tree, spending three seasons with McVay's quarterback-friendly system (including their Super Bowl LVI run when he was an assistant head coach over running backs with McVay). Reich was under Doug Pederson when their Eagles won Super Bowl LII, leading an offense headed by Carson Wentz and later Nick Foles after Wentz tore his ACL late in the year.

Thomas Brown

They're different in ways that Reich, a former quarterback with decades of experience as a player and coach in the league, and Brown, a young up-and-comer and former running back with relatively few years of coaching experience and just three years at the NFL level, are naturally going to disagree.

So finding a perfect middle ground between the two, one who had been set in one way and the other who had recently learned how to do it another, wasn't going to be an automatic process. Reich said the collaboration took time, and there were concessions from both sides throughout the process.

"It's not easy because, like, that's your baby, you know what I mean?" Reich said of the offense. "You don't want to give up. But you understand, 'Hey, we're adopting some. This is going to make our family bigger and stronger.' And that's really the approach we've taken.

"Thomas makes it easy because I respect him. I respect his football mind. I respect who he is as a person. The couple of disagreements we've had, sometimes it's 'OK, Thomas, you win out, and we're going to do it your way.' Sometimes it's, 'We're going to do it the old way.' It's just been a give-and-take."

Frank Reich

Even when ironing out some details may pose a challenge, an overarching theme uniting the two always goes back to personnel. 

Coaches can design, scheme, and teach, but unless they have all the right players, those strategies aren't going to feel right. Brown and Reich will repeat that sentiment, and it's obvious they share it.

That's a primary part of the Panthers' offensive philosophy, and it's working with what coaches have seen from the roster, Brown said. The benefits of having multiple trusted receivers, running backs, and tight ends open up the offense for more looks, creating a challenge for opposing defenses.

"I'm not in the business of controlling people's happiness; I'm not the happy police," Brown said. "But definitely guys are wanting to be more involved. You want to have guys on your roster that want the ball in their hands and want to make plays. It's a big part of what's motivated guys up until this point, but it also makes you harder to defend.

"When you go into a game (and) you have multiple guys who can be in multiple spots, different formations, (you're) able to use motion at times when necessary. But (it's) also so you can't just pinpoint on 'This ball is going to this guy the majority of the time.' Being able to spread the ball around, distribute to the entire field, and make the defense have to defend within the depth of the entire field. That's the overall goal."

Hearing from Brown and Reich individually, it's apparent the two share inclinations toward "multiple" offenses with versatile personnel groupings and formations, varying tempo shifts, and emphasizing pre-snap shifts and motions.

Philosophically, they've reached alignment. Now, it's about putting the players in the best positions.

Andy Dalton, Frank Reich, Thomas Brown, Josh McCown

"We kind of came to agreements as far as who we're going to be, how we're going to be built," Brown said. "From a philosophical standpoint, the physical nature is going to be very important to all of us when it comes to how we set the tone, being able to kind of build upon this great offensive line we had last year, but also trying to find ways to create matchups and find matchups."

Brown said he and Reich broke their offensive identities down to their roots when designing the Panthers' playbook, building it back together with unique ideas peppered throughout. Brown once called the playbook split between his philosophy and Reich's "60-40."

Reich saw some overlap in how he and Brown wanted to plan the offense from the start. He estimated anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of their systems were already "similar" and that the melding process involved picking from new and old language and bringing it together.

"It's been exciting," Reich said. "That diversity of thought, different philosophy – how do we bring it together under our players? Really thinking about players, not plays, who we have, what are we going to do? That's kind of our approach."

At the offseason program's conclusion, Brown explained that the marriage between what each brought to the table continued to be altered – even during on-field practices.

"We'll make some adjustments once we get off the field," Brown said. "But some of the best coaches, to me, kind of apply it when you're in the moment on the field, whether it be in individual, group settings, or versus our defense. …

"I think we've kind of talked about trying to find an even 50-50 split in some ways, but it's really more about just bringing principles together, how it fits into a philosophy, and most importantly, how we put our players in the best spot to have success."

Thomas Brown

Brown said everything went as planned throughout OTAs and minicamp; the door was open to make alterations, and seeing the playbook come together has been a positive experience for them.

"Everything's going to always be a work in progress," Brown said. "So it's also really good to be able to get the amount of reps with our players, to get those guys acclimated to our system and how we're able to communicate it and also make some additional changes. As we kind of blend and build our offense from the ground up, that's been really exciting to see.

"But moving closer toward training camp, it's more about carving out roles for guys, trying to figure out who's going to be where, how to utilize certain personnel groupings, and also continue to evaluate what we have."

As a primarily all-new staff (offensive line coach James Campen and assistant Robert Kugler were retained from the previous regime), taking time to assess the roster, build through free agency, and select well in the draft was imperative. And Brown said he saw the work translated during the installation process.

"We spent a lot of time together in this room as an offensive unit evaluating the players that we had, guys we'd kind of end up onboarding, whether they were somewhere else before and watching their tape, trying to figure out how they fit into it," Brown said. "I think (with) some guys that hadn't been utilized in certain ways before, it's kind of been a mystery. But by and large, it's been what we expected. (Now) we're trying to figure out how to maximize these guys' careers and put them in the best spot to have success."

Conventional wisdom would indicate a multiple offense will utilize numerous skill players. And with a rookie quarterback in Bryce Young, the more weapons, the better.

The Panthers made various moves at skill position players in the offseason, with notable free agent acquisitions with receivers Adam Thielen and DJ Chark Jr. and drafting rookie Jonathan Mingo. They had to refuel the group after top wideout DJ Moore was dealt to Chicago in the trade for the No. 1 pick in this year's draft anyway.

Laviska Shenault Jr., Adam Thielen, Jonathan Mingo

Reich already sees his receiver room coming together, with Thielen as the leader and Chark emerging as a deep threat. Returning receivers Terrace Marshall Jr. has room (and potential) to develop, while Laviska Shenault Jr. brings the kind of versatility that Reich said they'd "experiment" with.

Reich echoed that their offense here has been built on spreading the ball around, and the 10-year veteran Thielen said he saw depth playing to their advantage.

"I think this is a talented group," Thielen said. "It's not just one or two guys. I think it's a group effort. We're able to really put a lot of guys in there and not miss a beat. That doesn't happen in the NFL. Usually, you can see a drop-off when you go to the twos and you go to the threes. I haven't felt that here. So I think that's a really cool thing. And it says a lot about this group and this team."

There are pass-catching opportunities for tight ends, too, and Hayden Hurst took notice of what he called a "tight end-friendly" offense after he arrived during free agency from Cincinnati.

He joins a less explosive group with Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble, Stephen Sullivan, and Giovanni Ricci, adding an element of experience that should set him up for a substantial role catching passes from a rookie quarterback.

And Hurst said he liked what he saw from how the offense would utilize him, calling the Panthers' red zone offense "very tight end-centric" and predicting opportunities to get yards after the catch.

"It's just fun," Hurst said. "I know I'm big; I'm fast. I know guys in the NFL necessarily don't like to get in there and tackle on the outside. So for me, if you can run across the field and give me the ball closer to the sideline, I know I can turn it up. I can jump over guys, go through guys, go around guys. It's fun getting to utilize my athletic ability."

Thomas Brown, Chuba Hubbard, Duce Staley

Carolina also added another running back in former Eagle Miles Sanders, who joins Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear in a room coached by assistant head coach Duce Staley.

Regarding running backs, Reich once again repeated his positive attitude toward a "by committee" approach, finding different roles for multiple players with different body types and styles.

"(I) like to involve everybody," Reich said. "Listen, Miles Sanders has looked good. And at this point, he's our number one guy. But the other running backs – Chuba's looked good, Raheem's looked good. The whole group has shown good promise, so we'll see how it continues to develop."

When it came to reaching a consensus on how to deploy players into a brand-new constructed scheme, they weren't the kind of conversations that came naturally with no effort.

What they've been watching come together throughout OTAs and minicamp, though, adds to the good that can come from marrying two distinct minds under core principles: Winning by scheming with your personnel in mind.

So for Reich, any trials are generally positives.

"This isn't Kumbaya, right? I mean, we're challenging each other," Reich said. "Like, 'Nope, I don't like that,' and 'No, it doesn't feel good to me.' We'll have those moments where we'll challenge each other, but it's always under the right spirit. And I think it's resolving in what we want it to resolve in."

Thomas Brown, Frank Reich

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