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Listen, learn, lead: How Panthers head coach Frank Reich got to know a new team

Adam Thielen, Frank Reich

CHARLOTTE — Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown didn't know what to expect when he picked up his phone that afternoon in January.

But he certainly wasn't expecting to hear his new boss say that.

Brown said he mostly appreciated the honesty when new head coach Frank Reich called him on his first day on the job and acknowledged the awkwardness he was walking into. Reich was aware he was inheriting a defense that had grown close to interim coach Steve Wilks, many of whom were openly advocating for him to get the job that Reich had gotten instead.

"Frank called me when he got the job, and a lot of respect to him for that. He said he knew that a lot of us wanted coach Wilks, but that never deterred him," Brown said. "And he said he wanted to build a relationship with us. And, you know, I appreciate him doing that. And it's been exactly what he said in that first phone conversation.

"I mean, he came in and handled it like a man. He came to us straight-up, and he's like, I know how you feel. And that we're going to do this thing the right way. He told us that from Day 1, and we couldn't be more appreciative of it.

"And he's kept it real with us this whole time."

Frank Reich

Earning the respect of a bunch of adult human beings is always a bit of a process for any new leader. By definition, they're replacing someone the existing group is accustomed to, whether it was going well or it was going poorly. Some handle it by coming in hot and asserting themselves too forcefully, and some ease into it too slowly and never find solid footing.

But for the Panthers veterans Reich was meeting for the first time, and the new players that he brought here after he arrived, there's a consistent message about his approach as he took on this challenge.

The 61-year-old former quarterback just talked to them, as someone who used to be one of them, and understood what was important to them. He also listened.

Novel concept, though not nearly as universal as you might expect in a profession that is increasingly defined by its turnover, and its youth.

"He expects us to be pros, but he also treats us like that," wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "And I just feel like sometimes coaches try to discipline first, and I think he really wants to trust us first. He wants to give us that trust, and then obviously, if he needs to, he'll have those conversations he needs to have. But I think just treating guys like men and like pros to start with.

"I think that's a unique trait he has, for sure. A lot of times, coaches or leaders, they kind of make people earn that trust. He really gives that trust to start, and then he really treats you with respect and honor and kind of lets you be who you are within the boundaries. And he really kind of empowers guys to be themselves within a certain parameter."

Frank Reich, Adam Thielen

When a new coach walks in the door, you expect to hear a certain amount of talk about being aggressive on defense, or making changes to an offensive scheme.

You don't necessarily expect to hear a lot of talk about empowerment, or respect, or especially giving credit to the guy he had just beaten out for the job. And listening, honestly, when he asks his new guys to not just blindly follow him, but to walk across this particular bridge with him.

That's something that strikes these players — these veterans who have worked for more than one NFL coach — as different about the guy who took over the Panthers this offseason, a guy tasked with ending a five-year drought without a playoff appearance (or a winning record), but also building something stable and long-lasting.

Frank Reich has the audacity to trust players. In return, they're trusting him back.

"I think the people who write self-help books call that emotional intelligence, a little EQ," long snapper JJ Jansen, the longest-serving player in franchise history, said. "There's a lot of that. I mean, his coaching staff has such an incredible blend of playing experience, coaching experience, college, NFL, different teams, there's such a blend. And I think the only way the blend works is when there's high-level amount of emotional intelligence; there's a high level of communication, and a bunch of guys without any egos trying to get to the right answers.

"And I think one of the things that really healthy organizations have, is when the leadership respects the people that they're leading, and vice versa. I think that helps a tremendous amount."

Frank Reich, Bryce Young

When you hear Frank Reich talk about talking to players, it's clear that he has read all the leadership books. They're on his shelves and sometimes stacked on the end table outside his office if you happened to be looking for something to read. He has his pet sayings. But it's one thing to take the dust jacket from a best-seller like "Atomic Habits" and turn it into a PowerPoint slide. It's another to internalize the lessons from a library's worth of books and be able to not just recite them, but apply them.

Make no mistake, if you talk to Frank Reich more than once or twice, you'll hear him reference former Maine governor and Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain's (somewhat) famous line: "No man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought." And if you missed it, there's an engraved version of it on the bookshelf behind his desk. It's not just a pithy one-liner (though it's a good one); it's a statement of being. He's not just saying it; he lives it.

So when he has a staff meeting and invites coaches to recommend a book they've read (football coaches are often big readers, especially in the leadership genre that you see in business class on airplanes), Reich has endorsed a number of them already, having already read them and cataloged the lessons.

"He definitely reads with a purpose," said vice president of football operations Jeff Brown, an Indiana guy who uprooted a family to follow Reich here from Indianapolis. Brown has experienced Reich's habit and cherished thought on a daily basis, and trusts it.

But not everyone who reads can also read the room, and Reich has shown the ability to do that here in the last eight-plus months and also lately.

Among his first moves was to get the former players back into the building, and on the walls. Panthers legends became staples on the practice fields of OTAs and training camp, and not just the ones who live in the neighborhood. But in the blank spaces in the locker room, there are now huge photos of Sam Mills, of Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross, of Jake Delhomme and Greg Olsen, and more. There's a huge Steve Smith in the team meeting room in full flex, next to the words: "Stay ready so you don't have to get ready." But lots of coaches have slogans. That message lands differently when Smith himself's out there volunteering as a coach in rookie minicamp, working with second-rounder Jonathan Mingo on his route-running, and then taking the time to talk after practice to a bunch of guys who are long shots at best (only 12 of them are still here, between the roster and practice squad).

Steve Smith Sr.

That's Reich's doing, the open invitation for Luke Kuechly to come talk to the team when he wants, to put the current players in the same continuum of Panthers history with Dom Capers and him and his former teammate Sam Mills. Reich was here from the start of the organization, so that history has personal meaning for him, too.

So when he met linebacker Shaq Thompson, his first request was for Thompson to pass along what he learned. (Thompson was a rookie on a 15-1 team in 2015 with Kuechly and Thomas Davis.)

"He just wants us to teach the young guys," Thompson said. "Just drop some knowledge on them and just help them along the way. Just be good examples and leaders."

And Reich then followed by doing the same thing. As with Brown, Thompson said one of Reich's first conversations with him included the Wilks-sized elephant in the room because last year's interim was also willing to harken back to 2014 and the 7-8-1 division champions when he was trying to drag the 2022 team on an improbable playoff push (which almost worked).

"I mean, he's bringing it back," Thompson said of Reich. "The biggest thing was the history, the good things that happened before us, all the legends that came through here. Start with Sam Mills, he's bringing them back. What Keep Pounding means, and he knows them around here because he was around.

"And it's just good to see, you know what I mean? Just bringing the culture back into what was instilled. It was instilled in him before everybody was here. And that's kind of an extension of what Steve was doing."

In a way, it's kind of easy to invoke the name Sam Mills when you walk into Bank of America Stadium. He said the thing, and is in the Hall of Fame. It's a lot harder to invoke the name of Steve Wilks when you're walking into his former office. And not everyone is secure enough in themselves to say the quiet part out loud.

"We went through that, and it's done, and you've got to move on, right?" Thompson said. "And I think he's come in here and done a phenomenal job. Since he walked in, it's business. We sat down and talked about it.

"And just being out there in practice, you can just see everybody bought in already. And it really helps out when you have the leaders showing that they have bought in and showing that they're working hard. It really shows you how fast this team really bought in."

Shaq Thompson, Frank Reich

Guard Austin Corbett remembers his version of that first Reich talk similarly. He didn't hide from what he was walking into, nor did he defer to it.

"His take on it was just like, that's all behind us; That's what it was. We've got to go out and carve our own path now, right?" Corbett said. "And so he's like, I'll listen to you guys on what you like, just knowing the building, knowing the city and those things. But now, it's just not even mentioned, and we're just going, rolling with how we are now."

The common denominator is the listening, and you hear it from every player you ask about Reich, the young and the old, the get-along guys and the hard-asses, the new and the entrenched.

"I remember we had real conversations," defensive back Jeremy Chinn said. "And he told us it would be a player-led team. You know, our trust for him is just as important as his strength for us. And that's really how it has been approached. This is our team, and let's build it together."

"He's one of the coaches you want to put your best foot forward when you're playing for," new defensive tackle Shy Tuttle said. "And he takes care of you. So you want to take care of him."

Center Bradley Bozeman remembered the 45-minute conversation he had with Reich when he came in to sign his deal. They "talked some ball, but mostly life," since Bozeman and his wife brought their infant son in when it was time to sign.

Those little interactions can mean a lot later.

In April 2019, early in Colts OTAs, Reich called journeyman defensive lineman DeShawn Williams into his office to cut the former practice squader. By the end of their conversation, they were both in tears, because it was a real talk, about a player at a career crossroads who was determined not to give up, despite the latest setback. It's not a coincidence that journeyman defensive lineman DeShawn Williams is now Panthers starting defensive end DeShawn Williams, after he was one of their first signings in free agency.

Andy Dalton, Frank Reich, Thomas Brown, Josh McCown

Jansen has an interesting perspective on this, and not just because he's the player closest in age to Reich or because Reich's the fourth Panthers coach he's played for (of the six total). He's gathering some intel because he sometimes gets to eavesdrop.

In practice, the long snapper serves as the center for 7-on-7s since the actual linemen are usually working on the other side of the field. So Jansen gets to hear the conversations between Reich and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown (whom he went out and found from a different offensive pedigree rather than bringing along another familiar face) and quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and rookie quarterback Bryce Young and Thielen and the rest of the offense.

"I think a sort of camaraderie and relationship starts in these periods of time," Jansen began. "So maybe we're in Week 7, and Adam comes to the sideline, and he says, 'Hey, Bryce, I see this,' and it's a quick conversation with Thomas or with Josh or with Frank, and they make the adjustment, and they go because there's a trust and a relationship that's been built over eight months as opposed to 'We do it this way, or we do it that way.'

"There's a level of calm on the practice field. I think there's a good understanding of on the practice field, we're trying to rehearse, but we're also trying to play game situations and make adjustments based on personnel or who the other team is because that's what happens in the game. And when I stand in there, and I snap in 7-on-7, I listen to quarterbacks making a few adjustments. Hey, if we get this coverage, run this route, and it's a little bit off-script. I just see that there's an element of freedom in trying to get the team into the best play. It's not freelance, but there is a calm, and then there's a conversation with the coach, hey, this is why I saw that. And now we get on tape, and we can all have a conversation about it later. It creates some levels of freedom that I think is really important when you play the 60 snaps or so on an NFL game day, you're more ready for it."

But Jansen also remembers one of his first conversations with Reich, in which the former backup quarterback talked to the long snapper about how he used to hold for field goals.

"Coach kind of brought up his time as a holder, his dad being a long snapper," Jansen said. "So immediately, I now know, hey, he has a little bit of understanding of what I'm doing. I can tell that he has a respect for what I do and the role that the specialists play on the team.

"And so it just begins to build a relationship that when we finish OTAs, and when we go to training camp, and in the season, you know that there's a relationship already forming, as opposed to, 'I'm in charge. I'm the coach; I'm telling you what to do.' Yeah, I think that stuff helps."

Brian Burns, Frank Reich

And as the Panthers head toward the start of the season, they're also facing another of those narrow passes that only someone who has walked this way might know how to traverse.

Star outside linebacker Brian Burns and Reich don't have all that much in common other than a shared workplace. But when Burns' desire for a new contract led to some recent uncomfortable days, Reich made it clear it a press conference that he understood the business realities, but he also drew a line between himself and the front office. The organization makes decisions about money, but Reich has to coach Brian Burns. So he doesn't get involved in the money part because he wants to build that relationship with the Brian Burns part, for now and the future. The easy stance would be to draw that line between labor and management. But Reich found that small opening in which he can run a team, but also in which he builds on a common background as a player who probably once wanted a raise too.

At this moment, no one knows how the Burns situation is going to turn out. But Reich walked that tightrope, showing a sensitivity to the players' perspective as well as the entire team he has to coach, which is obviously better with Burns on it.

It would only seem self-serving if there weren't so many other such stories about Reich, in which he behaves the same way.

Frank Reich

Thielen recognized it from a distance. He had only played in Minnesota, but word travels fast in NFL locker rooms. He didn't know Reich personally, but he had heard about the person inside the former Colts head coach.

"So, to rewind a little bit, the main reason why I came here, even just on a visit, was just for the respect I had for him from afar," Thielen said. "There was no interaction before that meeting, but just from playing against him, knowing guys that have played for him, just having a lot of respect for how he's treated this profession and this job and his players.

"And then, you know, having those first moments, those first couple of meetings with him, you know, I really just felt like again, this was a perfect fit for me just because of the type of person he is, the type of coach he is and then, you know, his schemes and his coaching staff and things like that.

"I think he just kind of has a unique ability to create relationships and to really respect and, and then really, . . . I think the biggest thing is how he empowers guys. You know, he really gives them the ability to be at their very best by the way that he treats them, the way that he talks to them, and the way that he coaches them. And that's what I've seen. Not just for me personally, but for other teammates, just the way that he empowers guys, they appreciate it."

It's not the only thing, they still have to win. But listening to the players talk about Reich and how he's learned about them and now leads them, it feels like a good first step.

Frank Reich

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