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Offensive "diversity" a long-term investment

Thomas Brown, Frank Reich

CHARLOTTE — The easy thing for Frank Reich to do would have been to hire a bunch of his old friends, people who already knew him, who already spoke his language, so to speak.

Instead, he built his first staff differently.

Through the first four weeks of the season, the results have been very Tower of Babel, with many ideas but fewer coherent themes.

In the opener, they ran for 154 yards in Atlanta. The next week, they had 66 rushing yards on non-Bryce Young scrambles. The next week, just 14 attempts, followed by 31 attempts, but few of them fruitful against the Vikings.

Likewise, the passing game has been inconsistent, and lacking in deep shots (other than the week backup Andy Dalton replaced an injured Young).

It's created a lot of questions, and the discussions that came out of it point to what Reich was hoping to build when he hired a bunch of coaches with disparate philosophies, hoping to create something new around a new quarterback. Because the Eagles and Colts teams Reich worked for ran differently than the Rams teams offensive coordinator Thomas Brown came from, which ran differently than the Panthers did last year. So melding those perspectives has taken time.

"There's no doubt we've gotten closer together," Reich said this week. "You know, you're sitting here 0-4, and you're disgusted about that, and it's pretty painful. But at the same time, there's a lot of energy and juice, like in our game-planning meetings, and it's growing because I think we all feel it. As a staff, this is how it's coming together. More forming to what we want to do to the identity that we want to be. And it's an incremental process.

"When you have that diversity of thought, the cost of that is, it may take a little bit of time to develop the chemistry and the process so that everyone is really in the groove. But then I believe that once you're in the groove, the benefit and the dividends that that pays of having that diversity of thought will start to show."

Obviously, they're not there yet.

Brown was asked this week, point blank, what the identity of their offense was.

"That's a great question," he replied.

It wasn't Brown being seditious or even sarcastic. The Panthers are still working through that as they try to develop something resembling a personality heading into Sunday's game at Detroit.

Brown talked a good bit about actions rather than words this week, pointing to specific mistakes they've made along the way. But like Reich, he thinks they're getting closer to a consensus on what they want to do.

Last season against the Lions, the Panthers ran for a franchise-record 320 yards and gained a franchise-record 570. But that was a very different offense, a stripped-down-to-basics power run game behind a stable and talented offensive line. What they're doing now is different, and they're doing it without starting guards Brady Christensen (on IR with a season-ending torn biceps) and Austin Corbett (a few weeks away from his return from January's torn ACL). They're also doing it with a different offensive philosophy, with more zone runs than the straight-downhill style they used to such great effect last year. Asked about the difference for the linemen, Brown called it "a convenient excuse" and was confident they'd be able to run with this group.

"We've had some great dialogue throughout, since we first got here in March, as we talked about who we want to be identity-wise, how we're going to build things offensively," Brown said. "But we have yet to bring it to life, right? So talk is cheap. The overall challenge is continuing.

"When it comes to our physicality, our execution, eliminating some of those mistakes playing the physical down-in and down-out and put this one game together at a time. So I hope that starts this week."

Toward that end, their meetings this week were geared toward finding those things they were best at, and in such a situation, having a variety of perspectives can be a valuable thing.

"I think every week is always solution-oriented," Brown said, "I think being able to have a consistent process, and obviously the desire is to get the results, but it's never, never results over the process.

"I do believe in that process of being able to go through what we're trying to build together, but it's always constant dialogue about areas we can improve upon. First and foremost, starting with issuing more of a challenge for ourselves to be better communicators to give more clarity to structure things differently. But hopefully, that transfers over to our players as well."

Some of this is natural, the process of evolution rather than immediate gratification. Veteran wide receiver Adam Thielen recognizes it. He said from his days with the Vikings, it wasn't uncommon for the offense to take a month or more to gel, and when coordinators or coaching staffs change, the pick-up time took weeks into the regular season.

"I think we've made it our own; it's kind of its own little unique system of terminology and play calls. And now, it's kind of like any offense, right?" Thielen said. "You're trying to figure out how you can now pair your players with the best players, and it always takes a few weeks to kind of figure out who's good at what and what your offense is really good at.

"And then you kind of see that take off, maybe after Week 5, Week 6 is when you start to see major progression, especially with a new offense, new system, new coaches, new players."

Thielen said the differences could be as drastic as learning entirely new concepts, or as subtle as running a route you're used to running under one name under a different one or working for a coach who puts a different emphasis on fine points such as footwork or has different landmarks for breaking in and out of familiar routes.

"Initially, when you're going through OTAs and training camp, you know the play, but you don't know the intricacies, and so you kind of have to have repetition and then go to the film and be OK here, we're really looking for you to hit this landmark right here against this look," Thielen said. "And so you just need those experiences. You can't just talk about it and go out and do it."

And there's also a difference between doing it in OTAs against your own defense and doing it against opponents who are game-planning specifically to stop you.

"Yeah, there were things that came up in practice yesterday," Thielen said when asked if that recognition was beginning to show. "Like we had run this play 100 times already, but it just, it wasn't, it wasn't the perfect detail that they were looking for as a coaching staff.

"Even though I might have run that play 100 times in the past with a different offense, same play, but just the way they want to run is different. And so it's just getting on the same page."

In short, it's a gradual process. But at 0-4, Reich's been around this long enough to know that patience is growing short as well.

"It's a new staff coming together," Reich said. "So once you get into the game-planning process now into this week right here, Week 5, kind of getting that rhythm of the game-planning process and continuing to refine that and how we work together as a new staff.

"I feel a lot of strong momentum there."

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Thursday.

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