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Seeing the whole field: Thomas Brown's rapid rise to play-caller

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CHARLOTTE — Sean McVay had a sense that Thomas Brown was becoming a good coach the day he tore his Achilles on the practice field — since he was pushing his players for more when it happened.

But what cemented that in the mind of one of the league's most decorated play-callers was the way Brown was constantly pushing for more — more information, more responsibility, more chances to grow.

Brown has that now, after Panthers head coach Frank Reich gave him the play-calling duties on Monday, investing in his offensive coordinator something that was always coming his way.

The 37-year-old Brown is a fast riser in the business, and from his days under the league's most prominent young play-caller — the 37-year-old McVay — the broad-based approach to learning was evident.

Drawing back to their days as high school rivals in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, McVay recalled Brown as "the ultimate competitor." Brown was a star at Tucker High, the big public school, getting Division I offers. McVay played at Marist, a private Catholic school, before ending up at Miami (Ohio) and fast-tracking his way to coaching success.

But after their paths diverged, McVay eventually gave Brown his first NFL coaching job. He started out as the running backs coach for the Rams in 2020. The following year, he became the assistant head coach. The year after that, he was coaching tight ends, the same position McVay held in Washington before he became a coordinator for the first time.

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"He's always trying to just continue to perfect his craft, whether that was when he was playing or whether that's as a coach," McVay said. "And he did such a great job of owning whatever role it was, whether it was a running back or the tight end coach, but there was always an interest in continuing to absorb a bunch of different material where, hey, I want to be able to make sure that I'm doing my job right now, but I'm also setting myself up for the opportunities that I think he knew were ahead. And that's been a consistent thing with him."

"I don't know that there's one moment that steps out. I think the biggest compliment I can give him is the consistency at which he approached every day and how that built towards him interviewing the way that he did with coach Reich."

Working every day and always pushing seems to be a theme in Brown's career and caused him to push through some physical pain in addition to the growing pains that come with such a quick climb up the coaching ladder.

On the practice field, Thomas Brown still looks like he could play, and sometimes he does. Panthers guard Austin Corbett, who was in Los Angeles with Brown and McVay, remembered it well.

"Just his overall energy and his passion for the game," Corbett said. "In training camp that first year in L.A., we have a really good run, and TB just takes off behind the running back, and he's 50 yards downfield just like that.

"So it just speaks to his energy and his passion for the game, and so it's a great chance for him to step in and show what he's about."

Sometimes, the passion came with a cost.

In October 2020, when Brown was coaching the Rams running backs, he was on the other side of the field with the scout team. Standing in as a safety over there, he broke on the ball and tore his Achilles.

"And then you flash forward just a couple of months later, this guy's on the sideline chasing (Rams running back) Cam Akers on a long run," McVay said. "He springs down the sideline when he still should be in a walking boot."

"So he is still a G, that probably could still take a couple of carries and, and be able to lower his pads and finish strong. He's a competitor; he still is rocked up, I'm sure."

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Brown still looks the part, for sure. But in his new role, the most important factor remains his ability to synthesize his own background as a running back, take the lessons he learned there, apply them to what he learned from McVay and one of the most creative offenses in the league, meld them with what he and Reich built together this offseason, and now six weeks into a long season, transition to a play-calling role that was always designed for him.

It's a quick progression, but for Brown, that is also par for the course.

Reich acknowledged that pairing a young play-caller with a young quarterback in Bryce Young gave them a chance to grow and learn together, even if they didn't share the same positional background. And Young drew a basketball comparison, saying that it's possible to understand the entire game without being locked into one rigid positional mindset.

And maybe it's because Young and Brown are both point-guard-sized, but they share a vision of the whole floor that could help them in this venture. Young joked that while he could play center against an equivalently sized person and potentially back them down in the paint, the difference between his current job and left tackle Ikem Ekwonu's is so vast there's no replicating it. Being able to bring those perspectives together, understand them, and understand how to communicate them to others is the key.

"So I think that's one of the unique parts of the game; we all do view the game a little bit differently, and we all have different experiences to draw from," Young said. "But with that being said, one thing about TB is just his ability to come into, especially the quarterback room in all the rooms and him have that knowledge of being from a coach of seeing it from all different perspectives, all different viewpoints.

"I think it speaks to him as well, being able to not just come in with this. He doesn't have some, it has to be this way, I'm gonna keep this perspective locked. He has an open mind with things; he just wants to win and whatever it takes to get to that. He expresses, and he shows that's what he wants to do. So, I don't think it's just a quarterback thing.

"I think just all of us, our experiences, we're going to mold how we see things, and we're all going to see some stuff a little bit differently. But we all have the same goal, we all speak the same language and we all bounce off of each other with our ideas and experiences. I think us having in the building, not just him but all the coaches having a little different experiences, it coming together, I think that's a great recipe."

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Brown has told the story many times that the moment he was convinced Young was the right choice was the night before his pro day workout, when an innocuous dinner conversation question about his weekly habits turned into a 20-minute dissertation, and they didn't get all the way through the week before Brown realized he was working with someone different.

Young laughs when he recalls it now, and said after the whirl of the pre-draft process, it wasn't until he sat with Brown prior to the rookie minicamp and broke down not just the particulars of the offense and what things were called, but the philosophy behind it, that he began to understand the way Brown understands the game.

"Obviously, at that time, I'm just trying to memorize stuff and figure out what things are called," Young said. "But when we did that, he took the time to not just say, you know what this is called and what the name of it was, but why we're doing it, what things are built off of the reason for the play calls, when to expect them what they're for. And that's something that not all play-callers do. Not all coaches do. Sometimes, it's just, memorize this, go here to here, and I'll take care of the rest.

"But that was something that really stood out was him being able to elaborate and explain the why behind things, his thought process so that he could make sure that I was tuned into it and kind of give me that insight into why things were going in.

"He can take what we've built since then, and that's something that he always does and is consistent with, which I really appreciate as a player. So that was probably one of the, the first things that stood out to me."

That kind of understanding of the bigger picture is also what stood out to McVay. Anyone can create a lot of words to represent a lot of variables and draw squiggly lines on a page. Making those words and symbols make sense to someone with a different background than your own is a different challenge.

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"I think he's got great guys on that staff that have background of playing quarterback in the NFL, but Thomas has always been preparing himself for that opportunity, seeing the game through the quarterback's lens," McVay said. "What are the reads? What is the timing and rhythm with how you want to play with your feet? What are the different things in terms of how you want to read certain coverage contours based on the concept?

"Those were the types of questions that he was always so inquisitive and wanted to know about and have the ownership of the total picture. And that's why I think, being able to use the help that you have, but also the work that he's put in to prepare for this opportunity."

As a peer who also earned bigger roles in a hurry, McVay also knows the road can contain a few potholes. From his own experience, he said knowing when to lean on those around you — and to take ideas from people with different perspectives than your own — is the key.

"I think it's just continue to play out the different scenarios, making sure that you have a rhythm and a routine and a collaboration with the rest of the coaches," McVay said. "And then if things go off schedule or a little bit differently than what you had planned throughout the course of the game, whether it be situationally or if the opponent gives you some different structures, how quick can you use the help around you, be able to put together a plan, communicate it clearly to your players and then ultimately give them an opportunity to be able to go execute.

"Because I know those are the things that, sometimes I remember when I first started doing it, those are the things that, you know, I know I had to be able to learn sometimes the hard and humbling way.

"But, he's ahead of the curve; he'll be ready for it."

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