CHARLOTTE – Thomas Brown has had just more than seven weeks since he agreed to terms to become the Panthers' new offensive coordinator to work on building a new playbook from the ground up.
During that span, the first-time NFL offensive coordinator has also made the trip to the combine, embarked on an extensive pro day tour in search of their next quarterback, and taken time to bond with new coworkers. Brown also built in hours to put his stamp on the plays, and he'll start to put it all in motion for the first time this week.
"You come in with the thought process because you understand what you're interviewing for and what job you're about to accept," Brown said. "But it's always different when you get there. There are always new challenges, new ideas that come up, and things you probably haven't prepared for, which is probably part of on-the-job training. I don't care how long you've done it; it's going to always happen to some capacity."
But the new playbook is ready for players on Monday, the first day they'll officially return for the offseason program. It'll likely feel similar to the first day of school, as Brown will get to teaching immediately. He said that process comes naturally to him, as the son of a teacher and a pastor.
Brown's experiences – especially his past with the Rams – color the Panthers' new playbook. Input from head coach Frank Reich and position coaches, along with their roster evaluations, have also played vital roles.
And yes, the playbook was built from the ground up.
"The beginning for myself and the rest of the staff was really breaking everything down to build it back up," Brown said. "So building a brand-new offense from ground zero essentially based on what we've done before, both myself in my previous experiences from the Rams, but also in college as well. Then kind of blending together with what Frank has done, and guys in the room as well."
For 36-year-old Brown, that includes collaboration with experienced coaches on staff, such as assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley and offensive line coach James Campen, paired with a former league veteran quarterback in new quarterbacks coach Josh McCown.
Reich, who has years of experience as an NFL offensive coordinator and called plays in his last head coaching stop at Indianapolis, has said he'll likely pass along those duties "at some point," though an exact time hasn't been determined.
But Brown said he has free range to build the playbook – the first time he's done it in the NFL, and the second time he's done it in his career (he built the playbook at Miami while working as a college offensive coordinator under Mark Richt from 2016-18).
When the offensive staff sits at a conference table in his office, Brown presents his work for position coaches to help tailor details and solidify certain areas.
"The first thing I really appreciate about Frank is he's let me just roll so far," Brown said. "So being able to kind of put my own stamp on it and just be with the guys in this room while he handles some stuff from a head coach standpoint, it's been awesome for me.
"But it also (allows) us to have a great dialogue, great rapport in this room from an offensive coaching staff standpoint. When it comes to presentations, it is honestly a lot of prep work beforehand. I'll present it in front of the entire group, get feedback. … Once we get done and solidified, (we) get with Frank, make sure he's on the same page, and we're good with that."
Brown's background in the NFL has been with Los Angeles, collaborating with Sean McVay from 2020-22. Brown's role grew under McVay in his three years with the Rams, and he worked in an assistant head coaching role for two seasons while leading running backs in their 2021 Super Bowl season and tight ends in 2022. He called McVay "one of the best in the game" as an offensive-minded head coach and said much of what he'll bring to Carolina comes from that exposure.
Brown also spent nine seasons coaching at the college level, naming Richt, Andy Ludwig, Bill Legg, Brian Schottenheimer, Bryan McClendon, and Marcus Satterfield as influences. He said he has pulled from every experience to craft the Panthers' playbook, learning from what worked and what hadn't.
Brown said building an NFL playbook also has to account for "werewolves" (which is what Staley calls consistently strong defensive players in the league), speed, and complexity. It's about taking their knowledge, marrying it with what works for the current personnel, setting a philosophy, and building around a foundation.
For the Panthers, that philosophy starts with protecting the football, building around strengths up front, creating an "illusion of complexity" to stay ahead of defenses, attacking with tempo, and maintaining "situational excellence" on third down, two-minute scenarios, and closing out games, Brown said.
"For the most part, it is mostly building off what you already know," Brown said. "You find things that work well. But most importantly, does it work well for the players that you have? If it doesn't, it's not worth spending time going through and trying to add in to it.
"There's definitely a process when it comes to setting a foundation, who you want to be philosophically, and making sure whatever plays you're bringing up fit into that same identity and philosophy."
Keeping the mindset centered around the offensive line is paramount, especially through the early parts of writing the playbook. Brown knows that the importance can't be understated.
"Everything starts up front when it comes to how you protect the quarterback, how you run the football, your play-action game," Brown said. "If those guys aren't in sync and can't perform at a high level, I don't really care how good your quarterback, running back, receivers, and tight ends are because we won't have the time to operate if those guys can't get it done.
"In today's world, the guys across the board are getting bigger, faster, stronger, so you've got to be able to block those guys and give yourself time to operate in both phases – the run game and also the pass game."
Brown has placed early focus on the base level in playbook writing, particularly because he has to account for the fact the Panthers won't draft their new quarterback until later this month.
And more specifics will continue to be added to the playbook once coaches can evaluate their rookie quarterback's strengths and weaknesses, Brown said.
"It's an evolving process, for sure," Brown said of crafting a playbook around a currently unknown signal-caller. "But I think from a foundational standpoint, we're making great progress and are in a good spot for when our players walk in this building to get rocking and rolling."
When players enter the building, they'll receive the playbook on their tablets, and Brown will start instruction. They'll get basics locked down, covering everything from getting into and breaking the huddle to learning tempo variations, shifting motions, and calling formations. They'll later build into an install period with specific plays.
"(We are) understanding as many ways as possible to alleviate stress off our players by putting more pressure on ourselves as coaches to simplify stuff and make it digestible for our players to be able to handle," Brown said. "So how you have your word association, putting it into families, making it make sense, and bring it to life in front of your players where it's easier to be able to learn and apply."
Even the best laid-out playbook must have the players to run it, and that's why designing to your personnel and effective teaching are critical.
"Personnel is going to drive everything that we do because you're only as good as your players are," Brown said. "I don't care how good you think you are as a coach; it always and forever will be a player's game. So we definitely understand that. But (it's about) being able to just have sound principles, have sound answers, and always try to find as many ways as possible to stay in attack mode."
The process of moving the Panthers' new playbook from the minds of Brown and the offensive staff to the players on the roster starts today. And while adjustments will be made for a new quarterback and aspects will be shifted as players execute the playbook, Brown has prepared for the preseason rollout. Class is in session.
Thomas Brown spent three seasons with the Rams from 2020-22 after a number years in the college ranks at South Carolina (2019), Miami (2016-18), Georgia (2015) and Wisconsin (2014). He played college football at Georgia and was in the NFL with the Falcons.