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Brandt Tilis has found his next challenge, and quick rapport with new teammates

Brandt Tilis

CHARLOTTE — Brandt Tilis has always had a sense of what he was looking for in a team.

Twice now, he's found it with the Panthers, whether he realized it at the time or not.

The team's Executive Vice President of Football Operations will dive into the deep end of his new job next week, celebrating his 39th birthday with the start of the new league year next Wednesday. But even before that crucial week cements his place here in a new front office, he had a link to this place.

Tilis was born in New Orleans in 1985, just when the Saints were on the verge of their first winning seasons in franchise history with a guy named Sam Mills in the middle of the Dome Patrol defense. But the Saints were historically dreadful, and that wasn't much of a hook for a kid — "I mean, they didn't win a playoff game until 2000," he replied quickly — so Tilis gravitated to pulling for the 49ers.

Which was fine; there was nothing wrong with rocking a Jerry Rice 80 in the '90s. At least until his father got a job in Dallas when he was 9, and the family moved to enemy territory at the peak of the Cowboys-49ers rivalry for NFC dominance.

"So, guess what?" Tilis said with a laugh. "Nobody wanted to be friends with me. Nobody wanted to be friends with the 49ers fan."

Still, he was willing to go against the grain and recalled being at a classmate's house on Jan. 5, 1997, when everybody in Texas was settling in to watch the Cowboys play an upstart Panthers team in the playoffs.

"I remember I was over at a friend's house rooting for the Panthers, and I was asked to leave," he recalled. "I mean, it was a joke, tongue in cheek, but a little like, yeah, they're only sort of kidding."

Brandt Tilis

Now, he can walk in and openly pull for the Panthers, and help begin the building process with what should be a busy free agency, after a quick getting-to-know you period with President of Football Operations/General Manager Dan Morgan.

And it didn't take long for them to hit it off. Morgan had talked to people he knows in the business who had backgrounds with Tilis; agents, and league officials alike. The former linebacker was looking for a fit in a retooled front office, and everything he heard back about the guy who managed the cap and contract negotiations for the Chiefs felt like Tilis was what he was looking for — the analytical counterpart to his on-field and tape-grinding experience.

"I think we both kind of did research on each other," Morgan said. "And at the end of the day, we were like, this would be a really good thing because we're different. You know, our personalities are different, and the ways we think are different, which is always beneficial in that type of role."

There was a quick Zoom call set up in the moments after Morgan was hired, and the two got the sense they'd be able to work together. As hard as it might be to get a feel for someone over a videoconference, there was a quick vibe.

"I mean, in our first conversation, you could just tell. Like, off the bat, we were aligned from a morals and values standpoint as far as how to build a team, how to deal with people, how to manage people, and all of those things," Tilis said. "I mean, anybody who says that they were able to connect with somebody quickly, even if it was in person, they're fooling themselves. But just as far as what was being said and just alignment, that was easy.

"And like five minutes in, I was like, OK, I'm in, I'm good."

Asked if he could recall one of those topics where he found an immediate rapport, Tilis quickly replied, "collaboration," making it clear that it was a word that came up a lot during the hiring process.

"That was a key theme that we were both saying in the conversation, which was how collaborative we were going to be, our process was going to be," Tilis said. "It starts from the top, right? It starts with your GM and, and he sets the culture, and there are football organizations out there who do operate in silos, and that might work well for them. That does not work well for me.

"So if this was going to be a siloed situation, I wouldn't be here. So again, it starts at the top, your leaders set your culture, they set your processes. And if this were not going to be collaborative and this were going to be siloed, it wouldn't fit me."

Their top leaders having complementary skills and experience with winners was a clear priority for the Panthers this offseason. Morgan's time with the Seahawks and Bills shaped his view of how to build a consistent winner, and Tilis had a front-row seat for the league's current dynasty.

Brett Veach, Patrick Mahomes

His role with the Chiefs was key to their sustained success since they figured out how to find the quarterback and how to keep him in place. Doing the first part is hard, but managing the second while keeping enough talent around him was not a simple task. It's one thing to draft Patrick Mahomes; it's another to win Super Bowls with and without a high-level receiver like Tyreek Hill and to be able to keep stars such as Travis Kelce and Chris Jones and make the numbers work to keep it sustainable.

"Brandt's amazing. We're certainly going to miss Brandt, and congratulations to him and his family and to the Panthers for that hire there," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. "Really, Brandt got ahead of that one early, and that's the key in this league is getting a quarterback, and then once you get him, it's securing him long-term and then having the ability to do things within the contract to allow and provide flexibility. Brandt got on top of that early; he has a tremendous relationship with the agent community. He does a great job, super smart, going to miss him a lot. We have some big shoes to fill.

"But again, Brandt was on top of that Mahomes contract early and did a great job of guiding the organization through that."

And that's not just any contract we're talking about, but a 10-year, $450 million deal to keep the most important piece of a team in place, built in a way to allow the flexibility to keep him paid at the top of his position, and keeping others.

Asked when he began thinking about how to do that, Tilis laughed a bit.

"Like when we drafted Patrick," he said with a grin. "That's kind of a ridiculous answer. Maybe a little glib, but when you draft a quarterback in the first round, and you trade up for him, the expectation isn't, oh, this is going to be our guy for four years. The expectation is this is our guy for the long haul. And it doesn't always end up that way. But if you're not thinking along those lines, you are going to be caught flatfooted.

"So we drafted Patrick, Brett got hired as GM a few months later, and that was our first meeting was me telling him that my every thought process is that everything we do is going to be centered around making sure that we can extend Patrick, like as soon as he's eligible for an extension. It wasn't like, hey, Brett, this guy is like one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. It was more along the lines of, hey, we just spent a lot of resources to get this guy, so let's make sure that we're being smart about keeping him here.

"And then Brett had had the big vision right of surrounding him with playmakers and a line and making sure that all the pieces in the organization were being used, and having their full force thrown at Patrick. I mean, that was everybody. That was the PR staff, the community relations staff, anybody who touched Patrick was going to give him their all."

Again, Mahomes wasn't the only priority player they had to keep happy, as the Chiefs have maintained the kind of talented core you only acquire by drafting well. But the pieces have changed. They survived dealing Hill to the Dolphins. They moved pass-rusher Dee Ford and replaced him with Frank Clark.

"Our goal we were able to operate on two planes," Tilis said. "Operate in the short term; hey, let's go win a Super Bowl. We have enough pieces in place where we feel like we can really push the envelope to win a Super Bowl, and let's also think long-term.

"So let's stay flexible so that we can do the things that we want to do long term."

Brandt Tilis

Tilis has always had the ability to think about the end game and how to get there. He joked that he stopped antagonizing the local Cowboys fans when he was in middle school and that not being as vocal a fan of other teams was "a survival strategy."

But he also realized early on that being part of a team was something he wanted, since doing things alongside others gave him motivation to do the parts he wasn't wild about.

He said he was aware that he was a high-performer in the classroom as a kid, but his parents would grow frustrated with his grades sometimes, because he didn't always do the homework in certain classes.

"So when I was in middle school and high school, I wouldn't do my homework," he confessed. "I would go take the tests, get an A, and then take a zero on my homework, and it would frustrate my parents because they're like, what are you doing? You're hurting your future by doing this. And some of it's just boring. Like, I know this stuff. Why do I do the homework? Why do I have to show the work?"

But as he progressed into more advanced math classes and began to study statistics, he found that spark of motivation to dig into the process.

"Some classes, it was fun, especially math," he said. "Like, hey, this is fun, like solving a puzzle. Statistics, like this is the fun stuff. And so I was able to kind of gamify it. And then when I realized how GPAs worked, then I could really gamify it and then I actually started caring about everything.

"But the point is, you get the best out of me when I believe in the endpoint; I think that is the best way to say it. I guess I'm like a typical millennial in that sense, right? Like I'm not going to work because somebody tells me to work, I'm going to work because I believe in what we're working towards. And so I've been a huge sports fan my whole life, and I knew that if I was going to have a successful career in anything, it was going to be in sports because it was a passion."

When he was in college at the University of Rochester (he has two degrees in economics and statistics, including a special citation in finance), he sought work as an intern with the Raiders. And he didn't start negotiating contracts or working with numbers. Like most people in NFL front offices, he started at the bottom while classmates were walking into far more lucrative positions upon graduation.

He would answer phones and transfer calls to coaches at training camp — and hearing a millennial marvel at the archaic nature of a landline is amusing — among all the other menial tasks.

"I ran a switchboard, I'd run errands, like go get snacks for the coaches for their nightly meetings," he recalled. "I'd pass out calendars. I'd do airport runs; I mean, anything anybody needed me to do, I would go do. I just wanted a job in the league, and I knew that I would have to eat s--- to get there. And so, whatever they want, I don't think I said no to anything. I was up at six o'clock in the morning, checking players in for breakfast, and I was up until 11:30, 12 o'clock at night, shutting the office down. And it was like a source of pride for me to be up early working.

"I got over the 'Oh, there's a player' thing pretty quickly and just realized that it's fun to win and be part of a team."

His background as a part of a team that figured out that formula is why he's here now. And with a complicated puzzle in front of him, his problem-solving nature won't lack for stimuli in the coming weeks. The Panthers have some big-ticket items in front of them but just 20 contracts on the books for the 2025 season, so he's headed into a significant birthday week that might not allow for much time for cake.

But he's walking into it with a guy he's quickly come to work with in Morgan, along with head coach Dave Canales, as they've tried to solve this puzzle methodically and for the long haul. And since it's a puzzle, and he sees the why, it has his full attention.

"There wasn't like this special moment, but we've had a lot of really good conversations, I've had quality time with each of them individually," Tilis said. "I've had quality time with the three of us, there's been intentionality with getting to know each other.

"But again, we're all aligned from a values standpoint as far as the organization. So it's really easy. And so even if there are disagreements, which I can't think of like one off the top of my head, we know that we're all coming from the same place and pulling towards the same thing, right?"

Brandt Tilis