Two major decisions shaped the Carolina Panthers’ 2023 season.
In January, the Panthers hired former Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich to spearhead their rebuild and guide the development of a franchise quarterback.
In April, after trading up from the ninth to the first overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, the Panthers selected quarterback Bryce Young.
The confluence of moves – new-to-the-building head coach overseeing rookie quarterback – is not uncommon. In the last 10 years alone, 10 of 32 first-round quarterback selections joined franchises the same year their head coach did, a Yahoo Sports analysis of Pro Football Reference data found.
In a vacuum, Young’s experience this week isn’t wholly atypical either: In the last 10 years, Young is the 14th first-round rookie quarterback whose head coach did not survive until Year 2. Five, including Young, lost their head coach before rookie year even ended.
But in only two other instances the last decade has a rookie first-round quarterback’s first-year coach not survived past one campaign. In one of those instances, a rookie first overall pick lost his coach midseason as Young now has.
The Panthers would be wise to consider what worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars saving Trevor Lawrence, as well as what doomed the Arizona Cardinals and Josh Rosen, as they decide next steps to support Young and the franchise.
"The product on the field is just not good enough right now; it just isn't," Panthers team owner David Tepper said Tuesday morning in a media conference. "We have to try to make every one of those phases better, and whatever it takes to get better, we're going to do."
Expect that future to revolve around Young despite his rocky start.
“As far as Bryce Young is concerned, I can say for myself, and I think everyone in this building would share the sentiment: We are totally confident in that pick,” Tepper said. “In the case of Bryce, I believe it was a unanimous decision by the coaches and scouts. And very strong opinions at that time.”
Why did Panthers cut Frank Reich so quickly?
Tepper defended his decision to fire Reich after 11 games as indicative of something other than impatience.
“I do have patience,” Tepper said. “My reputation away from this game is one of extreme patience. There’s no reason why that doesn’t come here, too. It does. Now, that patience comes with good performance. And you want to see progress made in different aspects.”
Young was not making obvious progress under Reich.
The rookie out of Alabama has completed 61.6% of pass attempts and averaged 187.7 passing yards per game in 10 games, nine of which were losses. Young has thrown nine touchdowns to eight interceptions, absorbed 40 sacks, and fumbled six times, though he recovered two of them.
The Panthers offense ranks 29th in points and 30th in yards gained. Young’s 187.7 passing yards per game ranks 29th while his 76.4 passer rating ranks 30th. By no metric is Young thriving.
And his performance draws further scrutiny when considered against that of his draft classmates.
C.J. Stroud, the 2023 second overall pick, leads the league with 296.9 passing yards per game and ranks sixth in efficiency with a 100.8 rating. Stroud has led the Houston Texans to a 6-5 record despite facing many of the same rebuild challenges as Young, including a first-year head coach and the arrival after a losing season (Houston managed just three wins last year compared to Carolina's seven). While the Texans had an influx of draft capital from trading away Deshaun Watson compared to the Panthers' loss of it to acquire Young, Stroud's success is still coming much more quickly and resoundingly than expected. Tepper won't say on the record that Stroud's success swayed him. But league sentiment within and outside the building is that Stroud's early start contributed to Reich's firing.
Now consider that Indianapolis Colts rookie No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson managed seven touchdowns from scrimmage in less than four games before shoulder surgery truncated his season. Tennessee Titans second-round rookie Will Levis has generated mixed results, but he’s still managed to help his team to more wins in five games than Young has in 10.
Levis’ most recent win came Sunday against the Panthers. Tepper fired Reich the next day.
Tepper declined to spell out which failures or disagreements sparked Reich’s dismissal, saying he preferred not to air franchise dynamics.
“Obviously it’s been a difficult season,” Tepper said. “It’s not good enough. We’re going to self-reflect and make it better.”
Trevor Lawrence should give Bryce Young hope
Young now prepares for his 12th professional game without the head coach, play-caller or position coach who launched his career. Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, who had received and then lost play-calling duties from Reich during a period this season, will resume calling games.
Passing game coordinator Parks Frazier, who called offensive plays in Indianapolis last season after Reich was fired there, will now serve as quarterbacks coach. Longtime NFL coach Jim Caldwell, a senior assistant on staff, will aid in quarterback development and offensive operations, interim head coach Chris Tabor told reporters Tuesday morning.
“I think Bryce will do great,” said Tabor, who was promoted to interim head coach from special teams coordinator. “Thomas will call the plays and Thomas has already called the plays, so I think it’s very easy.”
When asked how the Panthers will navigate bigger-picture offensive concerns, Tabor said “you can’t overhaul everything, but I think you can do some things, and we’ll work on that.”
Five of the Panthers' six remaining games are against teams with losing records. Four are against division rivals, whose subpar years remind the Panthers how little the NFC South demands to qualify for the postseason.
Young’s career will almost certainly unfold better than that of Rosen, whose 66.7 passer rating, 162.7 passing yards per game and 3-14 rookie record marked the peak of his career. Because while the Cardinals eschewed Rosen the following year to allow Kliff Kingsbury to team up with Kyler Murray, Arizona had the luxury of the first overall draft selection in Rosen’s second year.
The Bears own the Panthers' 2024 first-round pick as part of the haul that allowed Carolina to acquire Young.
And though Young’s strengths differ from those of Lawrence, Lawrence’s leap from Year 1 to Year 2 should give Carolina optimism of how quickly NFL fortunes can turn.
Lawrence’s rookie year featured a passer rating (71.9) and completion percentage (59.6%) worse than Young’s, Lawrence also tossing a league-worst 17 interceptions. Urban Meyer’s disastrous tenure ended before Lawrence’s rookie campaign did. And yet, when Doug Pederson arrived the next season to stabilize the franchise, Lawrence’s passer rating jumped to 95.2 as his touchdown-to-interception ratio improved from 12:17 to 25:8.
The Jaguars tripled their win total from three games in 2021 to nine in 2022, advancing to the playoffs where they upset the Los Angeles Chargers and then lost to the eventual Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs.
The Panthers would no doubt celebrate such a turnaround.
For now, with six games left in the season and plenty of transition ahead before and after those games, the Panthers will see how much they can right the ship this year.
“It still goes back to just winning the day and winning the process,” Tabor said. “I know it’s very coach-speak, but I do believe that, because in this business, the NFL train is always moving and the NFL monster will eat you at any time.
“You need to be prepared and you need to take the proper steps to set yourself up for success, and that’s what we’re trying to work on right now.”