Dysfunction, firings and a meddling owner: who would coach the Panthers?

<span>Photograph: Rusty Jones/AP</span>
Photograph: Rusty Jones/AP

In the latest edition of David Tepper Has No Idea What He’s Doing, the Panthers owner fired coach Frank Reich on Monday.

This one is a doozy. Critics are already calling it Tepper’s best work since earlier this month, when he axed Charlotte FC head coach Christian Lattanzio, despite the team making the MLS playoffs.

For those keeping score, Tepper has owned the Panthers and Charlotte FC for a combined seven seasons. In that time, he’s had five full-time coaches and now three interims. When he fills his two vacancies in the coming months, that number will climb to 10 in eight seasons. Even Daniel Snyder is starting to think: what is this guy doing?

Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest soccer coaches of all time, was fond of offering a piece of advice to up-and-coming managers: “Pick the owner, not the club.” At this point, who would pick Tepper?

Reich’s dismissal marks the second year in a row the Panthers have fired an expensive coach in-season. Last October, Tepper fired Matt Rhule in the third year of a fully guaranteed seven-year $62m contract. Reich’s reign lasted all of 11 games, the shortest head coaching tenure in the NFL since 1978. He was hired on a four-year contract in January.

Related: Chaotic Panthers fire head coach Frank Reich less than a year into job

Carolina are now 1-10, with the worst record in the league. They would be sitting in pole position for the first overall pick in the draft, had they not dealt their pick away to the Chicago Bears last season in Tepper’s latest effort to acquire a shiny toy.

Reich is far from blameless. A 1-10 record in a coach’s first season – or any season – is dismal. Reich was hired to boost the Panthers’ flagging offense, and to restore a sense of professionalism to the franchise after Rhule’s amateur showing. Reich was a known commodity, the safe pair of hands, a coach with experience as a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles. He also logged a 40-33-1 record as the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach, despite a revolving door at quarterback.

It should have been a first for both sides. Reich, a savvy offensive coach, would (finally) be paired with a young, promising quarterback. The Panthers would stop messing around with first-timers or table-thumpers and hand the team over to someone who knew what they were doing.

But Reich failed to build a cohesive offense around the No 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, quarterback Bryce Young. His All-Star supporting cast – featuring prospective head coaches Ejiro Evero, Thomas Brown and Duce Staley, who was also fired on Monday – struggled to squeeze much out of a weak roster. A defense that ranked in the Top 10 in EPA/play for much of last season has crumbled to 29th this year. The offensive line cannot block. Most concerning of all: Young has shown few signs of developing into a franchise quarterback.

It was Reich’s job to find answers to those problems – and he failed. But the Panthers’ issues are systemic; they were never going to be fixed in 11 games. Was it the coach who decided to trade away Christian McCaffrey or DJ Moore last year? Did Reich opt to fork over a bounty of draft picks (plus Moore) to move up to select a quarterback, rather than address pressing needs in the trenches? Was it the coach who failed to draft, sign or acquire a competent offensive line or any semblance of a receiving corps?

Dealing away McCaffrey and Moore last year was part of a long-term play. After trying to win from the middle, retooling on the fly, Tepper and his Panthers were willing to embrace short-term pain to lift the long-term ceiling. They would take a match to the roster, reset their cap sheet, splurge on a VIP coaching staff and grab a potential franchise quarterback in the draft. But the hyperactive owner missed a key detail: rebuilds take time.

Burning a roster to the ground means you have to crawl through ash until you can start thinking about titles. The Texans spent two years stumbling through the post-Deshaun Watson wasteland before they emerged with CJ Stroud, Will Anderson, Tank Dell and DeMeco Ryans. The Lions went 3-13-1 in Dan Campbell’s first season, with the worst point differential in the league.

The Lions are now top of the NFC North, ready to end a 30-year division title drought. And the Texans are the toast of the league, with a rookie quarterback playing at an MVP level. But Houston didn’t just draft Stroud and catch fire. They traded for Laremy Tunsil, one of the game’s best left tackles, and guard Shaq Mason, a two-time Super Bowl champ with New England. They signed offensive linemen George Fant and Michael Deiter in free agency. They drafted lineman Tytus Howard with a first-round pick in 2019. Surrounding the rookie fireworks on the perimeter, they added veterans Dalton Schultz, Devin Singletary and Robert Woods, players who could guide the young pups through the slog of training camp and the pitfalls of the regular season. And they drafted breakout wide receiver Nico Collins back in 2021. Yes, Stroud is the player that makes it all sing, but the foundation was solid.

The Texans plotted to build a winning team; Tepper likes to win the press conference. It has amounted to nothing. Since he assumed ownership, the Panthers are 30-63 and have had six straight losing seasons.

At every turn, when things are going wrong, Tepper’s answer is simple: More Tepper!

The problem with the previous head coaching hires, Tepper said, was that he wasn’t involved enough. “I’m saying I could have run a better process last time,” Tepper said at Reich’s introductory press conference. “I do believe that. I think this time we were very thorough. I was in every single interview.” Oops.

Landing Reich was, initially, a move in the right direction. But the owner couldn’t stay away. He drifted into the draft evaluation process, stumping up for Young ahead of Stroud or Anthony Richardson. He joined film room sessions with the staff, critiquing play calls. They were not, according to Reich, “fun meetings”. Tepper put another draft pick on the table before the recent trade deadline, encouraging GM Scott Fritter to acquire a wide receiver – like, say, DJ Moore. When those microwave meals fell short, Tepper did what he does best: he fired someone; Fritter’s seat is probably feeling pretty toasty today, too.

They say that genius thrives in disorder – or something along those lines. But that presupposes the person has some idea of what they’re doing or where they’re trying to go. Tepper does not.

Who will take the Panthers’ job moving forward? Will Tepper return to Steve Wilks after passing on the Niners’ DC when he was the Panthers’ interim head coach last season? Would the Chargers’ Kellen Moore or Philly’s Brian Johnson be willing to gamble their burgeoning careers on an owner who has fired two coaches in-season in back-to-back years? Reich said on Monday that, despite his firing, he has “no hard feelings, and my personal relationship with [Tepper] was actually a real highlight of this short time.” Note that Reich does not say anything about what their professional relationship was like.

Someone will take Tepper’s call. He pays well, and often pays you not to work – ESPN reports Reich will earn another $25m from the Panthers. And there are only 32 head coaching jobs in the NFL. Any clear-headed candidate will look elsewhere, though, or do what Ben Johnson, Detroit’s hot-shot offensive coordinator, did last season when he turned down Tepper’s advances to stick with the Lions for another year.

Johnson knew instinctively what Ferguson said for decades: you pick the owner, not the franchise. And no coach should pick Tepper – not now, tomorrow, or ever.