clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This Carolina Panthers Season Is an Unprecedented Football Disaster

David Tepper was supposed to use his savvy hedge fund business acumen to transform the Panthers. Instead, he’s made one knee-jerk move after another and has now fired head coach Frank Reich after 11 games. Where do Carolina and struggling rookie quarterback Bryce Young go from here?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

David Tepper made a significant portion of his billions by being patient. His specialty, both as a young Goldman Sachs analyst and as the manager of his own hedge fund, was identifying distressed assets due for a rebound and then waiting it out. In 2009, Tepper was the top-earning fund manager in the United States based on the billions he made betting on big banks on the brink of failure after the financial crisis to recover, which they did once the government bailed them out. The most successful moves of his career have come by riding out the storm. Even in his first foray into professional sports ownership, Tepper was affiliated with steady hands; also in 2009, he used some of that wealth to purchase a 5 percent ownership stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has had three head coaches in the past half century.

All of that stands in contrast to his tenure as owner of the Carolina Panthers, the team he bought outright in 2018, which has been neither patient nor successful. On Monday, Tepper fired Frank Reich, 11 games into Reich’s stint as head coach and a day after a loss to the Titans that had Tepper shouting expletives as he exited the locker room postgame. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor will take over as interim head coach, Tepper said in an announcement, making Tabor the sixth man to hold the top coaching job in Carolina since Tepper bought the team. Between the Panthers and Charlotte FC, the MLS team he also owns, Tepper has fired four head coaches in the past 18 months. (He made no mention in his press release of general manager Scott Fitterer’s future with the team, but that also seems in doubt.)

Reich is just the latest head coach to go, but it comes in the middle of what has been a particularly disastrous year for the Panthers. The blockbuster trade they made with the Bears to move up for the no. 1 pick in last year’s draft, which the Panthers then used on quarterback Bryce Young, may go down among the worst in league history, as Young has struggled, and the 2024 first-round pick the team gave up is on track to be the first selection in a draft with coveted quarterback prospects like Caleb Williams and Drake Maye at the top. Carolina dug itself a hole with that move, and how deep it is depends on whether someone other than Reich can change the trajectory of Young’s career, whether Tepper can actually find that person, and, if he can, whether he’d finally step out of the way.

It’s worth noting that the Panthers were not exactly a distressed asset when Tepper bought the team. They were coming off an 11-5 season in 2017 in which they’d made the playoffs under former head coach Ron Rivera. They are 30-63 since then, the second-worst record in the NFL during that span. It’s also probably worth noting that, while Tepper has made a lot of money by being patient, he is not exactly a stoic individual—this is the man who bought the Hamptons mansion of a Goldman executive who didn’t promote him, just to demolish it and build a new one. Tepper might have been denied that promotion because of his personality, which a 2010 New York magazine profile described as “loud and profane.” In that same piece, Tepper described his penchant for knee-jerkism when confronted with anything he doesn’t like: “If someone is an asshole,” he said, “like a waiter at a restaurant, I think, I could just buy this place and fire that guy.”

That destructive impulse seems to be guiding Tepper’s management in Carolina, making it hard to see how yet another coaching change is likely to improve much at all.

That is not to say that Reich wasn’t struggling. The Panthers are 1-10. Reich did little schematically to patch an offensive line that hasn’t started the same pair of guards for more than three weeks out of the season and ranks 25th in ESPN’s pass block win rate and 31st in run block win rate. Carolina’s loss to the Titans on Sunday, which was Reich’s last game, effectively ended with a screen pass thrown several yards behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-6.

Worst of all, though, Young is on a concerningly bleak trajectory through his first 11 starts, one that looks even worse in comparison to the Houston Texans’ C.J. Stroud, the no. 2 pick and an MVP candidate.

Someone in Carolina was going to take the fall for this at some point, even though it is the widespread belief in NFL circles that Tepper pushed for the drafting of the diminutive Young over Stroud, who has the prototypical size and accuracy of the type of quarterback Reich has tended to prefer over the course of his coaching career.

There is picking the wrong quarterback, and then there is giving up a king’s ransom to do it. In exchange for the pick they used to draft Young, the Panthers traded wide receiver D.J. Moore, two first-round picks, and two second-round picks to the Bears, and one of those first-round picks is likely to wind up as the top selection in the 2024 draft. This is a historically rare kind of beat—the last time a team traded a draft pick that wound up as the first selection was 1978, when the 49ers traded their first pick in the 1979 draft to the Bills for, um, O.J. Simpson. (Buffalo used that top pick to draft linebacker Tom Cousineau, who ended up electing to play in the CFL instead of playing for the Bills.) Chicago so far has drafted tackle Darnell Wright and cornerback Tyrique Stevenson with the picks it netted from Carolina, and the 2024 first-rounder looms large with the hype around Williams and Maye. Time will tell what the Bears make of that draft capital, but the opportunity cost for the Panthers is huge regardless.

Whether or not Reich was a scapegoat, the question remains: Are the Panthers likely to get any better anytime soon now that he is gone?

Reich’s results were objectively poor, and Tepper and the Panthers may be excited by prospective head-coaching candidates like Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson or even Bill Belichick, who, if fired in New England, could appeal to Tepper’s desire to make a splash.

But there’s also not a lot of evidence that Tepper knows a good coach when he sees one. Steve Wilks went 6-6 during his time as interim head coach last season; held the team together after Christian McCaffrey, a cornerstone player, was traded away; and had players telling reporters, “We want Wilks” by the end of the season. Previous splashy hires like Matt Rhule went awry quickly.

At this point, some of the best candidates may be turned off by the apparent expectations of quick success. Tepper is one of the richest owners in the sport, and it’s a bad idea to underestimate the power of a blank check, but whoever becomes the next full-time (“permanent” doesn’t feel right, does it?) head coach of the Panthers will inherit a weak roster, the smallest quarterback in the league—one who has been objectively bad in 2023—no first-round pick in 2024, and the knowledge that the previous guy didn’t last as long as Urban Meyer did in Jacksonville.

Tepper has been wildly successful playing the financial markets by identifying ailing companies ready for a turnaround, but those rebounds always hinged on government support or a macro-level market shift. He never had to pick up the pieces or fix things himself. Now that he does, he’s shown no acumen for the task, and instead of ceding some of his own hands-on control, he’s repeatedly cleaned house. Six years in, the abandoned rubble of the South Carolina practice facility that Tepper announced with fanfare before demolishing mid-construction (after running into financial problems with his real estate company and conflict with local governments) is the best metaphor for his stewardship writ large. The Panthers head-coaching position is a job for someone who can make peace with this, who has a plan not only for Young and the rest of the roster, but also for how to handle one of the most meddlesome and mercurial owners in the NFL. Though if that’s too much to ask, it may just be a job for someone who wouldn’t mind a few weeks off in December next year.