At the conclusion of last season, the Panthers were looking for a new head coach. They settled on Frank Reich, a revered offensive mind who had consistently won with the Colts despite having a different starting quarterback every season. A few months later, Carolina traded up to the first overall pick to select Reich’s long-term quarterback, Alabama star Bryce Young.
As the Panthers prepare to host the Cowboys and their lethal defense led by Micah Parsons, all of the optimism from the offseason has evaporated. Young has performed like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, and Reich is taking back offensive play-calling duties this week after ceding them to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown a month ago.
Therein lies the problem. Reich had a very distinct offense he ran in Indianapolis. Coming over from the Eagles, where he coached under Doug Pederson, Reich’s offense was predicated on a spread out West Coast system with lots of passing out of the shotgun, as well as an emphasis on the tight end position. For the most part, that scheme worked well in Indianapolis, though volatility under center produced varied results season to season.
When Reich came to Carolina, though, he assembled a team of rivals, so to speak, on the offensive staff. Brown, who also interviewed for the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator role this past offseason, had spent the last three years under Sean McVay with the Rams. Wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, as well as offensive assistant Mike Bercovici, came over from the Cardinals, where they had helped orchestrate Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid. Offensive line coach James Campen cut his teeth in Mike McCarthy’s offense over 13 seasons with the Packers before various stints elsewhere. And assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley, who coached with Reich in Philadelphia, came over from Detroit.
Reich put together an offensive staff with a wide variety of different schemes, and the idea was to meld all of these backgrounds together to create the best possible offense for Young to succeed as the new face of the franchise. Nine games in, the Panthers are 31st in offensive DVOA and 29th in EPA/play. Instead of creating the best possible offense, the Panthers lack any sort of offensive identity at all.
The team’s personnel decisions didn’t make things any easier. They brought in several free agent skill players - running back Miles Sanders, receivers Adam Thielen and DJ Chark, and tight end Hayden Hurst - to provide Young with proven weapons as opposed to a bunch of young, inexperienced players to grow alongside.
With the exception of Thielen, who is enjoying a career revitalization at age 33, this plan has fallen flat. Hurst has just 18 receptions for 184 yards, and Chark has 17 catches for 229 yards. Second-round rookie Jonathan Mingo is second on the team with just 23 catches for 220 yards. Sanders’ play has been so bad that he’s now been relegated to RB2 status behind Chuba Hubbard, who is only averaging 3.7 yards per carry.
By far the biggest problem with this offense, though, is its offensive line. Coming into this week, Pro Football Focus has Carolina ranked as the 29th best offensive line after putting up one of their best performances of the year. Only six quarterbacks have a higher pressure rate than Young right now, and he’s the fifth-most sacked quarterback despite missing a game due to injury.
Young isn’t helping his offensive line out much, averaging 2.85 seconds per throw. One common theme for Reich’s more successful offenses in Indianapolis (read: not the one with Carson Wentz) was a quick trigger. Andrew Luck averaged 2.63 seconds per throw in 2018, and Philip Rivers hit 2.52 in 2020; the Colts made the playoffs both years.
Perhaps Reich’s decision to take back the reigns of this offense starts there. If he can get back to basics and get the ball out of Young’s hand a little quicker, perhaps this offense can finally discover a rhythm. Thus far, they’ve lacked any identity whatsoever, and at times they’ve struggled just to have consistency with who’s on the field to run routes in the first place. They need to simplify things, and that might be why Reich is taking over the offense again.
Of course, the Cowboys won’t make that easy. They boast one of the best pass rushes in the league, and Dan Quinn’s defense is built around rushing the quarterback into a quick decision without thinking about it. And the only quarterback with a worse passer rating under pressure than Young this year is Daniel Jones, who lost 40-0 the one time he faced this defense.
The Panthers are desperately looking for answers, especially on offense. Reich’s history suggests he can figure it out, and Young has the raw talent to deliver, but a lot of things need to start going right for these Panthers. This Dallas defense is notorious for wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, so this might not be the week for those changes to really take hold.