Frank Reich just became the Carolina Panthers’ new coach. But why not Steve Wilks?

As the new head coach of the Carolina Panthers, Frank Reich might end up being a perfectly fine hire.

But I’ll put it bluntly — Reich isn’t who I wanted to get this job. I wrote a column before the season ended pushing for Steve Wilks, the no-nonsense interim head coach who went 6-6 with the Panthers after taking over in difficult circumstances in October. Wilks was the players’ choice, he was my choice, and he was the choice of a lot of Panthers fans.

But he wasn’t owner Dave Tepper’s choice, and that’s the only person who really counts in this. Wilks got passed over.

And if it wasn’t going to be Wilks, Reich was a solid backup selection, much like he was a solid and occasionally spectacular backup quarterback for the Buffalo Bills behind Jim Kelly for the majority of his NFL career.

As a coach, Reich won a Super Bowl ring as offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles and then went a very respectable 40-33-1, with two playoff appearances, in four-plus years as the Indianapolis Colts head coach before he got fired in November. Reich impressed the Panthers in two interviews with his thorough plan for rebuilding the team and his list of potential assistant coaches, a source said.

Still ... Frank Reich?!

Not Wilks? Not Sean Payton?

Certainly this wasn’t the way people would have predicted it going when the Panthers’ season ended 18 days ago, but Reich it is. Our Charlotte Observer headline writers can recycle some of the old ones we used in 1995 if the team ever starts winning again: “The Reich Stuff” and “Do the Reich Thing” were a couple we went with back in the day.

The fact that Reich was the Carolina Panthers’ very first starting quarterback in 1995 and that he and his family stuck around Charlotte long after that job ended as Reich pursued a career first as the leader of a Charlotte seminary and then as a Presbyterian pastor?

It’s an interesting backstory, for sure (although not as interesting as Wilks’, who has even deeper roots to Charlotte). I’m glad Reich knows how to differentiate all the versions of Queens Roads around here. But it’s ultimately irrelevant to the job at hand.

Reich, the first head coach with an offensive background the Panthers have hired, has to find a quarterback (it sounds even more likely now that Carolina will draft one at No. 9 overall in April). And then he has to score points.

And then, most of all, he has to win.

The law firm representing Brian Flores and Wilks in the class-action case against the NFL for “systemic racial discrimination in the hiring, retention and termination of NFL coaches and executives” tweeted out a statement decrying Tepper’s choice.

“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper,” the account @WigdorLaw wrote. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”

The Panthers didn’t talk to Wilks about possibly being Reich’s defensive coordinator or, alternately, Reich serving as Wilks’ offensive coordinator. Since both interviewed for the head job, such a conversation would have been “weird,” a source with direct knowledge of the process said. The source also said that it wasn’t as much about what Wilks didn’t do in his two interviews as it was about Reich “separating himself from the pack” with his detail-oriented plan.

It is now considered likely Wilks will coach elsewhere in 2023 as an assistant.

A coaching carousel

Tepper only bought the Panthers in 2018, but Reich will be the fifth head coach he’s employed on either an interim or permanent basis in the ensuing five years. The ground shifts so often under Bank of America Stadium that everyone is just used to the earthquakes by now.

Tepper inherited Ron Rivera — the most successful coach in Carolina history — in 2018 and fired him in 2019. He then had Perry Fewell as an interim coach and didn’t retain him. He made an out-of-the-box hire with Matt Rhule in 2020, watched him go 11-27, and fired Rhule in October 2022 — less than three years into what was supposed to be at least a five-year rebuilding plan. Tepper then promoted Wilks to interim head coach, saw him stabilize a team that started 1-4 in 2022 and stay in the playoff hunt until January, and didn’t retain him. It’s not exactly been smooth sailing.

As for Payton, whom Tepper did interview but didn’t hire: I always had mixed feelings about that possibility.

Yes, Payton has won a Super Bowl and tormented Carolina for years with New Orleans. But the price for Payton ... wow. And I’m not talking about his salary.

The Panthers would have had to at least give up a first-round draft choice to get Payton, and likely more than that, since he is still under contract with New Orleans.

While it was certainly worth exploring the Payton option, it’s also worth wondering how much of Payton’s success was due to linking up with a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees for so long with New Orleans.

I’m old enough to remember when the Panthers hired a man who had an even better record than Payton and had won two Super Bowls as a head coach before he ever got to North Carolina. But without Steve Young or Joe Montana, things didn’t work out well in Charlotte for George Seifert.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich stands on the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich stands on the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Now comes Reich, who is very familiar with hands-on owners given that he worked for the mercurial Jim Irsay in Indianapolis. Reich’s Indy teams were certainly better than the Panthers teams of the past few years, by and large. But Reich got fired in the middle of the 2022 season himself after Matt Ryan, his latest attempt at trying to resurrect the Andrew Luck quarterback magic, went south in a hurry.

Reich’s won-loss record looks awfully good compared to what the Panthers have been under Tepper. They’ve had five straight losing seasons since Tepper bought the team just in time to see Cam Newton get old. Carolina is 29-53 in those five years and has gone 0-for-5 trying to make the playoffs since Tepper got here.

A former pastor and QB

Reich, 61, is a good man and will be a steadying force in the locker room. He has agreed to terms on a four-year contract. Even during his playing days at Carolina, then-Buffalo coach Marv Levy said that Reich would be a fine coach if he ever wanted to go that route.

Deeply religious, Reich sometimes quoted Bible verses in his press conferences here and in Buffalo. He first attended and then led a local seminary in Charlotte in the early 2000s after his playing career ended. In 2006, he briefly served as the pastor of a Presbyterian church in the Ballantyne area before catching the coaching bug. He worked his way up and won a Super Bowl in Philadelphia as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator before taking the head job in Indianapolis in 2018.

Reich played in the NFL from 1985-98, but in those 14 seasons he only started a total of 22 games (including playoffs). Mostly, he sat on the bench. He was 7-15 as a starter. His NFL claim to fame as a player was leading what was then the biggest comeback in NFL history, coming back from a 35-3 deficit to win a playoff game for Buffalo over Houston in the 1992 postseason.

At Carolina, Reich was 0-3 as a starter before getting benched for rookie Kerry Collins before the fourth game and never seeing the field again. His highlight was Carolina’s first game, when Reich threw for 329 yards and guided Carolina to a last-minute touchdown to tie the game at 20-all. Alas, he was sacked for the ninth time in OT and fumbled the ball away. Carolina lost, 23-20. His next two games were poor and resulted in lopsided losses, and after that Collins came in and Reich never saw the field again in Charlotte.

Panthers quarterback Frank Reich (14) is sacked by Giants defensive end Robert Harris (98) during the first quarter of Carolina’s 6-3 win over New York Saturday, Aug. 27, 1995 at Clemson Memorial Stadium.
Panthers quarterback Frank Reich (14) is sacked by Giants defensive end Robert Harris (98) during the first quarter of Carolina’s 6-3 win over New York Saturday, Aug. 27, 1995 at Clemson Memorial Stadium.

Reich and Rivera

Some people say Reich is like hiring Payton, except without the draft-choice haul it would take to get him.

But to me, Reich is more similar to Rivera. Neither was a star NFL player, but both had a long career in the league that always helps them with instant credibility in the locker room. Neither one is a screamer. Both are family men and are lauded by many for the way they care for other people. They were born within a month of each other and are both now 61.

So this is a bit of a back-to-the-future moment in a couple of ways: Reich took the first offensive snaps for the Panthers. I saw those snaps in Atlanta. I know people who actually still have his No. 14 Panthers jersey somewhere in their closet.

But this is also Tepper returning to almost where he started. He inherited Rivera, experimented with several other ideas and has now returned to a Rivera-esque coach, albeit one whose background is on offense rather than defense.

It may well work. It certainly did with Rivera.

But I still don’t quite understand:

Why not Wilks?