Frank Reich's top priority as Panthers coach: Fill the franchise QB void

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers showed a video Tuesday of Frank Reich, the quarterback, throwing the first touchdown in team history, an 8-yard corner route to tight end Pete Metzelaars in 1995, before introducing him as the team’s sixth head coach.

The video also included Reich, the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, celebrating a 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII that featured the famous "Philly Special" play, when quarterback Nick Foles caught a fourth-and-1 touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton.

What the video didn’t show was Reich, a career backup, went 0-3 as the starter for Carolina in 1995 -- and that the team didn’t start winning until he was replaced by first-round rookie Kerry Collins.

It also didn’t show that second-year quarterback Carson Wentz was 11-2 for the Eagles in 2017 before suffering an ACL injury that ended his season and opened the door for the journeyman Foles to win Super Bowl MVP.

Nor was there footage of Reich’s four-plus years as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. His tenure took a decidedly downward turn after quarterback Andrew Luck, the top pick of the 2012 draft, abruptly retired before the start of the 2019 season after several years of injuries.

In other words, Reich understands the value of having a franchise quarterback. Finding that player in the draft is even better because it opens up money to build the rest of the team while the quarterback is on a rookie deal.

Fixing the Panthers' quarterback position -- which has been in flux since 2011 No. 1 overall pick and 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton began having shoulder issues in 2018 -- is a big reason Reich was hired.

That much was clear in Tuesday’s news conference in which a large portion of the questions centered around the quarterback.

While Reich didn’t promise the Panthers would use the No. 9 pick in the draft on a quarterback, or suggest general manager Scott Fitterer would move into the top three picks to get one of the elite quarterback prospects, he admitted going through seven different quarterbacks in Indianapolis was “not the ideal situation."

It was no more ideal than Carolina going through eight different quarterbacks since 2018. He inherits a roster that has only 2022 third-rounder Matt Corral and Jacob Eason, who was with Reich in Indy in 2020 and 2021, under contract. Sam Darnold and PJ Walker are free agents.

“You’ve got to have stability at quarterback," Reich said, in the understatement of his news conference.

Fitterer agreed. He has spent the past two years building the defense and offensive line so the team would be in position to win with the right quarterback. Ideally, he admitted that would be through the draft.

“So if you have conviction, go get it," Fitterer said. “If it’s not, you don’t want to force it. You don’t take a player and pass on a really good player that might set you back. But you can’t be afraid to take a shot if you believe that’s the guy."

While Reich mentioned having a specific vision of what he wanted that quarterback to be, he reminded he’ll have a staff with experience to develop a quarterback who can win in today’s NFL, where mobile quarterbacks are becoming the norm. He also reminded there has to be a Plan B in case the Panthers don’t find who they want in the draft or free agency.

Adapting is one of Reich’s strengths, noted Bill Polian, who was general manager of the Buffalo Bills and Panthers when Reich played quarterback for them.

“He made the playoffs [coaching Indianapolis in 2020] with Philip Rivers. And the following year, when Carson Wentz came in and was struggling, he completely changed the offense to feature a running back that led the league in rushing," Polian said of Jonathan Taylor and his 1,811 yards rushing in 2021.

“And they came within one game of making the playoffs [in 2021]. So that shows you how adaptable he is in terms of using personnel that he has and getting a team ready to play."

What’s important moving forward is Reich, Fitterer and owner David Tepper are on the same page. Reich insisted his relationship with Fitterer will be completely collaborative, not one-sided as it was under former coach Matt Rhule, who was fired after a 1-4 start this season.

Tepper went so far Tuesday as to say he “made a mistake" in the decision that led to the hiring of Rhule, who initially was given complete power over roster decisions.

“It’s a mistake to have a CEO-type head coach," Tepper said. “That’s a mistake. Just in general. You want to get somebody who is really good on offense or really good on defense.

“We think Frank is really good on offense."

Reich has helmed four top-10 scoring offenses in nine seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator or head coach (2017 as Eagles OC; 2018, 2020, 2021 as Colts HC).

So whether the Panthers get in position to select one of the top rookie quarterbacks -- Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud or Kentucky’s Will Levis -- in the draft, or add a veteran quarterback available in free agency or via trade, they expect to be better at that position under Reich.

And Reich expects the team to be better offensively, as he should with his history of top-10 offenses.

The only thing he’s not sure about is whether he’ll call the plays for whoever the quarterback is.

“I’m going to wait to see that we get the offensive staff together," Reich said. “I’ve always enjoyed doing that [calling plays]. Feel like I’ve had a good bit of success doing that and enjoy doing that. Feels to me there’s a little bit of a trend going away from that.

“I want to continue to reexamine that. It just depends on how the staff comes together and the coordinator thing."