Panthers interim coach Chris Tabor: 'Let's have some fun'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers deep snapper JJ Jansen quickly turned to kicker Eddy Pineiro when asked to share something about interim head coach Chris Tabor that the rest of the world doesn't know.

After a brief exchange of whispers, he turned to offer this on the man who has been Carolina's special teams coach since 2022.

"Just confirming,'' Jansen said with a smile. "Coach Tabor cannot pronounce the word 'orange.' He pronounces it 'O-ing.' And we have signals and game plans and calls that include the word O-ing just to mess with him.''

Tabor doesn't mind being messed with. He actually likes it. It fits right in with his goal over the final six games for the Panthers, who have the NFL's worst record at 1-10. His message to players heading into Sunday's game at the 4-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) was to have fun.

"We're playing a kids game played by grown men,'' Tabor said. "So let's have some fun while we're doing it.''

Panthers owner David Tepper fired head coach Frank Reich Monday and replaced him with Tabor on an interim basis. In all likelihood, Tepper won't consider Tabor, 52, a candidate for the full-time job for 2024, unlike last season's interim coach Steve Wilks, who was in contention before Reich got the gig. Tabor falls into the category of Perry Fewell -- Tepper's interim coach in 2019 after he fired Ron Rivera in-season -- who was never a serious candidate for the job.

Carolina likely will go after a young offensive mind to groom quarterback Bryce Young. Among the possibilities are Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, Carolina's top choice last offseason before he opted to stay with the Lions, and Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, who has helped develop rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud to an MVP candidate.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spoke to Tepper during the last coaching search and could be a candidate this time around too.

But for now, Tabor was the perfect choice to guide a team that hasn't had much fun this season. His goal is to get everyone to play loose, starting with Young, who is 1-9 as the starting quarterback.

"Play loose, not reckless,'' Tabor said. "Say, 'Hey, here's my chips. I'm all-in. Let's go.' And I think that can be comforting to players.''

One of Tabor's methods of levity is to bring a front-desk bell to meetings. He taps it to start and end a meeting. He taps it if players aren't paying attention. He taps it to deliver one of his $5 fines that can be for anything from a bad haircut to mispronouncing a word.

Sometimes he fines himself.

"He uses that as a Pavlov's dog piece of equipment to bring our attention back,'' said Jansen, referring to the psychologist who experimented with conditioning dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. "We jokingly say that we are purchasing comradery among levity.''

If the mood in the locker room the past few days is an indication, Tabor's message is sinking in. Players were smiling and laughing -- and a few even dancing -- while media were present.

"It's not worth firing coaches for,'' Jansen said. "But I do think you get a little bit of a, 'Hey, we'd really like to reset and shrink this down to six games.' And that can bring some energy.

"This also is a small reflection of Tabor's leadership.''

Tabor is willing to tease players in team meetings, and they seem to enjoy it.

On Wednesday, he told a player he thought was from Tampa he looked like he was from Tampa, and everyone laughed. Turns out Tabor was close. The player was from Miami.

Mainly, Tabor has remained himself, which has been reassuring to players and coaches.

"His personality has always been fun-loving, light-hearted,'' outside linebacker Brian Burns said. "He always makes jokes, but you always can tell he's about business.

"He said there's two ways to have fun. You can have fun kicking somebody's behind or being on the other side of having somebody kick your behind.''

Tabor began his coaching career in 1993 as an assistant coach at his high School in St. Joseph, Missouri. His only head-coaching job that wasn't an interim position was in 2001 at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. The team went 6-5, its first winning season in 15 years.

Tabor didn't get to the NFL until 2008, when the Chicago Bears hired him as a special teams assistant. He has been a special teams coordinator since 2011 with the Cleveland Browns, Bears and Panthers.

But Tabor knows football beyond special teams. He was a three-year starting quarterback at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he was the team MVP in 1992.

He also knows how to teach. Jansen called him a "tremendous teacher.''

"His teaching style is really unique, and really effective,'' Jansen continued. "We go six, seven, eight minutes of real intense football. And then there's always a minute or two of a joke or story, something to keep it light-hearted. And then we kind of reset.

"This keeps guys engaged. There's a lot of memorable stuff that I think helps as we get later in the week and then into the game, a guy's recall is better instead of a 40-minute meeting where you're falling asleep.''

If Tabor is interested in the full-time job, he doesn't show it. He said there have been no guarantees he'll get an interview, adding all of his focus is on "today.''