BACK TO THE FUTURE: Panthers hired their first starting quarterback as new head coach

By Richard Walker

After pursuing 12 candidates to replace the coach David Tepper fired Matt Rhule early in the 2022 season, Tepper dug back into the team’s past to find a full-time replacement.

Frank Reich

Frank Reich, who was the starting quarterback for the franchise’s first three games in 1995, was hired as the team’s new head coach on Thursday.

Reich becomes the first head coach in team history with an offensive coaching background.

All previous fulltime head coaches – Dom Capers, George Seifert, John Fox, Ron Rivera and Rhule – all had defensive coaching backgrounds. Even the two interim coaches hired by the team – Cramerton’s Perry Fewell and Charlotte’s Steve Wilks – had defensive backgrounds.

Most NFL reports indicated Tepper was interested in hiring a coach with an offensive background. Not only did eight of the 12 candidates the team pursued have offensive backgrounds, but seven of the eight head coaches in this season’s AFC and NFC semifinals had offensive backgrounds.

The Panthers pursued or interviewed the following: Reich, Wilks, former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, former Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions and Wake Forest head coach Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and New England Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.

Johnson withdrew his name from consideration, Ryans canceled a scheduled interview and Mayo declined an interview request to remain with his team. And Reich and Wilks had second interviews earlier this week; Wilks was popular among the Panthers’ players after guiding the team to a 6-6 record and 7-10 final record that was one win shy of the NFC South Division title.

Reich gained fame as a player at both Maryland and for the Buffalo Bills before signing as a free agent with Carolina before the Panthers’ inaugural 1995 season.

Reich was a backup to future NFL standout Boomer Esiason for three years at Maryland and a shoulder injury cost him his starting job as a senior in 1984 before he would later come off the bench to lead the Terrapins to what was then the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I football history.

Reich replace Stan Gelbaugh with the Terrapins trailing the University of Miami with future NFL standout Bernie Kosar 31-0. Maryland would outscore the defending national champion Hurricanes 42-9 in the second half to lead the Terrapins to a dramatic 42-40 victory at the historic Orange Bowl.

Despite being a career backup in college, the 6-foot-4, 211-pound Reich was a third-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in the 1985 NFL Draft.

After future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly signed with the Bills after the United States Football League folded, Reich was again a backup to a standout quarterback.

A 13-year NFL player, Reich made 20 regular season starts and two postseason playoff starts, most famously leading the Bills to the NFL’s largest postseason comeback in history during the 1992 AFC playoffs.

Trailing 35-3 in the third quarter against the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans), Reich engineered a rally that led to a 41-38 overtime victory that sparked the Bills into a second straight Super Bowl.

After playing for the Bills, Panthers, New York Jets and Detroit Lions, Reich became a coaching intern, offensive coaching assistant, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach for the Indianapolis Colts from 2006 to 2011, wide receivers coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2012, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers (now Los Angeles Chargers) from 2013-15, offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles (2016-17) and Colts head coach from 2018 until he was fired during this past season.

Reich’s coaching highlights included a 2018 Super Bowl title with the Eagles and playoff appearances as Colts head coach in 2018 and 2020.

He comes to the Panthers with a 41-35-1 NFL head coaching record that includes 1-2 in postseason games.

Reich’s younger brother Joe Reich just completed his 22nd season as Wingate University head coach; The winningest coach in school history, Joe Reich has guided the Bulldogs to a 142-86 record that includes 11-3 last fall with an advance to the third round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.