The summer seems to have happened aeons ago. That was the last time we thought these Atlanta Falcons might be a 10 win team without some divine intervention, when Saints fans had convinced themselves that Derek Carr was the answer, when Buccaneers fans...well, their expectations were probably pretty realistic, actually.
No team had their hopes and dreams more rudely smashed to bits than Carolina Panthers. There were articles about an all-star coaching staff, big belief in Bryce Young, and a sense that this team might actually contend in a weakened NFC South. Even those of us outside who thought the Panthers would probably scuffle a bit this year still figured they’d show signs of quickly returning to relevance, and why not? Good coaches, a promising rookie quarterback, and a strong defense are a recipe for some kind of success, aren’t they?
Not in Carolina, apparently, and that has cost head coach Frank Reich his job. For the second straight season, Atlanta will face an interim Panthers head coach in special teams coordinator Chris Tabor. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports that Jim Caldwell, a longtime and successful head coach in Indianapolis, will assist offensive coordinator and former Falcons draft pick Thomas Brown with the offense.
One and done— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 27, 2023
The #Panthers have fired coach Frank Reich, sources say, moving on before his first season is over.
Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor is the interim coach and addressing the team now. Jim Caldwell moves to special advisor working with the offense. pic.twitter.com/Cn0WUJPhYA
There is so much blame to go around here, but for my money the buck stops at the feet of an owner eager to meddle in David Tepper. Eager to win and of the staunch belief that he can help get his team there, Tepper reportedly pressured his front office to move up and draft Bryce Young, a move that cost the team a 2024 draft pick that’s likely to land in the top three selections. That move may have undercut his own staff—I remember plenty of rumors that Reich liked C.J. Stroud—and essentially meant Young had to be the guy. When this big name coaching staff utterly failed to put Young in a position to succeed, the writing was on the wall for them, especially as the season slipped away, the Panthers lost all but one game, and nothing seemed to be getting fixed. That wasted a typically solid season from the defense and the danger of absolutely ruining Young for the future seemed quite real, prompting a move from the owner who was so delighted to bring Reich in in the first place.
It will not be easy for this team to recover. Carolina has some cap space—a little more than the Falcons, in fact—but are now missing a top ten draft selection this year and have to start over with a new staff. Tepper has shown himself to have a quick trigger and an urge to insert himself into football operations, both of which will ensure this isn’t the most appealing job on the market. The presence of Young should help—I truly believe he’s going to be a good quarterback in this league with time and an actual supporting cast—but Carolina goes from hope to hardship and now looks to be in a tough spot for the immediate future. Only the Saints, with their brutal cap situation and costly Derek Carr contract, can be said to have a worse 2024-2025 outlook in the division.
This may just be the beginning of the bloodletting in the NFC South. Todd Bowles is in real danger in Tampa Bay, given that his team is on a crash course with a second straight losing season—yes, I know they won the NFC South last year, I don’t think that will save him—and has lost six of its past seven games. Dennis Allen may similarly be in trouble in New Orleans with the Saints looking listless and underperforming given that they took pains to keep the band together and added an expensive quarterback in Carr, and his side of the ball has been struggling mightily in recent weeks. Even Arthur Smith, who reportedly will make it to 2024, has been the subject of blistering criticism and hot seat conjecture give the disappointing season the Falcons have endured in year three of their rebuild. Someone is going to win the NFC South and save a coach’s job, but it’s very possible that three NFC South teams turn over their coaching staffs.
We’ve seen teams recover from these kinds of slips quickly in the past, so we’ll see how the offseason shakes out for Carolina. At the moment, though, they’re in the basement of the NFC South and won’t even see a quality first round pick as a result of all that suffering, and there may be big shakeups elsewhere in the division still to come.