Panthers choose Reich over Wilks to be new HC

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Frank Reich, the starting quarterback for the first game in Carolina Panthers history in 1995, is now the team’s sixth head coach.

Owner David Tepper chose Reich, 61, after an extensive search that included nine candidates, including interim head coach Steve Wilks and former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.

It ultimately came down to Reich and Wilks, who went 6-6 after Matt Rhule was fired following a 1-4 start. Wilks was the sentimental favorite of Carolina players to get the full-time job.

Wigdor LLP, a New York City-based law firm that represents Wilks in his discrimination suit against the NFL for being fired after one season (2018) as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, responded to the decision to hire Reich on Twitter.

“We are shocked and disturbed that the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into Playoff contention and garnering the support of players and fans, that he was passed over for the Head Coach position by David Tepper.

“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.”

Reich, fired as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in November, is the first offensive-minded head coach hired in Carolina history.

That played a big role in the decision to hire him over Wilks, whose background is on defense.

Seven of the nine candidates had offensive backgrounds in a search that centered around fixing the quarterback position and an offense that has been in flux since quarterback Cam Newton began having shoulder issues midway through the 2018 season.

Since then, Carolina has had eight different quarterbacks start at least one game and has finished no better than 19th in the NFL in scoring. That has played a major role in the Panthers having five straight losing seasons since Tepper bought the franchise in 2018 for, at the time, a league-record $2.275 billion.

“Winning is the most important thing both on the field and in the community, and I am committed to winning a Super Bowl championship together,” Tepper said at the time.

Reich went to four Super Bowls as a player with the Buffalo Bills, where he was primarily a backup. As a coach, he won a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles following the 2017 season in which he was the offensive coordinator.

In 2017, Reich helped Carson Wentz go 11-2 with MVP-caliber numbers before a season-ending injury and Nick Foles become the Super Bowl MVP in a 41-33 victory against the New England Patriots.

He also worked with future Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers with the then-San Diego Chargers and Colts.

Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni, whose team is in the NFC Championship Game, got emotional earlier this season when talking about his respect for Reich.

“I’m emotional because I love Frank Reich,” said Sirianni, who was the quarterbacks coach under the then-Chargers offensive coordinator in San Diego from 2014 to ’15 and was Reich’s offensive coordinator with the Colts from 2018 to ’20. “He’s one of the best damn football coaches I’ve ever been around. … He’s one of my biggest mentors.”

Reich was fired by the Colts after a 3-5-1 start, ending his tenure with the team a little over one year after extending his contract through the 2026 season.

He was 40-33-1 during four-plus seasons in Indianapolis, 1-2 in the postseason.

Reich was forced go into each of his five seasons in Indianapolis with a different starting quarterback — Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Rivers, Wentz and Matt Ryan — after Luck’s sudden retirement before the coach’s second season in 2019.

His dismissal came a week after he benched Ryan in favor of second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger. The Colts ranked last in points per game (14.7) and sacks allowed (35), 27th in yards per game (315.1) and tied for last in turnovers (17) at the time of the firing, which came after a 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots in which the offense had just 121 yards.

Reich’s playing career was highlighted by leading the Bills back from a 32-point deficit to a 41-38 victory over the Houston Oilers in a 1992 wild-card game. That stood as the biggest comeback in NFL history until this past season, when the Minnesota Vikings rallied from a 33-0 halftime deficit to a 39-36 victory over the Colts in Week 15.

Reich was 0-3 as the starting quarterback for Carolina before being replaced by first-round pick Kerry Collins. He still owns a home in Charlotte, where one of his daughters recently began working for the Panthers in the marketing department.

Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, who helped Reich get into coaching after working with him as a player with the Panthers and Bills, said Reich will be a great fit at Carolina.

“He’s a great person,” said Polian, the first general manager of the Panthers. “He’s a really good football coach. He’s a great motivator. He’s a guy that connects very, very well to players. He’s tremendously organized. And he has a great football mind.”

Former NFL head coach and current NBC Sports NFL analyst Tony Dungy, who has worked with Reich, called it a “sensible hire.”

“David Tepper is really looking to take advantage of offensive expertise,” he said. “Frank has got that. He’s developed some great offenses and great quarterbacks.

“[Tepper] seems to be looking for that offensive energy, and Frank has that.”

Dungy called the decision not to hire Wilks disappointing, but he understood why.

“It’s disappointing because I thought Steve did an outstanding job,” Dungy said. “But you have to understand owners. He’s building a franchise. He’s building it on what he’s looking for.”

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