The Panthers hold the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and for the prospect who might be taken there, it’s usually a bittersweet proposition. Here’s a place they’ll spend perhaps the next decade of their life and, depending on the route it took the franchise to sink to a level that earned it the No. 1 pick, a prospect might spend the next decade trying to fix something that’s irreparably broken.
That’s not the case with Carolina, which just completed one of the more noteworthy hiring cycles in any coaching carousel I can remember. Whoever is getting drafted No. 1 isn’t just getting a coach, he’s getting a coach sought out specifically because of their acumen and talent. While that may seem obvious to the lay fan—it’s the NFL, so isn’t every team assembled of the best people for the job?—it’s time you learn a little bit about the process of assembling a coaching staff and why the Panthers tried to do something different.
Most coaching staffs are assembled at a breakneck pace with the help of various people in the middle. Agencies can sometimes have significant influence on which coordinators are paired with certain coaches. Friendships are essential. Family ties, as Defector wrote about last year, also play a significant role. I knew a coach who was on a staff that believed the coordinator’s father had something to do with his placement, which doesn’t feel all that unusual.
That’s what made Panthers owner David Tepper and GM Scott Fitterer’s directive this past winter to new head coach Frank Reich worth discussing. They told Reich not to hire people he knew. They wanted the best coaches, not coaches who Reich could personally vouch for. That’s a massive difference.
The process somewhat mimicked the assistant search run by Giants coach Brian Daboll, who had little to no relationship with any of his coordinators before taking the job. While that can feel like a massive risk, especially for coaches who are worried about how their message might get interpreted, it’s also an obvious display of confidence that helps peel back the layer of cynicism we all have about how this process works. Both Wink Martindale, Daboll’s defensive coordinator, and Mike Kafka, his offensive coordinator, had second interviews for head coaching jobs. The Giants turned around a roster that had been buried underneath a few years of bad coaching decisions and even worse coaching politics.
For the Panthers, they have a head coach, an offensive coordinator (Thomas Brown) and a defensive coordinator (Ejiro Evero) who are all represented by different agencies. According to multiple people briefed on the matter, their connections to Reich were flimsy at best. The Panthers also had to make a significant commitment to pry each of them away from other jobs or opportunities. Evero, for example, is among the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the NFL. He received interest for head coaching jobs this past winter, as did Brown. Both are believed to be a few short steps away from a head coaching position.
But for now, they are all pouring different experiences and backgrounds into a process that will help shape the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Brown and Evero were both assistants under Sean McVay in Los Angeles, though their paths to this point have been divergent. Evero came up under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. He also worked under Jim Harbaugh on offense and defense. Brown worked for Mark Richt and Will Muschamp at Miami and South Carolina, respectively. We wrote a little bit about his rise here.
One coach I talked to made a fine case for the way the league has always worked in that good coaches are first good apprentices. Some position coaches will toil under one smart coordinator or head coach for a decade or more, absorbing finer points and emerging more prepared to take a significant job. There is something to be said for keeping a tight circle. Of course, the speed at which ideas are digested, co-opted and transformed has never been greater..
An elite coaching staff with tentacles all over the NFL gives someone a chance to adapt faster. It also lessens the chance that some player is going to tune a coach out due to some suspicion of nepotism or cronyism.
Hearing about instances of a real hiring process in recent NFL cycles has been something of a cracked window inside a stuffy old house. Twice over the past year, I heard new coaches being praised for interviewing close to a dozen candidates for position roles, or running what we might consider to be an actual job search. Coaches are trying to find other coaches who align with their philosophy, or can somehow expand on it, without prealigning themselves and, ultimately, limiting their options.
Carolina has taken that model and turned it into a standard (not to mention the fact that Tepper was willing to pay for elite coaching talent in a competitive market). The hiring process was truly competitive. It was truly lucrative. And, the Panthers will gamble on the idea that this platform can directly translate to a better-taught and -prepared team.
While nothing will ever offer complete peace of mind when an elite college player has had some semblance of control throughout his career, this has to be the next-best thing. Coaches you know will coach you well. How’s that for a burgeoning trend?