Unraveling the Puzzle: The Dramatic Downfall – Exploring the Turmoil Behind Panthers’ 1-10 Slump That Ultimately Sealed Frank Reich’s Fate.

Why did the Panthers fail so completely in 11 games under Frank Reich?

Carolina seemed poised for a step forward in 2023, with an experienced head coach, an all-star staff, an easy division and a veteran roster built around the kind of promising quarterback you overpay to move up and draft with the No. 1 overall pick.

The only thing that played out as expected was how bad the NFC South has been, and the Panthers somehow still found a way to stay at the bottom of it.

Now that Carolina has moved on from Reich — special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor will serve as interim head coach — all that’s left is to exhume a team with a 1-10 record and no first-round draft pick to show for it come April.

“There’s a heart-pounding disappointment in not hitting the marks that we needed to hit to keep this going and try to get it turned around,” Reich told The Charlotte Observer on Monday after his firing. “It hurts me for the guys, the team, the coaches and the fans.”

There’s so much more to Carolina’s struggles than choosing the wrong quarterback with the top pick in April, but No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud has been electric for Houston, even an MVP candidate, and no rookie has gotten a vote for the Associated Press MVP award since Dan Marino in 1984. Bryce Young, who went 23-4 as a starter at Alabama, has known little in Carolina besides deficits on the way to losses. The Panthers have had the lead for just 18.2% of their games this season, and only 13.6% in the second half.

You can argue the single most important part of this season was to develop Young, and it’s hard to see much of that. He has nine touchdown passes in 11 games, and all of them came in losses, six of them when trailing by at least two scores. In terms of moments he’ll look back on positively, he has the game-winning drive for the field goal to beat the Texans in Week 8 — 5-of-6 for 50 clutch yards — and very little else.

Statistically, Carolina is bad at everything. The Panthers are 30th in total offense, 29th in scoring offense, 29th in run offense and 30th in pass offense. Defensively, they’re 30th in points allowed, 31st in the red zone and dead last with seven takeaways all season, setting up the third-worst turnover margin in the league.

To be fair, injuries have hit Carolina hard, especially on defense. Linebacker Shaq Thompson played only 69 snaps before going on injured reserve, safety Jeremy Chinn had 195, and cornerback Jaycee Horn has played 20 all season. The offensive line, a source of confidence with the run game last season, has barely had its starting guards all season, with Brady Christensen out all year and Austin Corbett playing just four games.

So many of the team’s ambitious free-agent additions have also disappointed. Miles Sanders, a Pro Bowl selection in rushing for 1,269 yards for a Super Bowl team last year, is averaging 3.1 yards per carry, with a single touchdown. Veteran receiver Adam Thielen, already with 100 targets, is averaging a career-low 9.5 yards per catch, with only four touchdowns. Safety Vonn Bell, who had four interceptions for the Bengals last year, has just one, with just two passes defensed all season.

Even returning mainstays have struggled. Brian Burns, a Pro Bowl player the past two seasons with a combined 21.5 sacks, has just six, and Carolina, having turned down lucrative trade offers last year, will have to overpay to avoid losing him in free agency this spring.

What’s next for Bryce Young, the Panthers and Frank Reich?

What’s next for Bryce Young, the Panthers and Frank Reich?

The Panthers have added up to a total never close to the sum of their parts, a collection of talent and coaching wisdom that never came together. Reich’s desperate flip-flop in handing offensive play-calling to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, then taking it back two weeks ago, only served to show it didn’t matter who was calling the shots. Carolina had a remarkably consistent regression on the scoreboard — their scoring totals in the past seven games are 24, 21, 15, 13, 13, 10 and 10 points.

As a franchise, Carolina has been here before. Owner David Tepper has now fired coaches in-season three times since buying the team in 2018. What has persisted through all of it is a reliable losing record. The Panthers have suffered double-digit losses five years in a row now, after totaling just five in their first 24 seasons before Tepper bought the team.

Reich’s firing has felt like when and not if for weeks, and yet Tepper’s impatience is nearly unprecedented. The last time a head coach was fired this early into his tenure was 1978, when the 49ers fired Pete McCulley after a 1-8 start. The extremely glass-half-full take on that is that it allowed San Francisco to hire Bill Walsh and draft Joe Montana the next year.

Whoever takes the Panthers coaching job will do so accepting the challenge of developing Young into a franchise quarterback, without the assistance of a high draft pick and with an overall void of talent on offense. That, plus the threat of the quick hook that Tepper has shown, could make Carolina one of the least desirable openings this spring in what could be a long list.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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