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David Tepper and the Panthers Face a Long Road Back After 2-15 Season

Bryce Young scrambles during the Panthers’ last game of the season on Sunday. (Photo by Myicha Drakeford/Panthers)

There’s good news and bad news regarding the Carolina Panthers coming off a season-ending 9-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. The bad news is they finished with the worst record in the NFL at 2-15. The good news is the team with the worst record gets the first pick in the NFL Draft.

About that… 

The Panthers gave their first-round pick away when they made the trade for the Chicago Bears pick last year in what looks to be a disastrous deal that landed them rookie quarterback Bryce Young

It’s not so much Young that’s the problem, it’s what they gave away, including top receiver D.J. Moore and the upcoming first-rounder, which turned out to be yet another No. 1 overall pick. 

When the deal was made, the Panthers were thought of as a middle-of-the-pack team on the rise after a strong finish last season — not a potential last-place finisher.  

Bringing in Young and a brand-new all-star coaching staff was meant to allow the Panthers to compete in a weak division. After the game, we had a chance to catch up with Young and ask what he’s learned from the experience this season. 

“Obviously, just dealing with adversity,” he replied. “You’re not entitled to anything. You’re not entitled to any sort of success and just that you got to keep showing up. Keep making sure you’re pushing yourself. You can’t lean on success to be your motivator. You have to be internally motivated and that’s something that got put to the test throughout the year. So I think that’s definitely a learning lesson for me.” 

Bryce Young stands at a podium with a Carolina Panthers logo on the podium and backdrop
Bryce Young addresses the press after Sunday’s game. (Photo by Darrell Horwitz)

His coach to start the season, Frank Reich, turned into the earliest firing for a first-year coach in league history when he was let go after starting the season 1-10. After that change, the Panthers went 1-5 with their lone win against Atlanta being more of a baseball game score of 9-7. 

While firing Reich didn’t turn things around like firing the coach last year did, thanks then in large park to the ability of interim coach Steve Wilks in picking up the pieces, Young did seem to be on a better path during the win against Atlanta — and especially in the 33-30 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the best game of Young’s (young) professional career. 

In that game, Young went 23-36 for 312 yards and two touchdowns with a total quarterback rating (QBR) of 119.40, following a 100.17 QBR against the Falcons. 

Then came the 26-0 stinker against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and another shutout at home against the Bucs that saw two long touchdowns nullified — one on a fumble before the ball crossed the goal line and the second because of an illegal formation. 

Asked after the game if those plays were indicative of how the season played out, interim coach Chris Tabor said, “I don’t think of it like that. I understand the question and those were really bad plays, and you’re tying it in with the season because it’s been a bad season, but those are the kinds of plays that can’t happen and that’s disappointing.” 

The Jacksonville loss saw what will certainly be the most memorable part of the season for the Panthers, and for all the wrong reasons, as owner David Tepper was filmed flinging his drink out of the suite he was seated in onto Jaguar fans below. For that, the billionaire was fined $300,000.

And that brings us to the root of the problem: David Tepper. He’s always been brilliant in the business world, making billions of dollars to then become one of the richest owners in the NFL. As good as he’s been in finance, he’s equally as bad as the owner of a football team and there’s a key reason why: Tepper is too emotional. 

Tepper wants instant gratification, and when he doesn’t get it, he throws a tantrum like a petulant child. That’s why he continues to fire coaches — whether it’s the Panthers or Charlotte FC, the other local team he owns. 

My thought is he’s embarrassed by the teams’ performance, but he’s just as much of an embarrassment as his teams are — if not more — and he’s not endearing himself to any fanbase in Charlotte, regardless of how many concerts he books at Bank of America Stadium. 

True Carolina fans love the Panthers and probably always will, but that love is dissipating a bit. They’re angry, and what follows that emotion is often apathy. Attendance is down, and many of the fans who do show up are wearing jerseys of the opponent.  

Fans are losing hope in the team and rapidly rotating through coaches isn’t going to help anything. But Tepper has to hire someone, so let’s look at who’s likely to hit his radar now that the offseason has officially started. 

Ben Johnson, offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions, is a hot name out there and rumored to be a target of Tepper’s. He’s 37 years old and has never been a head coach in the NFL. Even if the Panthers were to win the sweepstakes for him over other teams that are reportedly interested, it’s unlikely a first-time head coach would be able to stand up to Tepper and his demands. 

Michigan Wolverines head coach and newly crowned NCAA champion Jim Harbaugh has won everywhere he has coached and, perhaps more importantly, he doesn’t take any shit. That’s exactly what Tepper needs in a coach, even if he doesn’t know it: someone to take control of the franchise while Tepper calmly sits in the owner’s box and watches the game without getting involved or going viral.

When all hope is gone, you need to find a savior, and while Harbaugh doesn’t walk on water, he could potentially be that for Carolina fans. There is nobody else Tepper could hire that would bring instant credibility to the team. Harbaugh’s prickly himself, but his players like him and play hard for him. 

Harbaugh turned the San Francisco 49ers franchise around when he took over there in 2010, reaching the NFC Championship game three times in his four seasons there, including a trip to the Super Bowl. He resurrected the Michigan program and has led them to three consecutive Big Ten titles, beat rival Ohio State in three consecutive games and on Monday laid claim to the College Football Playoffs National Championship. 

Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines of a Michigan game
Jim Harbaugh has seen success in the NFL and NCAA. (Photo courtesy if Maize & Blue/Creative Commons)

Wherever Harbaugh goes, success follows. Tepper reportedly talked to the coach last year when he was exploring returning to the NFL, but it’s now thought Harbaugh may be looking to return to the League after facing two separate suspensions this season for alleged recruiting violations during the COVID-19 “dead period” and a sign-stealing controversy later in the season. 

Michigan reportedly wants to keep Harbaugh and there is talk they have offered him a 10-year contract for $125 million. Money is no issue for Tepper, who should offer Harbaugh a blank check and complete control of the franchise, allowing him to hire his preferred general manager now that Scott Fitterer was the first to go on Monday morning. 

That’s likely the offer he would have to make, and there’s no guarantee Harbaugh would bite, as the Panthers are far from an attractive job at the moment. They have holes all over the field, and Tepper’s reputation of being a hands-on owner would likely not sit well with Harbaugh. 

But if anyone can put Tepper in his place — an owner’s box with closed windows — Harbaugh is the man to do it. He wouldn’t be afraid to stand up to him and that’s what a personality like Tepper needs. 

After Sunday’s game, I ran into a fan named Mason Grovaski, who was hanging around the stadium long after the contest ended, waiting near the parking lot to see Panthers’ players. He’s been a fan since 2014 and had flown in from Colorado to watch the game because he wanted to see Bryce Young. 

Grovaski thought picking Frank Reich over interim coach Steve Wilks last year was a mistake. 

“I think we should have gone with the guy everybody was doing great with and everybody was loving in Steve Wilks, and I kind of hope we bring [Wilks] back next year as our new coach,” Grovaski told me.   

A fan in Panthers gear holds a sign that reads "I flew from Colorado to see Bryce Young"
Panthers fan Mason Grovaski (Photo by Darrell Horwitz)

When I asked his thoughts on Harbaugh, he said, “I feel he would be great because he’s been successful in the NFL once already. I would love him to come, because I think he would be the best thing for this team, but I don’t think he will.” 

Tepper has all the resources to be a successful owner and the only thing standing in his way is himself. He needs to face his greatest fear, someone challenging him, because if he’s able to do that, he finally might achieve the success he’s seeking. That’s our only wish at this point, because we know he’s not going to look in the mirror and say, “Maybe it’s me.” 

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  1. After reading this fine recap of the Panthers’ miserable season and owner, I suggest a follow up story that would take some time and research but would give a more alternative press approach to the topic. A lot of fans of various NFL teams are unhappy with their owners, but what can a city do to “fire” the owner? Checking the legal points of the city’s agreements with the NFL and Tepper should be easy enough to attain since it’s public record. It would be unprecedented for a city to get rid of their city’s NFL owner, but thinking of how much money Tepper has cost the city (not to mention Rock Hill, which he thoroughly screwed — and not to mention how he pissed off many black fans when he didn’t give interim coach Steve Wilks the head coaching job). If Tepper agreed to any specific goals for the team’s success, and assuming he didn’t reach those goals – as in, a 2-15 record — could he be sued by the city for a breach of contract? Hope someone will take this up.

    1. Thanks for the comments John. As I am from Chicago, if you could get rid of an owner who failed to win, I would have tried to do that years ago.

      Promises of success are not something an owner does or could be held accountable for.

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