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Panthers hire Frank Reich over Steve Wilks as head coach

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Frank Reich is returning to the Carolina Panthers as their coach, more than 27 years after starting the franchise’s first game at quarterback in 1995.

The Panthers announced Thursday they’ve agreed to terms with Reich to become the sixth head coach in franchise history. An introductory news conference was set for Tuesday.

Reich was chosen among nine candidates who interviewed for the job, including former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and this season’s interim head coach, Steve Wilks.

Reich received a four-year deal from the Panthers, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team does not release details of coaching hires.

The 61-year-old Reich joins the Panthers after spending the past four-plus seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, where he went 40-33-1 as head coach before being fired on Nov. 7 after a 3-5-1 start. The Colts went to the playoffs twice as a wild-card team under Reich, going 1-2 in the postseason.

Before joining the Colts, Reich worked two years as the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, helping them win the Super Bowl in his second season under head coach Doug Pederson.

NFL analyst and former Panthers general manager Bill Polian, who brought Reich with him from Buffalo to Carolina in 1995 to help mentor first-round draft pick Kerry Collins and provide quarterback stability, called Reich “as fine of a person as you’ll ever meet” and a head coach with “a great football mind.”

“I think he will fit in perfectly in Carolina,” Polian said. “This is where he wants to be. He literally knows the building and has been there as a player. He will bond with the players and put together a great staff. There is a still a lot of building to do with this team, but he will work great with (general manager) Scott Fitterer.”

Polian added that Reich is low key but detail-oriented.

“He’s inspirational when he needs to be,” Polian said. “And he’s very rationale and honest and straightforward with his players.”

Wilks, who is Black, was already part of a lawsuit that included Brian Flores alleging racist hiring practices by the NFL.

Douglas Wigdor, the lawyer who is representing Wilks in the lawsuit, said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday “we are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper.”

Wigdor continued: “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 inherits a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2017 — and hasn’t won a postseason game since winning the NFC championship in 2015 with league MVP Cam Newton at quarterback.

The Panthers have been searching for stability at quarterback ever since Newton began struggling with injuries shortly after the team’s 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. The Panthers cut Baker Mayfield this season and Sam Darnold is an unrestricted free agent, so Reich will have a key say in the future of the team’s quarterback situation.

Reich becomes the first Panthers head coach to come from an offensive background.

The Panthers finished 29th in the league in offense and 29th in passing this season after struggling with quarterback play.

Reich is no stranger to dealing with a revolving door of quarterbacks.

In his four full seasons at Indianapolis, the Colts had three top-10 scoring offenses with three different quarterbacks — Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz.

Reich has also served as Peyton Manning’s position coach.

He also knows a little bit about winning big games as a quarterback, too. Reich spent 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback. In the 1992 AFC playoffs, Reich orchestrated the biggest postseason comeback in league history when the Buffalo Bills rallied from a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers.

Panthers owner David Tepper has been eager to establish a winning program since purchasing the team for a then-record $2.3 billion in 2018 from Jerry Richardson, who sold the team amid allegations of sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace.

The Panthers are 29-53 since Tepper purchased the team and have never won more than seven games in a season.

Reich follows Dom Capers, George Seifert, John Fox, Ron Rivera and Matt Rhule as the franchise’s sixth full-time head coach.

Rivera is a minority, but the Panthers have never hired a permanent Black coach. They’ve had two Black coaches who’ve worked on an interim basis — Perry Fewell and Wilks.

Wilks went 6-6 last season. He took over for Rhule, who was fired by Tepper less than three seasons after giving him a seven-year, $72 million contract. Rhule was 11-27 overall, and the Panthers were 1-4 when he was fired.

Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and Wilks also received strong consideration for the job.

The others who interviewed for the position were Payton, former Detroit Lions and Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and NFL offensive coordinators Shane Steichen from Philadelphia, Ken Dorsey from the Buffalo and Mike Kafka from the New York Giants.

The Panthers are now expected to turn their attention to Reich hiring his own staff.

The Panthers already have interviewed for that position is Vic Fangio, the former head coach of the Denver Broncos. Fangio was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator in 1995 when Reich was the quarterback.

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