CHARLOTTE - When training camp opened in 2018, then-Colts coach Frank Reich looked out on the field and saw a coach's dream at quarterback - an apparently healthy and at the top of his game Andrew Luck.
The Panthers felt pretty good about things, too, with Cam Newton showing a little wear in his right shoulder when it was time to throw a deep ball, but he was still very capable of doing big things.
That was the last time it was normal for either of them, and that's part of the reason Frank Reich and the Panthers are here together now. Reich will be introduced at a press conference Tuesday at Bank of America Stadium, and he knows many of the questions will center on one of the hardest to answer - how to find stability at quarterback.
That question was also near the top of the list when he interviewed with owner David Tepper and general manager Scott Fitterer, and Reich said the solution begins with the three of them being on the same page.
"There's no doubt it's a collective vision, but it's one where everybody collaborates," Reich said. "But as the head coach, I've got to come in with a plan, with a vision for what's the quarterback position look like? What are we trying to get out of the quarterback position from our offense? How can we adapt and evolve, depending on the different quarterbacks that we have? And so that's part of the discussion is me sharing a vision.
"You've got to get every position right, but the quarterback position is going to be a big one."
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Reich knows that from experience.
After Luck's abrupt retirement in training camp in 2019, Reich got on the quarterback treadmill, starting a new passer each year. The procession from Jacoby Brissett to 16-year veteran Philip Rivers to a reclamation project in Carson Wentz to a roll of the dice on veteran Matt Ryan (with some Sam Ehlinger thrown in) led directly to Reich's availability.
The Panthers know all about that particular cycle, as Newton's last big injury midway through the 2018 season (their history can be delineated before Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football and after Pittsburgh) sent them into flux. A Taylor Heinicke and a Kyle Allen and a coaching change and a Teddy Bridgewater and a Sam Darnold and a PJ Walker (and a cameo from Newton again) and a Baker Mayfield later, and here they are.
Two entities, a coach and an organization, now looking to find what they once knew with their respective No. 1 overall picks (in 2011 and 2012).
So both know from experience that they can create a plan, but they have to be ready for plans to change.
"This is the NFL, so anytime you develop a plan, you got to have Plan B," Reich said. "Because whether it's draft or free agency, there's nothing saying it always plays out exactly like you think it will play out. So that's where the adapting part comes in. We come in, and we have a vision. Part of that for me is, OK, who, from a draft standpoint, the guys on the table from a free agent standpoint, let me dive into those guys via tape. Let me have those discussions with our staff. That's a big part of it.
"This isn't a one-man show. I may be leading that discussion from the coaching standpoint, but I want to work through it with the staff. We all work together to kind of look through the options, develop that plan and vision, and then be ready to adapt, have Plan B and C ready when you need them."
Of course, figuring out that plan is the many millions of dollars question. The Panthers don't have the luxury they had in 2011, or the Colts did in 2012, of picking first and having an obvious answer in front of them. The Panthers will choose ninth this spring, creating a bit of mystery. A large group of veterans will be available before the draft, and weighing those alternatives will come first.
From a practical standpoint, the preference would be to find a rookie and grow with him - Fitterer has said as much - and Reich's background at the position ostensibly makes him ideal for that. But without the certainty of picking first, the unknowns return. They want to plan, but they can't know what they're planning for, whether it's a small-but-electric player such as Bryce Young, a prototype pocket passer like Will Levis, a hybrid like CJ Stroud, or a dual-threat project like Anthony Richardson (or many, many others).
Fortunately, Reich has worked with many different quarterbacks at different stages of their development, so adjusting is nothing new to him.
"I've had to work with the young, the old, the pocket passer, the guy who moves," Reich said. "And I think even though it wasn't always an ideal scenario, like in Indy having a different quarterback every year, I did learn a lot through it because you're forced to adapt and evolve your offense around different styles of quarterbacks. So I just think that bodes well. I'm always learning and growing as a coach; I'm able to better articulate how things do change, depending on the style of quarterback that we have.
"The game certainly seems to be going more to the movement-type quarterback, the RPO stuff. But at some level, I still believe that no matter who your quarterback is, if you want to get to where we're going, we're going to have to be good from the pocket at times. Third down, red zone there, you've got movement stuff, but there's going to be 10 plays a game, and if you want to win a championship, you need somebody that can play from the pocket, right?"
Reich has plenty of other things on his plate. As tempting as it is to focus on the quarterback decisions, he's got an entire roster to coach. He's started reaching out to all those players already, getting to know a new bunch of guys in an old home. He might have been the Panthers' first starting quarterback in their inaugural 1995 season, but he's dealing with a lot of new people who weren't even born then.
He said he'd been busy texting to reach out to his new players, getting to know them over the last few hectic days - while also trying to build a coaching staff.
Reich's also getting to know Fitterer better, learning the preferences of his new partner in this process. The 49-year-old GM and the 61-year-old coach appear to have some things in common. Fitterer's a long-time road scout, comfortable on a sideline or holed up watching film. Reich was one of the best backup quarterbacks in league history, which comes with a different set of qualifications than just playing quarterback. They share a low-key style, and Reich said the early conversations have been natural.
"Scott has been tremendous," Reich said. "Strong opinions, clear vision for how he sees things. But the appropriate no ego, the appropriate, 'hey, let's work together on building this team.' When you're talking about building a team, a GM obviously has a very central role in that. But the GM and head coach have to be partners; I mean, they really have to be philosophically in lockstep. You can have the same values but have different philosophies. And so what I feel with Scott is, I feel similar value systems, but I feel also fit a similar philosophy. And I think that will bode well for us."
Reich said he "felt a connection in the room" during his first interview three weeks ago, and is ready to build on it. And as he builds, he thinks back over his past for the kinds of players he's looking to add.
As a part of the Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls, he worked with many great players. He mentioned Bruce Smith and a number of former teammates and was also struck by the way Luck and Rivers approached the game during his time with the Colts.
"But you got to be tough, you got to be physically and mentally tough," he said when asked to describe the qualities of a Frank Reich football player. "You've got to love football. And you've got to be a smart football player and have the instincts to make great plays on the field in situational football moments that really are weighted more heavily in a game. I just think that's critical. Because, as a coach, you can't script everything. So you need smart, instinctive players who you can empower to make decisions in crunch time for you."
And yeah, that sounds a lot like what he's looking for in a quarterback in particular. And that's the big question, the one he'll get often starting Tuesday.
But as it pertains to that position, Reich thought back to his early days as a quarterbacks coach (working with some guy named Peyton Manning), when he identified five traits he looks for in a passer.
"The first one is toughness, as mental and physical toughness is a desire to always want to be getting better, whether it's a high or whether it's a low, you just have this mental toughness is going to get you off the ground, you're going to find a way you're going to bounce back, you're going to learn to get better, and there's nothing that can stop you from that," he said. "The second one is accuracy. I just think at some level in this game, the quarterback's got to be accurate. This is a game of inches, DBs are faster, closing faster. They're small windows; you got to be able to put the ball where it needs to be on the spot, a runner's ball, a back-shoulder ball, a ball over the shoulder. So you got to have a high level of accuracy if you want to be a great quarterback.
"The third one is footwork and finish. This game is played from the ground up, so you got to have good feet for the court, really at any position, but for the quarterback, that means specific things that I look for on tape that we drill that we practice.
"And then the fourth one is a playmaker. You've got to be a playmaker when the game is on the line, or when it's third down, it's a crucial third down, it's in the red zone. It's a two-minute drive. Whatever the situation, it just seems like you have a knack to make a play when your team really needs it. You somehow elevate yourself, and you elevate the team in that way, and you're a playmaker. That's not just at the quarterback position, but it starts with the quarterback position.
"And then the last one is the X factor. Now you really sum up all those, do you make it? Do you elevate the team? Do you have the leadership? You know, the way you need to on the field, off the field? Those are the five things I look at."
That's a lot to look for. And it's a big job. But it's one Reich and the Panthers know they have to get right if they're going to find the stability they brought him here to create.