By Sam Robb O’Hagan
Imagining Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson in a Carolina Panthers uniform just feels right.
Cam Newton, perhaps the most iconic player to ever wear Carolina’s uniform, makes regular appearances throughout Richardson’s redshirt sophomore season tape in Gainesville.
The comparisons are too easy. Newton was extraordinarily big (6-foot-5, 245 pounds), and everything that made him the superhero he was started there. At 6–foot-4 and 232 pounds, Richardson is no different — an athlete so remarkable that it feels unfair he’s allowed to play quarterback.
Richardson, like Newton, is rough around the uniquely tight edges of playing the position, yes; but at times, that doesn’t feel like a concern worth exercising. The ball leaves his hands with effortless velocity. Opposing defensive linemen, if they can even get their hands on him as he dances around crowded pockets, slip off the side of Richardson’s pads like they’re covered in vaseline. He gallops through the open field with remarkable speed and terrifying poise.
The physical tools are immediately apparent for all to see, and, for those with fond memories of the Panthers’ original quarterbacking superhero, immediately reminiscent of Newton. Type Newton’s name and the word ‘Florida’ into Google and go to images, and there Richardson is, not-so-subtly popping up every now and again.
15 years after Newton left Gainesville for the NFL, albeit via a rather fruitful stop at Auburn, Richardson will take his superman-like talents to the pros.
And the Panthers, conveniently and poetically, are once again searching for a quarterback.
It’s difficult to explain how the arrow is pointing up for a franchise that, just in the last 12 months, started three different quarterbacks, benched two of them, released another, traded their superstar running back, almost traded their star pass rusher, and fired their head coach. The Panthers conceded all six, acts that by themselves could stand on their own as major red flags.
And yet, David Tepper, the ultra-aggressive owner of the franchise who’s watched just about every expensive gamble he’s made in his five years at the top blow up in his face, still finds his team as legitimate contenders to win the NFC South in 2023.
To give credit where it’s (sort of) due, Tepper’s willingness to acknowledge the money he’s thrown at the wall hasn’t stuck — most notably through the mid-season firing of former head coach Matt Rhule, whom Tepper still owes $40 million — has been the kind of humility needed to save the Panthers from the purgatory they were once staring at.
Whether or not Tepper’s ability to admit his mistakes deserves this kind of payout — the all-star staff assembled by newly hired coach Frank Reich — is a different story. Stumbled-into or not, Carolina’s fresh group of coaches is almost impossibly recognizable, a cast of coaching superstars and up-and-coming industry sweethearts.
Reich’s resume is plenty thick. He was well-respected in Indianapolis until the very end. Jim Irsay, the ever-panicked owner of the Colts, fired Reich eight weeks into this past season, immediately replacing him with a high school football coach. It was the type of dismissal that said more about the dismisser than it did the dismissed.
So, Reich arrives in Carolina with a glowing and largely untainted reputation despite his firing. He survived the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck, and the Colts’ oscillations between regressing veteran quarterbacks that followed, to pump out efficient offenses in Indianapolis year after year.
Reich clearly gets it, and not just in building offenses around his quarterbacks, but in building coaching staffs around himself. Three former coordinators or position coaches from Reich’s time in Indianapolis, all hired by Reich in 2018, are now head coaches themselves. Nick Sirianni, Reich’s offensive coordinator with the Colts from 2018 to 2020, just led the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl.
In Carolina, Reich is flexing his muscles. He’s already convinced former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who completed several head coach interviews during this cycle, to settle for the lateral move and join him with the Panthers. Evero, in his very first season as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, kept on keeping on in the midst of a raging tire fire in Denver to lead a Broncos’ defense that finished 10th in overall DVOA in 2022.
Another member of Reich’s new staff making a lateral move is assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley, who earned rave reviews in his time with the upstart Detroit Lions’ offense in the same role.
The quarterbacks coach is Josh McCown, who joins Reich’s staff after interviewing for head coaching positions in two straight cycles. The precarious merit behind those interviews aside, McCown, a 16-season NFL journeyman as a backup quarterback, has seen just about everything there is to see behind the scenes of an NFL offense.
The Panthers’ new staff brings proven NFL success to Carolina, which evaded Rhule when he made the leap of faith from the Big 12 to the Panthers in 2020. Reich’s experience will be critical. All four of the consensus first-round quarterbacks will need his staff’s guiding hand, but especially Richardson, who enters the draft with significant room for improvement.
Serious concerns about Richardson’s accuracy continue to present themselves throughout the pre-draft process. The extent to which they materialize in his eventual draft slot is a different question entirely, but no matter where he’s drafted, Richardson’s accuracy needs to be more reliable.
Many point to flawed footwork, some suggest that Richardson is too trigger-happy with his fastball, and a willingness to take his foot off the gas when necessary could eliminate the curious overthrows that litter his film. The beautiful thing about those two concerns, and really, the beautiful thing about Richardson as a prospect, is that his flaws can be coached out of him. His superpowers cannot.
It’s also worth noting that Richardson only started playing quarterback midway through high school after starting his football career as a receiver, and will enter the NFL with only 13 starts and fewer than 400 passes of college experience. Flaws should be expected. He is still, for all intents and purposes, a student of the position.
But, it must be such an enticing opportunity to teach him. A superhero is the only way to profile him — an exceptionally gifted problem solver, a shatterer of ceilings, and an author of new heights. When you think about what Richardson could be, the shortcomings of what he is now seem so blissfully insignificant. Some players are just dudes you need to get into the building, accepting the need to figure the rest out later. Richardson is one of them.
And of the seven-odd teams with the capability and the need to secure him in April’s Draft, who better to figure it out with Richardson than Reich & Co.? Select teams in the running, like Houston and Indianapolis, employ staffs without any head coaching experience at all, much less the proven bandwidth of Reich’s assembly. Once a building that appeared hopelessly reactive in their search for a quarterback, Carolina is now the home of an operation with enough wealth of proven experience to be proactive, to go out and get their guy.
Newton’s legacy in Carolina — nostalgia driven, yes, but not hollow nostalgia — continues to drive the matchmaking between Richardson and the Panthers. The aesthetic of it all is fun and adept at gathering supporters, but the swirling rumors have more meat to them than just a social-media-astute photoshop.
The Panthers are gaining steam with each pound of their drum. Decisions are being made with informed integrity, their future finally being put in qualified hands. They still need their superhero at quarterback, certainly, but now they know they can be the home to nourish him.
Maybe it’s fate that the Panthers be quarterbacked by a poised, strong-armed and endlessly capable physical marvel out of Florida. Because it just so happens that a home to nourish him is exactly what this draft’s superhero needs