CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When he interviewed with the Carolina Panthers in January, one of Thomas Brown’s last stops was with general manager Scott Fitterer and assistant GM Dan Morgan. Among their questions: How did Brown rank this year’s class of quarterbacks?
Brown told them he had Alabama’s Bryce Young at the top of his board.
Nine months later, Brown will call plays for the quarterback he had ranked above C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and every other passer from the 2023 draft.
“We’re going to do a really good job of working together,” Brown said Tuesday, “and put a good product on the field.”
A day after Panthers coach Frank Reich handed over play-calling duties to his 37-year-old offensive coordinator, Brown said it will be his job to elevate the performances of every player on offense.
Something had to give for the 0-6 Panthers — it was Frank Reich’s keys to the offense
But just as Reich is inextricably linked to Young, so too will Brown’s fate be most closely connected to a player who’s gotten off to a slow start after the Panthers drafted him No. 1.
“For Thomas and Bryce to take this step together, that’s a big deal. Getting a coordinator, play caller and a quarterback on the same page,” Reich said. “Really, this is a journey together. You develop a bond and a closeness that’s really important in the process.”
The process continued Monday afternoon when Brown sat down with Young in one of the meetings rooms at Bank of America Stadium, a floor below where Brown interviewed with Fitterer and Morgan.
Brown, the former Los Angeles Rams assistant, let Young know what he could expect from him in his new role. But Brown also wanted to know what Young needed from him.
This wasn’t the first time the two had huddled to talk football. When Brown was installing the offense — a task Reich gave to him as part of the succession plan — he met with Young individually. Young said Brown broke down the plays in a way that went beyond just X’s and O’s.
“Obviously at that time I’m trying to memorize stuff and figure out what things are called. But when we did that, he took the time to not just say what this was called and what name of it was, but why we’re doing it. What things are built off, the reason for the play calls, when to expect them,” Young said.
“And that’s something not all play callers do, not all coaches do. Sometimes it’s just, ‘You know what, just memorize this, go here to here and I’ll take care of the rest.’ But that was something that really stood out was him being able to elaborate and explain the why behind things, his thought process.”
Brown is one of three Black offensive coordinators calling plays in the NFL, along with the Washington Commanders’ Eric Bieniemy and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Brian Johnson. Brown said he has an opportunity to help the Panthers succeed while also opening doors for other minority coaches.
Brown, the former Georgia running back who spent three years on Sean McVay’s Rams staff, was a hot coaching candidate during the last hiring cycle. He interviewed for the Houston Texans’ head coaching vacancy, as well as five offensive coordinator positions. Brown interviewed with the Miami Dolphins in 2022 before they hired Mike McDaniel as head coach.
Brown was asked whether he could hurt his chances at becoming a head coach if he fails to turn around an offense ranked in the bottom third in the league in every major statistical category.
“I’ve never lived that way,” he said. “There’s no reward without the risk. That kind of comes with this profession. I’ve been built and raised that way because I was raised by fighters. My parents are both fighters. So I don’t back down from anything (or) anybody.”
Thomas Brown, who becomes the third Black offensive coordinator who calls plays, says he wants to do well to make the Panthers better but also help create opportunities for minority coaches. pic.twitter.com/KEMCtnSEln
— Joe Person (@josephperson) October 17, 2023
Brown said his parents rose from “humble beginnings in rural Mississippi” to become educators in Tucker, Ga. — his mom as a social studies teacher and his father a bishop at a Christian Methodist Episcopal Church who has taught other pastors.
Brown was eyeing a career in business after a brief NFL stint before taking a position in Georgia’s weight room in 2011. That eventually led to a position in L.A., where Brown was famous for jumping into drills or sprinting along with one of his backs when they break off a long run.
“I’ve calmed down a lot. I used to run around a whole lot more. I used to be at practice racing players,” Brown said. “Part of that age catches up with you. I pulled a couple hamstrings, popped an Achilles. I just said, probably better that I just slow myself down.”
But McVay, who played against Brown when both were in high school in Atlanta, isn’t buying the slowing down narrative.
“He is still a G that probably could still take a couple carries and be able to lower his pads and finish strong,” said McVay, who’s four months older than Brown. “He’s a competitor. He still is rocked up. I’m sure he’d be throwing weight around in the weight room.”
The Panthers already have blended in some Rams’ concepts — motions, shifts, changing personnel groups — with what Reich had run in Indianapolis. And while Brown respects McVay, he’s not interested in being a clone.
“He’s one of the best and brightest minds I’ve ever been a part of. But we are different,” Brown said. “So the way we see the game and activate the game will be different as well.”
Where Brown goes from here could depend on his work with Young, who is the NFL’s 28th-rated passer but coming off a strong game against the Miami Dolphins.
“I think last week was by far and away the best he’s been,” Brown said of Young’s first turnover-free game. “That’s going to be the floor of who he is, which is exciting to be around and see.”
There’s been little to get excited about with the Panthers’ offense through the first six games. Brown, the son of fighters, has the chance to change it.
(Photos of Bryce Young and Thomas Brown: Getty Images)
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