Russini: What I’m hearing on the Panthers, Bijan Robinson, Bill Belichick and more

NFL Draft positioning season is here, and the Carolina Panthers can’t win this game, either. They are tied for the worst record in football at 1-8, which is also tied for the worst nine-game start in franchise history. But because they sent their 2024 first-round pick to the Bears as part of the deal that allowed them to acquire the 2023 No. 1 pick (quarterback Bryce Young), they don’t have their first-round selection.


Let’s go back to move forward.

Did they pick the right quarterback? Most NFL executives and coaches around the league are emphatic that it’s too early to tell and that it’s unfair to judge Young after only nine games. I was told when this organization selected him out of Alabama, almost every single team employee was on board. We’re talking scouts, coaches, head coach, general manager and owner — all believed Young was the guy based on their research, data and in-person meetings.

The opinion that Young is the future is still the unified belief based on conversations with multiple team sources. That’s excellent news for Panthers fans — everyone remains in lockstep.

So if the player appears right, what’s wrong?

I don’t need a person in the know to tell me the following: The young quarterback needs help. He needs protection. He needs a run game. He needs cleaner route running from his receivers. He needs play calling that instills confidence and creates momentum.

However, I am told Panthers owner David Tepper is frustrated by this offense and its lack of improvement. Some in the building believe the roster hasn’t been built correctly, while others criticize the offense overall. This is an offense some league sources have described as “boring,” “predictable” and even “lifeless.”


After Panthers hit new low with loss to Bears, something (or someone) has to change

Head coach Frank Reich was hired by general manager Scott Fitterer based on his offensive success with the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles in 2017. Reich is also the first offensive-minded head coach hired in Carolina history.

Before selecting Reich, there was a strong push to hire Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, but Johnson decided to stay in Detroit. The team also interviewed Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and current Broncos head coach Sean Payton.

One of the things that separated Reich from other candidates was the staff he would assemble in Charlotte, according to a source with knowledge of the process.

Reich has the largest staff in the NFL, with assistants from many different backgrounds and philosophies. All these unique minds were expected to blend and create fireworks. So far the show has been a dud.

I’m told the message in the building is, “Ownership needs to see more progress on offense. There needs to be development and improvement.”

If the second half of the regular season looks like the first half, I expect Carolina to make changes. I have learned those in power want to start seeing an offense that looks like what Young executed to precision at the University of Alabama, which included bubbles and RPOs, and that leans into his strengths. Ownership is satisfied with the defense and special teams.



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Reich is in the first year of a four-year contract. He works for an owner who knows his reputation is that he’s impatient. Tepper recently fired a Charlotte FC coach for the second time in two seasons, and Reich is the fifth head coach the Panthers have employed since Tepper bought the team five years ago (including interims).

The head coach designs the structure of the offensive scheme, and though the play calling has been handed over to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, this is still Reich’s offense. This isn’t all on Reich, though. It was explained to me by others in the building that the most important goal for a rookie quarterback is keeping him healthy. It’s also about building confidence, installing enough of the offense without overwhelming or confusing him and helping him avoid making horrific mistakes.

Patience is perhaps the hardest but most important trait needed within the organization.

This may be some of Reich’s thinking, knowing they aren’t there as a team. Not as a roster. Not as an offense. Unfortunately, there may not be a lot of time left for anyone not named Tepper to figure it out.

Back to Bijan

Over the past few weeks, Atlanta Falcons rookie Bijan Robinson has probably been the most talked about running back in football. Fantasy managers, gamblers and fans have been demanding to know why coach Arthur Smith hasn’t used the dynamic back more in the red zone. Smith spent the last week answering the question and providing stats to support his decision-making. Here’s what you need to know based on my conversations with people with knowledge of the situation:

Don’t give up on Robinson, because the Falcons haven’t. He’s not in the doghouse. He’s not hurt. He’s not in a funk. He’s just a rookie the team is hoping to encourage, protect and lean on during the second half of the season.

Robinson is in line to see plenty of opportunities, I’m told, including in the red zone. One source shared, “We are confident we will see the best of him down the stretch.”

This has to happen because the Falcons know they need their best route-runner and playmaker if they want to make the playoffs.



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The New York Jets are not planning to bench QB Zach Wilson, barring a disaster, a Jets source shared. Though there has been pressure mounting for weeks that the Jets need to make a change at the position to give the offense some life, the belief among team decision-makers is that Wilson still has the most upside of their quarterbacks. Their goal remains to make the playoffs and hope Aaron Rodgers is ready to return.

Jefferson’s return

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson is back on the practice field after missing four games with a hamstring injury. The 2022 NFL Offensive Player of the Year was on injured reserve but the team opened the 21-day window for his return this week. I was told he is still not 100 percent healthy, and the wide receiver is adamant he will not push until he feels fully ready.


We have seen a fair share of hamstring injuries this season, and they are all different in terms of recovery; my understanding is the team is expecting Jefferson back around its Week 13 bye or sooner. There are some around the league wondering why Jefferson would even step foot on the field without a contract in place after this injury.

Going back to training camp and even now, it’s been explained to me that Jefferson is a genuine team-first player, a captain who wants to help his team achieve on the field. As it stands, contract talks have been tabled until after the season.

Carson Wentz is back in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams as the backup to Matthew Stafford. From what I gather, the move to sign Wentz was not signaling some significant issue with Stafford. Stafford is dealing with a thumb injury he feared could be more serious. However, it turned out it wouldn’t sideline him for the remainder of the season. Teams sources told me they remain optimistic that Stafford will be able to play Week 11 against Seattle following this week’s bye.



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Elite defense vs. Rookie QB

Joe Burrow is back, and so are the Cincinnati Bengals. They proved that to be the case after their 24-18 win against the Buffalo Bills, their fourth win in a row. The Bengals are a little banged up this week with wide receiver Tee Higgins out and Ja’Marr Chase a true game-time decision with a sore back. I was told he will work out Sunday morning to see how it feels, then the team will decide.

We mentioned last week Burrow’s impact on the Bengals’ defense, and they have another big challenge this week. The Cincinnati defense will be tested by the Houston Texans’ pass offense, which ranks fourth in the NFL, and C.J. Stroud, who is coming off a record-setting performance against Tampa Bay.



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How will Cincinnati try to disrupt Stroud and the Texans?

Look for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and company to employ a similar game plan against Stroud that they have used to great success against Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. That includes simulated pressures with Cover 2 behind it, as well as interior pressure from the linebackers. The Bengals will show different looks, a healthy combination of man and zone and disguise pressure to try and test Stroud’s decision-making.

For those of you who messaged me about our intel on Ravens rookie running back Keaton Mitchell three weeks ago, I saw the comments, and I am psyched it helped. Though his performance last week seemed to come from out of nowhere, Ravens people have been saying for weeks to keep an eye on this instinctual back who is lightning fast with elite acceleration and high-level vision. The 21-year-old rookie ran for 138 yards and a touchdown after not having a single rushing attempt in his first two active NFL games.

This week, he is dealing with a hamstring injury and is listed as questionable, but my team sources are optimistic he is playing.

What’s going on in Buffalo

It almost feels like a tradition in Buffalo. Right before we get to Thanksgiving, someone has to be blamed for the Bills’ problems. Right now, the target is on offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Quarterback Josh Allen tried to quiet the noise this past week, showing full support for his coach, explaining that the players need to execute the offense better and make better decisions.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott backed Dorsey when asked if the team has discussed taking away play-calling duties. He replied, “No.”

When I was with ESPN, the Bills were one of the main teams I was assigned to cover, and this all feels very familiar. In 2021, fans were calling for the firing of then-play caller Brian Daboll after the Bills only scored six points against Jacksonville. They went on to reach the AFC divisional round, and Daboll went on to become the New York Giants head coach and AP Coach of the Year in his first season.



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In this situation, there is genuine belief and confidence in Dorsey, so I don’t expect any changes. We’ll see how much of this offense improves Monday night, when the Bills host the Denver Broncos. Allen has led the Bills to wins in 82 percent of their games coming off a loss, but how about these stats in favor of Broncos coach Sean Payton:

Since 1992 on Monday Night Football, Payton has a 65.4 percent (17-9) win rate, third only to Mike Tomlin at 84 percent (21-4) and Andy Reid at 66.7 percent (24-12). Payton also owns the best record for head coaches in October at 44-13, or 75.9 percent. New England’s Bill Belichick is next at 71.9 percent (82-32).

Belichick’s future

Speculation continues to grow about the end of the partnership between the Patriots and Belichick. In talking to those who have spent time around the Patriots organization and understand the dynamics between team owner Robert Kraft and Belichick, I don’t expect anything to be determined with so much season remaining. But if people I talk to had to bet, their money is on a mutual parting of the ways at the end of the season.

(Photo: John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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