By now everyone knows David Tepper and his infamous brass desk ornament. What’s not as widely known about the Panther owner is how his relocation from New Jersey to Florida cost New Jersey $140 million in tax revenue!
But, as an NFL owner Tepper is proving that people who are smart in business are not always smart in sports. His bold decision to hire Matt Rhule (who’s only NFL experience was as an assistant offensive line coach) as a head coach saw the Panthers win just 11 of 38 games. Sacking Rhule last season almost worked though and they finished second in a lacklustre NFC South. But one of Tepper’s offseason moves is sure to prove he can be as successful a team owner as he is a hedge fund manager.
It remains to be seen how hiring Frank Reich and trading a king’s ransom for Bryce Young will turn out in Carolina. Young has looked like a capable starting quarterback in his limited game time in preseason but, so far, he’s the brightest star in a dreary sky.
The offense will probably take a while to spark, but on the other side of the ball Tepper has made his smartest move of his short tenure. Hiring Ejiro Evero as defensive coordinator does two things, it adds an aggressive decision maker (like Tepper) to the coaching staff. And provides Frank Reich with a gentle nudge, if the Panthers take too long to find their feet his successor is already in the building.
Evero is 42 and was born in Colchester, the historic Roman capital of Britain. The Roman name means “Fortress of the War God Camulos”, which makes Evero the God of War, right?
Evero was one of the few members of the Broncos organisation that didn’t seem completely daunted in Denver last year. The Broncos’ disastrous offense took all the headlines (although the special teams play was terrible too), but the defence was an actual highlight. They were the reason the Broncos won any games at all in 2022. In their first two victories the Broncos only scored 16 and 11 points respectively. While in their next two victories Evero’s unit held the Jaguars to 17 and the Cardinals to 15 points. It wasn’t until the week 18 win (when they played a Chargers team with one eye on the playoffs) the offence actually won the game. The final score on that occasion being 31 – 28.
Panthers’ Senior defensive assistant Dom Capers said of Evero “He’s very intelligent” and “I think the guys will love playing for him”. 73 year-old Capers knows a thing or two about coaching in the NFL, he’s been doing it since 1986 and won Super Bowl XLV as the Packers defensive coordinator.
Broncos middle linebacker Josey Jewell said Evero is “phenomenal” and someone who cares about his players on and off the field. When you’re held in high regard by the players and the veteran coaches you must be a pretty special individual.
Evero’s trademark (when everyone was healthy) was bringing pressure through blitzes. By December only two teams had blitzed more. But neither of these teams, the Cardinals and Giants, had recorded as many sacks as the Broncos. Even Bradley Chubb leaving Denver for Miami eight weeks into the season didn’t negate their pressure. Linebacker Baron Browning stepped up in his stead recording five quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks in the last five games of the season.
For the first 14 weeks of the season Evero’s defence was only allowing 1.4 touchdowns per game and at home they kept opponents to an even more impressive 0.8 per game. Until week 9 of the season they conceded an average of just 17 points per game. Over the same period the Panthers average was 32.4! For the remainder of the season when the offence’s inability to stay on the field and injuries really began to take their toll that rose to 26! That run included the rather incongruous 51-14 thrashing at the hands of the Rams as Cam Akers ran in 3 touchdowns.
Unless the Panthers suffer a similarly catastrophic injury epidemic (by week 17 there were 24 Broncos missing) Carolina will have the best defence in the NFC South. Evero gets to work with Vonn Bell, Jaycee Horn, Justin Houston, Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson, Frankie Luvu, Derek Brown and Shy Tuttle. And the Panthers currently have 11 rookies on the defensive side of the ball who could contribute.
The Broncos linebacking corps combined for 20 sacks last year, the Panthers linebackers only made 10. And seven of those were Frankie Luvu’s. The switch from Steve Wilkes’ four-man front (or Phil Snow’s defence with “odd fronts” as Aaron Rodgers labeled it) to Evero’s 3-4 base should allow Brian Burns to get after quarterbacks much more. And with Luvu and Justin Houston in the mix there’s going to be plenty of variation in Evero’s blitzes.
Back To The Future
In Burns’ first season in Carolina, he played as an outside linebacker and recorded 7.5 sacks in five starts. He also hit the quarterback 16 times. And against the Jaguars he recorded a strip-sack and even scored on a 51-yard fumble recovery. The Panthers only sent Burns on a blitz 12 times in his rookie season, expect Evero to send him 12 times in about the first two games this time round.
All four teams in the NFC South are presently in some sort of transition period. The Panthers’ new coaches and quarterback combination puts them firmly at the back of that pack. But their shock and awe defence promises to put other young inexperienced quarterbacks like Kyle Trask and Desmond Ridder in a tight spot. Even the older Baker Mayfield and Derek Carr wouldn’t have seen what Evero is about to send their way.
Carolina’s offence might be a bit of a one man show with Bryce Young being asked to perform minor miracles each week. but the defensive unit could just be enough to lead them to the top of the division.
Banner image – Ejiro Evero explains his philosophy. From the Charlotte Observer (https://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/nfl/carolina-panthers/article272554461.html)