Panthers appoint Reich as Jets fuel Rodgers speculation with Hackett hire

The New York Jets have their new offensive play caller, while the Carolina Panthers have hired a new head coach.

Former Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett was hired Thursday as the Jets’ offensive coordinator to replace Mike LaFleur after head coach Robert Saleh interviewed more than 15 candidates for the vacancy during the last two weeks.

“When it came back to a certain checklist that I was trying to go through,” Saleh said during a video call, “just checking boxes with regard to what we were looking for from this next offensive coordinator, we just kept circling back to him. He checks every box that we’re looking for.”

Elsewhere on Thursday, the Carolina Panthers announced Frank Reich as their new head coach. The former Colts head coach was chosen from a shortlist that included Steve Wilks, who had a 6-6 with the Panthers after Matt Rhule was fired in October, and former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.

Wilks was popular with the Carolina players but Panthers owner David Tepper wanted a coach who could improve the team’s offense. Wilks is seen as a defensive specialist. Carolina have struggled to find a reliable starting quarterback since Cam Newton suffered a shoulder injury in 2018. Since their first season in the NFL in 1995, the Panthers have finished in the top 10 in offense just three times.

Reich has history with the Panthers: he was their first starting quarterback in their debut season.

Wilks is currently involved in a lawsuit with the NFL that alleges the league discriminates against Black coaches. After news of Reich’s appointment broke, Wigdor LLP, a law firm representing Wilks in the lawsuit issued a statement.

“We are shocked and disturbed that the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of players and fans, that he was passed over for the head xoach position by David Tepper,” the statement said. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.’’

Meanwhile, the hiring of the 43-year-old Hackett fuels speculation about whether the Jets could pursue Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose playing future is uncertain. Hackett and Rodgers have a connection: Hackett served as the Packers’ offensive coordinator from 2019-21 with Rodgers when the quarterback won two consecutive NFL MVPs.

Rodgers said recently during his weekly appearance on the Pat McAfee Show that he believes he can still play at an MVP-type level in the right situation. But the four-time MVP hasn’t decided whether to return to the Packers, retire or request a trade.

Saleh said during the interview process that he and Hackett didn’t discuss specific quarterbacks. The Jets coach had said he was looking for an experienced play caller to replace LaFleur, who was a first-time offensive coordinator.

“Everybody’s got a connection to everybody in this league,” Saleh said. “The most important thing was finding a guy who could continue developing our young guys at a very high level, a guy who has done it before and a guy who’s had success in this league with a variety of different quarterbacks.”

Hackett went 4-11 in less than one season as head coach of the Broncos, who fired him a day after Denver’s 51-14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Christmas. Hackett, who has helped lead three top-10 scoring offenses as a coordinator, replaced Vic Fangio last January. But he wasn’t able to build an offense that suited veteran Russell Wilson with the Broncos.

“You’ve got to have the discipline to look past recency bias,” Saleh said. “The fact of the matter is he got to Denver and he had that opportunity because of his life’s work as an offensive coordinator and all the different things he’s done in this league and how much respect he has garnered throughout the league.”

Saleh highlighted Hackett’s work in a West Coast scheme, which the Jets ran under LaFleur, along with a proven track record of developing a strong run game and the success he has had with various quarterbacks.

With the Jets, Hackett comes to a team that struggled mightily on offense in LaFleur’s two seasons and is facing a major question at quarterback. Zach Wilson has not lived up to expectations after being selected second overall in the 2021 draft. Mike White and Joe Flacco, who both started at times in Wilson’s place, are set to become free agents.

Jets owner Woody Johnson said after the season, during which New York finished 7-10 and on a six-game losing streak, that he would “absolutely” be on board with acquiring a veteran quarterback in the offseason. Saleh confirmed the Jets are “committed” to finding a veteran this offseason – but also want to continue to develop Wilson.

Hackett and Saleh first worked together in Jacksonville from 2015-16 when Hackett was the Jaguars’ quarterbacks coach and Saleh the linebackers coach. Hackett took over as Jacksonville’s interim offensive coordinator in 2016 before being hired for the position the following season, and he helped lead Blake Bortles and the Jaguars to the AFC title game that season.

Offensive DVOA under Hackett a OC, pre-GB (fixed one year):

BUF 13-14: 25th
JAX 16-17 (promoted midseason): 27th
JAX 17-18: 15th
JAX 18 (fired in November): 30th

— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 26, 2023

He was fired in the middle of the next season after Jacksonville’s offense struggled badly, but Hackett was hired by Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur – Mike’s older brother – in 2019. With Hackett in place and LaFleur calling plays, Rodgers and the Packers were the NFL’s top-scoring offense during the 2020 season, when Green Bay went to the NFC championship game.

“He’s got a laundry list of stuff that we’re all really, really excited about,” Saleh said of Hackett, who also served as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator from 2013-14.

Saleh added the Jets still want to add a senior offensive assistant/adviser because he liked the structure the team had when the late Greg Knapp was on staff before the 2021 season.

The Jets also announced that Keith Carter was hired as the team’s offensive line coach/run game coordinator, replacing the fired John Benton.

Carter was Tennessee’s O-line coach the last five seasons. The Derrick Henry-led Titans had three top-five rushing finishes in Carter’s last four seasons with the team. Saleh said he was “shocked” Carter was fired by the Titans two weeks ago.

“Feels like we hit a home run,” Saleh said of Carter’s hiring.