When David Tepper and the Panthers parted ways with Ron Rivera at the end of the 2019 season, their goal was to swing big on the head coaching market. They wanted to land a high-upside candidate with a great offensive mind to lead the team.
Enter Matt Rhule, a big-name college coach who had successfully built Temple and Baylor into contenders in their conferences. Rhule’s work at Baylor earned him acclaim, and despite his lack of NFL experience — he had one year as an assistant offensive line coach under his belt in 2012 with the Giants — Carolina named him the team’s head coach and gave him a six-year, $62.5 million contract.
Rhule’s tenure in Carolina was an abject disaster. His offensive success in college didn’t translate to the NFL, and his teams routinely underperformed. Tepper opted to give Rhule a third season in charge of the team, but he reversed course and fired Rhule following a blowout loss to the 49ers and a 1-4 start to the season.
As a result, Rhule finished his Panthers career with an 11-27 record.
Now, Tepper and Co. will be searching for a new head coach for the second time in his four years since buying the Panthers. The team hasn’t been afraid to target top-tier coaches and quarterbacks under Tepper, so it will spare no expense in looking for a quality coach to lead the franchise.
The question is more about whether the team will pursue a safer, known commodity this time or continue to pursue a high-upside hire in the hopes of striking gold.
Who will be the Panthers’ next head coach? Here’s a look at all of the candidates that Carolina has requested to interview for its vacant coaching job, according to various media reports.
Full list of Panthers coaching candidates, interview requests
Frank Reich, former Colts head coach
Reich’s time with the Colts came to an unceremonious end in the middle of the 2022 season as Indianapolis fired him and replaced him with Jeff Saturday. Still, the offensive-minded coach who helped the Eagles win Super Bowl 52 as an offensive coordinator finished his time in Indy with a 40-33-1 record. And that was despite having a constant carousel of quarterbacks rotate in and out of the lineup.
The Colts had top-10 scoring offenses three times in Reich’s five years, so that pedigree could appeal to a Panthers team that saw its offense stagnate frequently under Rhule. The Panthers would just need to provide the 61-year-old with stability at quarterback to give him a chance at success.
UPDATE: The Panthers are interviewing Reich for their coaching job on Wednesday, Jan. 11.
Steve Wilks, Panthers interim head coach
The Panthers players have been vocal in their support of Wilks for the full-time coaching job. He posted a 6-6 record after Rhule was fired and had the Panthers competing for a playoff spot in Week 17 against the Buccaneers. Carolina often played hard under him, and he was able to lead their running game to success even after Christian McCaffrey was traded.
That said, the Panthers are looking largely at offensive-minded coaches aside from Wilks, who has spent nearly all of his career on the defensive side. It would seem Tepper would prefer to go in that direction, but perhaps his players can convince him that Wilks is the right man for the job.
Wilks, 53, had one season of head coaching experience before taking over the Panthers. He led the Cardinals to a 3-13 record in 2018 and was replaced by Kliff Kingsbury after one season.
Jim Caldwell, former Colts, Lions head coach
Caldwell is one of the most experienced coaches on this list, as the 67-year-old has seven seasons as a head coach under his belt and plenty of offensive coordinator experience to boot. He led the Colts to a Super Bowl appearance in his first year as head coach and only had a losing record in two of his seven seasons.
Caldwell’s 62-50 record and history of developing quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford should be of interest to the Panthers. He last served as an NFL-level assistant in 2019 when he was the Dolphins’ assistant head coach, but he should have no trouble returning to an NFL sideline if called upon.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan head coach
OK, so technically Harbaugh isn’t yet on Carolina’s list of interviews. He did have a phone conversation with Panthers owner David Tepper about the team’s opening, per CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones, but it was Harbaugh and his representation that organized the call.
Jones reports that Tepper is “wary” of Harbaugh after he had an “odd” interview with the Vikings during the 2022 hiring cycle. As such, it doesn’t seem that the Michigan man is among Tepper’s legitimate candidates right now. Still, Tepper likes to swing for the fences, so perhaps his opinion about Harbaugh will change after that call.
Ken Dorsey, Bills offensive coordinator
The Bills lost offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to the Giants during the 2022 coach hiring cycle. Their unit hasn’t missed a beat thanks to the presence of Dorsey.
Dorsey led the Bills to the No. 2-ranked offense in terms of yardage and points scored during the regular season, and Josh Allen’s numbers under Dorsey were nearly identical to the ones he posted under Daboll.
|Josh Allen||2021 with Daboll||2022 with Dorsey|
|Yards per attempt||6.8||7.6|
Dorsey has four years of playing experience in the NFL and spent seven years in the Panthers organization as a scout and quarterbacks coach from 2011 to 2017. His familiarity and upside could prove a good fit for the Panthers if they pursue an offensive-minded coach.
Shane Steichen, Eagles offensive coordinator
The Chargers-to-Eagles offensive coordinator pipeline has proven to be solid, as Reich became a head coach and Steichen seems next in line to do that. The 37-year-old led Philadelphia to the league’s No. 3-ranked offense in both total yardage and scoring and helped turn Jalen Hurts into an MVP candidate after Carson Wentz’s decline.
Steichen has worked plenty with quarterbacks during his time in the NFL and helped Justin Herbert during his early days in the league as well. So, if the Panthers want a candidate who can coach up a young quarterback, Steichen may be their best option.
Ben Johnson, Lions offensive coordinator
Johnson is another young candidate, as he’s just 36, but he led the Lions to a terrific season in his first year under Dan Campbell. Detroit had a top-five offense and Jared Goff posted the best campaign of his career, throwing for 4,438 yards, 29 touchdowns and a career-low seven interceptions.
Johnson’s offense was dynamic, explosive and creative in both the passing and running games. He played a big role in the team’s late-season run and Week 18 defeat of the Packers that knocked Green Bay out of the 2023 NFL playoffs. He is expected to be a hot coaching candidate this offseason and may get a chance at a top job even after just one year of experience as a coordinator.
Johnson is set to interview with the Panthers the week of Jan. 16, reports NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
Mike Kafka, Giants offensive coordinator
Kafka is the second-youngest option currently on this list at 35, but he is a rising star in the coaching ranks. He spent four years as a quarterbacks coach for Andy Reid, who has a terrific coaching tree, before taking the Giants offensive coordinator job in 2022.
Kafka helped Brian Daboll turn the Giants into a respectable offense despite lacking a true No. 1 receiver. Daniel Jones turned in the best season of his career, and Kafka, who was a quarterback at Northwestern and bounced around the NFL from 2010 to 2015, deserves a lot of credit for that. That certainly got the Panthers’ attention and he should draw interest from across the league, too.
Kellen Moore, Cowboys offensive coordinator
Moore is now the youngest coaching candidate to interview for the Panthers’ job. The former Boise State quarterback went undrafted in 2012 and spent six seasons as a backup with the Lions and Cowboys. He then transitioned to coaching and has since established himself as a bright, young offensive mind.
The Cowboys have been the No. 1 offense in terms of total yardage twice during Moore’s time as Dallas’ offensive coordinator. The team had the league’s best offense in 2021 and he has played a large part in getting the Cowboys back-to-back playoff appearances. He could help to jumpstart the Panthers’ stagnant offense, so it makes sense that he would be among the team’s many interviews.
DeMeco Ryans, 49ers defensive coordinator
Ryans becomes the second defensive-minded candidate that the 49ers are interviewing, along with Wilks. The 38-year-old is young, but he has 10 years of NFL experience as a player for the Texans and Eagles and has been on the 49ers coaching staff since 2017.
Ryans’ defense has been the best in the NFL during the 2022 NFL season, ranking first in both yards and points allowed per game. His defense in 2021, his only other year as a coordinator, also was a top-10 unit. He also brings a lot of energy to the sideline, much like his predecessor Robert Saleh. That could be of important to the Panthers, who will need a good motivator if they are willing to move on from the player-preferred choice of Wilks.
Jerod Mayo, Patriots inside linebackers coach
Mayo has gotten some head coaching looks during the last two NFL hiring cycles and also interviewed for the Browns’ defensive coordinator job. He now gets a chance to interview for another head coaching job as the third defensive-minded candidate for Carolina.
Mayo played eight NFL seasons with the Patriots after being the 10th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. He was named an AP All-Pro in 2010 after recording a league-high 174 tackles and won a Super Bowl 49 as a member of the Patriots. Mayo has been a key defensive assistant for the Patriots since 2019 and could follow Brian Flores’ path from linebackers coach to head coach.