7 best Panthers coaching candidates to replace Frank Reich, ranked from Ben Johnson and Bobby Slowik to Steve Wilks

David Tepper has officially lost his patience. As a result, Frank Reich is going to be a one-and-done coach for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced on Monday that they were firing Reich just 11 games into his first season as the team’s head coach.

“I want to thank Frank for his dedication and his service, and we wish him well,” Tepper said in a statement acknowledging Reich’s firing.

Reich’s dismissal comes with the Panthers sporting a league-worst 1-10 record two-thirds of the way into the season. Carolina’s offense has been a driving force behind their lack of success, as Bryce Young — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft — has struggled badly within Reich’s scheme.

Reich attempted to change things up, first by giving play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown before taking the role away from him weeks later. But nothing worked, so Reich finds himself fired in-season for the second time in as many years.

MORE: Why the Panthers fired Frank Reich, explained

The Panthers will now look to rebuild their coaching staff in a way that can help Young reach his full potential. The team is without its first-round pick — currently projected to be the No. 1 overall selection — because of its trade with the Bears to get Young with the top pick.

That seems likely to put an offensive-minded coach atop Carolina’s wishlist, though the team could still consider some of the top defensive minds on the market. But regardless of what they are looking for, the Panthers will have to wait longer than before to interview candidates employed by other teams. That window will open the week of Jan. 22 rather than the previous week thanks to an amended NFL rule.

Below are some of the top coaching candidates that the Panthers should look into during their search.

Panthers coaching candidates to replace Frank Reich

Ben Johnson

  • Team: Lions
  • Position: Offensive coordinator

The Lions have developed into one of the NFL’s best offenses over the last couple of seasons. Dan Campbell deserves a lot of credit for that success, but Johnson is also among the architects of it.

Johnson, 37, became the Lions’ offensive coordinator before the 2022 NFL season and has done an excellent job in that role. The Lions ranked top-five in both total yards and points in his first two seasons and are on pace to rank top-10 in both categories in his second season. He has balanced the offense well, as they generate explosive plays both on the ground with Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery and through the air with Amon-Ra St. Brown.

But the No. 1 reason that the Panthers might have a high level of interest in Johnson? Jared Goff has been a borderline top-10 quarterback under his watch. He is completing 66.2 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 98.3 while averaging 4,561 yards, 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions per 17 games played.

Like Young, Goff was once a struggling former No. 1 pick who the Rams jettisoned in favor of Matthew Stafford. Johnson could get the most out of him and perhaps have an impact similar to the one Doug Pederson had on Trevor Lawrence after he replaced Urban Meyer in Jacksonville following the 2021 NFL season.

MORE: Is Bryce Young already an NFL bust? 

Bobby Slowik

  • Team: Texans
  • Position: Offensive coordinator

One of the reasons that Tepper has been so disappointed by Young’s performance is that C.J. Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, has widely outplayed him at quarterback. Stroud may simply be the more talented quarterback, but it could also be that the coaching he has received has helped to elevate him above Young.

The Panthers could find out about that if they take a chance on Bobby Slowik. The first-year offensive coordinator for the Texans has done a great job developing Stroud — who has completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,266 yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions — and that has helped the Texans to become a top-10 offense. They rank sixth in total yards and 10th in scoring after 12 weeks of the 2023 season.

Slowik is just 36 and only has one year of experience as a play-caller. That may not ultimately be enough to get him a head coaching job. That said, he comes from the Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel coaching tree, so that should allow him a chance at a head coaching job as NFL owners continue to seek out young, innovative offensive minds to run their teams.

MORE: Why did the Panthers draft Bryce Young over C.J. Stroud?

Steve Wilks

(Getty Images)

Steve Wilks

  • Team: 49ers
  • Position: Defensive coordinator

Wilks was one of the finalists for the Panthers’ coaching job during the offseason before Reich ultimately ended up getting it. Clearly, that choice was a mistake, especially considering that Wilks had led the team to an impressive 6-6 record as its interim coach in place of Matt Rhule.

Wilks’ overall coaching résumé may not be all that impressive. He has a 9-19 record as a head coach and went one-and-done with the Cardinals in 2018. Still, he has gotten a lot out of the defenses with which he has worked during his career, including a top-10 unit in Carolina during the 2017 season and the NFL’s top-ranked scoring unit with the 49ers this season.

The only issue with targeting Wilks is that his background is on the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers probably need an offensive-minded head coach to get the most out of Young, so that may make it difficult for the Charlotte native to work his way back into the Panthers coaching conversation.

Still, Wilks had the Panthers playing hard under his watch and could bring the team together if he gets a quality offensive coordinator on his staff. Thus, he can’t be ruled out as an option for the team.

MORE: Where Frank Reich’s Panthers tenure ranks among shortest coaching stints in NFL history

Eric Bieniemy

  • Team: Commanders
  • Position: Offensive coordinator

The case for Bieniemy is a rather simple one. The Chiefs had a top-five offense in each of his five seasons as their offensive coordinator and he helped Patrick Mahomes win two MVP awards. Without him in 2023, the Chiefs rank just eighth in total yards and 11th in scoring offense. Those numbers are still good, but they prove that Bieniemy played a key role in Kansas City’s offensive success.

Also, it’s worth noting that Bieniemy has turned Sam Howell into a solid starting quarterback in his first year in Washington. The Commanders’ first-year starter leads the NFL in passing yards after 12 weeks with 3,339 yards and has posted a respectable passer rating of 87.3.

So, typically speaking, wherever Bieniemy goes, improved offenses tend to follow. The 54-year-old has long been on NFL coaching watch lists and Tepper could finally decide to give him a shot if he believes Bieniemy can unlock Young’s potential.

Then again, Carolina might not get the chance. Ron Rivera’s seat in Washington is nearly as hot as Reich’s was and Bieniemy figures to get the first shot at the Commanders job if new owner Josh Harris makes a change there. But if any tensions linger between Bieniemy and the players, that could open the door for him to coach elsewhere.

Frank Smith

  • Team: Dolphins
  • Position: Offensive coordinator

Mike McDaniel has been one of the best offensive coaches in the NFL this season, but he hasn’t achieved his success alone. Smith, his 42-year-old right-hand man, has played a big role in Miami’s rise to the top of the NFL’s offensive leaderboards.

In two years under Smith, Tua Tagovailoa has gone from an embattled starting quarterback to a legitimate MVP candidate. The Dolphins as a team have found success both on the ground and through the air and dropped an NFL-record 726 yards on the Broncos in Week 3. In that game, they also became the first team since the 1960s to post at least 70 points, so that helped put Smith on the map as a candidate.

Smith may have stronger ties to the Raiders, who have a coaching vacancy, or the Chargers, who seem likely to part with Brandon Staley after the season, but the Panthers will still probably pursue him. If McDaniel’s coaching tree is even half as good as that of Shanahan, then this could end up being well worth it.

Jim Caldwell

(Getty Images)

Jim Caldwell

  • Team: Panthers
  • Position: Senior assistant/special advisor to the offense

Could Jim Caldwell finally return to the NFL’s head coaching ranks? It’s possible.

The Panthers interviewed Caldwell for their head coaching job last season. The 68-year-old didn’t get the job, but he joined Carolina’s staff as a senior assistant. Now, he will serve as a special advisor to the team’s offense to assist Thomas Brown in his play-calling.

Caldwell has a career record of 62-50 in seven seasons as an NFL head coach. He logged five winning seasons in those seven campaigns and also led the Colts to an appearance in Super Bowl 44 after taking over for Tony Dungy.

Caldwell has gained a reputation as a great developer of quarterbacks. He helped bring Peyton Manning’s career to new heights and oversaw Joe Flacco’s brief flash of elite talent during the Ravens’ Super Bowl 47-winning season. If the Panthers are enamored by his plan for Bryce Young, they could give him a shot to rekindle his head coaching career, which has been on pause since the Lions fired him following the 2017 season.

POWER RANKINGS: Are the Panthers the worst team in the NFL? 

Ejiro Evero

  • Team: Panthers
  • Position: Defensive coordinator

Here’s one more internal option for the Panthers to consider. Like Wilks, Evero is a defensive-minded head coach. That may put him on the outside looking in to lock down this position.

Still, the 42-year-old is a rising NFL star who helped the Broncos post the seventh-fewest yards allowed in 2022 and has the Panthers on pace to allow the sixth-fewest yards in 2023. He has done this despite having banged-up defenses and incompetent offenses, so that has made his work all the more impressive.

Evero worked under Sean McVay with the Rams, so he knows what it takes to turn a team into a true contender. His potential offensive coordinator choice would be critical in evaluating his candidacy for this role given that this hire seems to be a Young-centric one.

Even so, if Tepper likes what he has seen out of Evero is his limited time in Carolina, he could consider keeping him on board in an elevated role.


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