Carolina Panthers Head Coach Candidates Ranked: Ben Johnson, Mike Kafka, and More

The Panthers' head coach search is well underway, so let's rank the 10 known candidates and find the best fit for Carolina.

The Carolina Panthers head coach search is among the most wide-ranging in the NFL, as 10 known candidates have either already interviewed or plan to meet with the team’s decision-makers. With a talented roster that just needs a franchise quarterback, the Panthers have a lot to offer and may be the most appealing team among the five clubs looking for new head coaches.

Panthers Head Coach Candidates Ranked

After striking out on Matt Rhule three years ago, the Panthers need to get this hire right. They’re looking in all the right places, interviewing impressive coordinators on both sides of the ball in addition to three former head coaches.

Let’s run through the candidates in the running for Carolina’s head coaching position and assess where things stand.

1) Ben Johnson, Lions Offensive Coordinator

Ben Johnson is reportedly the frontrunner for the Panthers’ head coaching job, and for good reason. In his first season as a full-time play-caller, Johnson turned Detroit’s offense into a well-oiled machine and nearly helped the team make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

The Lions finished top five in nearly every offensive metric, while Jared Goff posted his best statistical season in years. Johnson consistently found ways to scheme Amon-Ra St. Brown open, and he used Detroit’s excellent run-blocking offensive line to create a dynamic rushing attack.

Johnson survived multiple head coaching changes during his stops with the Lions and the Dolphins. That speaks to his ability as a coach, but also to his presence around the office. Clearly, players and other coaches like working with Johnson, and his personable nature will serve him well as a head coach.

2) Mike Kafka, Giants Offensive Coordinator

No one expected the Giants to make much noise in 2022. But Big Blue won nine games to claim a Wild Card berth, then knocked out the No. 3 seed Vikings in the first round of the postseason.

As such, it’s no surprise that New York’s staff members are garnering consideration for head coaching jobs, and that begins with Mike Kafka. First-year Giants head coach Brian Daboll trusted Kafka — who he’d never worked with previously — to call the team’s offensive plays this season. The 35-year-old responded by helping Daniel Jones produce the best campaign of his career despite a lack of talent at receiver and along the offensive line.

MORE: Carolina Panthers Offseason Preview 2023

The Panthers arguably have better players than the Giants at nearly every position except quarterback. Carolina could feel secure with Kafka leading their QB search, and they’d know he’d be able to get the most out of the talent on their roster.

3) Shane Steichen, Eagles Offensive Coordinator

The Panthers seem likely to hire an offensive-minded coach, and Shane Steichen is next in a long list of offensive coordinators Carolina will meet with. Steichen, Justin Herbert’s coordinator during his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, helped build a malleable offense with the Eagles while guiding Jalen Hurts to an MVP-caliber season.

Like Johnson and Kafka, Steichen tailors his game plans week-by-week, focusing on exploiting opponents’ weaknesses rather than sticking to one system. However, it’s fair to note that Steichen benefited from coaching far more talent-laden offenses than either the Lions or Giants coordinators.

In addition to Hurts, Philadelphia has the NFL’s best offensive line and dynamic players at every skill position. Steichen would have to get used to working with less-than-perfect conditions in Carolina, something he hasn’t necessarily had to do with the Eagles.

4) Sean Payton, Former Saints Head Coach

Sean Payton is the most accomplished head coach on the 2023 circuit, and nearly every club would be lucky to hire him. With a .631 career winning percentage and a Super Bowl trophy under his belt, Payton is a future Hall of Famer, and it’s no surprise that he’s generated interest from four of the five teams searching for a new head coach.

However, whichever team hires Payton will have to work out a trade with the Saints, who still control his contractual rights. That price is reportedly a first-round pick and more, and New Orleans will only grant interview permission to clubs comfortable with that acquisition cost.

Given that the Panthers play in the same division as the Saints, New Orleans might mark up Payton’s price even further. At that point, it might not be the best idea for Carolina to sacrifice too much draft capital, especially as they continue to search for a franchise quarterback. Owner David Tepper can afford any salary that Payton asks for, but the draft picks may be a bridge too far.

5) Steve Wilks, Panthers Interim Head Coach

If the Panthers’ players were running the search, Steve Wilks would have already shed the interim label and become Carolina’s next head coach. Veterans like Shaq Thomspon and Derrick Brown have publicly shown their support for Wilks, who guided the Panthers to a 6-6 record following Rhule’s firing and nearly led the club to the postseason.

Wilks is well-respected in the locker room, and he was probably unfairly fired by the Cardinals at his previous head coaching stop. The Panthers kept playing hard even when their season was on life support, and Wilks undoubtedly played a key role in turning around the franchise’s season outlook.

6) Jim Caldwell, Former Lions/Colts Head Coach

Jim Caldwell absolutely deserves another chance as an NFL head coach. He’s posted a 62-50 career record and had success with two franchises, but he hasn’t landed another job since being fired by the Lions in 2017. Since leaving Detroit, Caldwell has interviewed with the Packers, Jets, Browns, Jaguars, and Bears, and he’s a candidate for the Broncos’ head coaching position this offseason.

As a 68-year-old Black coach, Caldwell has an uphill battle against two factors often silently present in NFL head coaching searches: racial discrimination and ageism. Caldwell is a player’s coach with a proven ability to connect with young athletes, and he’d be a positive influence on a Panthers franchise that’s been stuck in neutral (or worse) for the past five seasons.

7) Ken Dorsey, Bills Offensive Coordinator

If Ken Dorsey were to be hired as the Panthers’ next head coach, he’d be going back to where it all began. After a seven-year career as a quarterback, Dorsey entered the NFL coaching ranks as Carolina’s QBs coach in 2013, ultimately spending five seasons with the club.

Promoted to become the Bills’ offensive coordinator this season following Daboll’s departure, Dorsey’s unit hasn’t always looked as consistent as it did in previous seasons. But Buffalo’s offense was more productive in 2022 than it was in 2021, averaging more yards per play and generating more expected points added (EPA) per play.

8) Ejiro Evero, Broncos Defensive Coordinator

Carolina’s HC search is geared toward candidates with experience on the offensive side of the ball, so Ejiro Evero is probably behind the eight-ball. Evero, who is also interviewing with the Broncos, Texans, and Colts, will likely either grab a head coaching position or become one of the league’s highest-paid defensive coordinators this offseason.

Amid the disaster in Denver last season, Evero crafted a defense that continued many of Vic Fangio’s themes from the year prior. Even if the Panthers are leaning toward offensive coordinators, they have to be enticed by the prospect of letting Evero work with Brian Burns, Jaycee Horn, and the rest of their young defensive playmakers.

9) Kellen Moore, Cowboys Offensive Coordinator

Even though Kellen Moore helped the Cowboys through a Dak Prescott-less stretch and emerge with a 4-1 record in Cooper Rush’s starts, the shine seems to have worn off the Dallas coordinator. After receiving four head coach interview requests last year, Moore’s only interest this offseason has come from Carolina.

MORE: Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Candidates Ranked

Given that he’s only 34 years old, Moore will still likely be a head coach someday — it just might not be this offseason. While his performance calling plays for Dallas has been impressive, it’s fair to point out that many coordinators, including Johnson and Kafka, have done more with less.

10) Frank Reich, Former Colts Head Coach

Frank Reich never won the AFC South during his tenure as the Colts’ head coach, but he did post two 10-win seasons. Indy went just 1-7 after firing Reich. It’s clear he wasn’t the problem for the Colts, but he was part of the problem.

It’s perhaps telling that the Panthers are the only team that’s expressed serious interest in Reich as a head coaching candidate. It would behoove Reich to spend at least one season as an offensive coordinator and generate new ideas before re-emerging on the 2024 head coaching circuit.

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