The Carolina Panthers are in need of a new head coach, and their search is already well underway. The Panthers fired Matt Rhule after Week 5, and while interim head coach Steve Wilks nearly took Carolina to the postseason, the team isn’t turning things over to Wilks without conducting a full search.
After striking out on Rhule in 2020, owner David Tepper and Co. are casting a wide net this time around. They’ve interviewed — or requested permission to interview — eight candidates so far, the most of any team with a head coaching vacancy.
Update: The Panthers hired Frank Reich as their new head coach on Jan. 26.
Latest on the Carolina Panthers Head Coach Search
If one thing is evident based on the Panthers’ initial list of candidates, it’s this — they’re looking for an offensive head coach. Nearly every candidate Carolina has expressed interest in comes from the offensive side of the ball, with Wilks the lone exception. Here’s who the Panthers have targeted in their head coaching search.
Jim Caldwell, Former Colts and Lions Head Coach
Update: Caldwell interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 9.
Although Jim Caldwell has a 62-50 record as an NFL head coach, he hasn’t landed another top job since being fired by the Lions in 2017, a fact that Brian Flores noted in his racial discrimination against the NFL.
Since leaving Detroit, Caldwell has interviewed for head coaching positions with the Packers, Jets, Browns, Jaguars, and Bears. This year, he’s also met with the Broncos as part of their search process.
Caldwell hasn’t been on an NFL staff since 2019 when he briefly served as the Dolphins’ assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach before taking a health-related leave of absence. At 67 years old, Caldwell doesn’t mesh with the current trend of younger head coaches, but it’s hard to say he doesn’t deserve another shot somewhere.
Ken Dorsey, Bills Offensive Coordinator
Update: Dorsey interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 21.
There’s a healthy relationship between the Bills and the Panthers, as Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane both worked in Carolina before taking their current jobs. Given that Bills-Panthers connection, it only makes sense that Carolina is interested in Buffalo offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.
Dorsey, who won a college title at Miami before serving as an NFL backup for six seasons, began his coaching career in Carolina, serving as the Panthers’ quarterbacks coach from 2013-17. He joined the Bills in the same role in 2019, got promoted to passing game coordinator in 2021, then replaced Brian Daboll as the club’s offensive play-caller in 2022.
Buffalo’s offense has remained among the league’s best under Dorsey — by expected points added per play, the Bills have actually improved with Dorsey calling the shots.
Ejiro Evero, Broncos Defensive Coordinator
Update: Evero interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 18.
The Broncos’ 2022 campaign didn’t go as planned, but defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero’s work is not going unnoticed. Denver’s defense finished third in yards per play allowed and was top-10 in efficiency, and Evero’s handling of his unit during a disastrous season could earn him a head coaching position this offseason.
Thus far, Evero has been linked to all of the five teams with head coaching vacancies — the Panthers, Colts, Texans, Cardinals, and incumbent Broncos. Meanwhile, Denver didn’t allow the Falcons to interview Evero for their defensive coordinator role because they might want to hang onto him even if they hire a different head coach.
For more, check out our Ejiro Evero NFL Head Coach Profile.
Ben Johnson, Lions Offensive Coordinator
Update: Johnson opted to stay with the Lions and removed his name from all head coaching searches.
One of the hottest names on the 2022 circuit, Ben Johnson is also expected to interview with Houston and Indianapolis in the coming days. It’s no surprise that Johnson is attracting interest around the league after he led the Lions’ offense to 26.6 points per game (fifth-best in the NFL) and 5.9 yards per play (tied for fourth-best).
Like Detroit’s offense, the Panthers’ offense would offer Johnson an above-average offensive line and exciting weapons. Quarterback is obviously a concern in Carolina, but Johnson just helped Jared Goff post a 61.2 QBR, the second-best mark of his career and the fifth-best rating in the league.
Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan Head Coach
Update: It’s unclear if Harbaugh was ever a serious candidate in Carolina, but he’s announced he’s staying at Michigan.
While Jim Harbaugh clearly has designs on returning to the NFL, it’s unlikely to be with the Panthers. Harbaugh did have a conversation with Panthers owner David Tepper, but it was Harbaugh who initiated the call, according to Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports.
That discussion was “never characterized as a job interview,” and Carolina doesn’t have an interview scheduled with the Michigan head coach. Per Jones, the Panthers were concerned about Harbaugh’s nine-hour interview with the Vikings in 2021. Minnesota declined to offer him their head coaching job after that meeting, in which Harbaugh’s behavior was characterized as “odd.”
Harbaugh, facing allegations of NCAA rules violations at Michigan, has already interviewed with the Broncos, and he’s been mentioned as a candidate for the Colts.
For more, check out the pros and cons of hiring Jim Harbaugh.
Mike Kafka, Giants Offensive Coordinator
Update: Kafka interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 22.
Given the talent level that Mike Kafka and Brian Daboll were dealing with at wide receiver and along the offensive line, it’s incredible that the Giants managed to finish 10th in offensive DVOA. Under Kafka, Saquon Barkley posted his best season since his rookie year, while Daniel Jones finished seventh in QBR and kept his turnovers in check.
It’s telling that Daboll turned over play-calling duties to Kafka — Patrick Mahomes’ former quarterbacks coach in Kansas City — in their first year together. Daboll and Kafka had never worked together, yet the new Giants head coach felt comfortable giving that responsibility to the 35-year-old Kafka.
For more, check out our Mike Kafka NFL Head Coach Profile.
Jerod Mayo, Inside Linebackers Coach
Update: Mayo declined an interview with Carolina and is working on a new contract to remain in New England.
A former first-round pick, Jerod Mayo joined the Patriots as their inside linebackers coach four years after announcing his retirement in 2015. Bill Belichick had reportedly tried to get Mayo on his staff for years, and the 36-year-old is now an integral part of a defense that ranked third in EPA per play and fifth in success rate.
Despite the fact that he doesn’t hold a coordinator title, Mayo has generated significant interest around the league. Last year, he interviewed for the Broncos’ and Raiders’ head coaching vacancies.
Even if he doesn’t land a head coaching position during this cycle, Mayo could still leave New England for greener pastures. He’s one of four known candidates for the Browns’ defensive coordinator job, along with Jim Schwartz, Brian Flores, and Sean Desai.
For more, check out our Jerod Mayo NFL Head Coach Profile.
Kellen Moore, Cowboys Offensive Coordinator
Update: Moore interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 24 and interviewed for a second time on Jan. 25.
At 34, Kellen Moore is the youngest coach on Carolina’s list, but he’s already earned plenty of experience as a head coach interviewee. Last year, Moore met with the Broncos, Jaguars, Dolphins, and Vikings but did not land a job.
This season, Moore’s most outstanding work arguably came in Weeks 2-6, when the Cowboys were forced to turn to backup quarterback Cooper Rush following Dak Prescott’s thumb injury. Dallas went 4-1 in Rush’s four starts, and he posted a 60.0 QBR — better than Dak’s mark on the season.
For more, check out our Kellen Moore NFL Head Coach Profile.
Sean Payton, Former Saints Head Coach
Update: Payton interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 23.
The Panthers are getting in on the Sean Payton sweepstakes, as they were granted permission on Sunday to interview the ex-Saints coach. Payton has now been in touch with four of the five teams with a head coaching vacancy, with the Colts as the lone outlier.
Any team that lands Payton will likely have to sacrifice a first-round pick and more to acquire his rights from New Orleans. That acquisition cost could prove even more pricy for Carolina, given that they’re in the same division as the Saints.
For more, check out our Sean Payton NFL Head Coach Profile.
Frank Reich, Former Colts Head Coach
Update: Reich interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 11 and interviewed for a second time on Jan. 25 before being hired.
The Colts fired Frank Reich after he posted a 3-5-1 record to start the season. But given that Indy went 1-7 to close the year, Reich clearly wasn’t the issue. While he never won the AFC South as the Colts’ head coach, Reich did manage two 10-win seasons, each of which culminated in a playoff berth.
Reich was also initially mentioned as a candidate for the Broncos, but he may no longer be in the running in Denver. Even if Reich doesn’t grab a head coaching job during this cycle, his work as a play-caller with the Colts, Eagles, and Chargers will likely enable him to land an offensive coordinator position.
DeMeco Ryans, 49ers Defensive Coordinator
Update: Carolina requested an interview with Ryans but he never met with the Panthers.
DeMeco Ryans is another addition to the Panthers’ list of candidates, and they requested permission to interview him on Jan. 12. Carolina saw Ryans’ defense up close and personal in Week 5 when the 49ers beat the Panthers 37-15. San Francisco sacked Baker Mayfield and P.J. Walker six times and held Carolina to one touchdown and three field goals.
Ryans, 38, is also a candidate in Denver and Houston, which is unsurprising given the 49ers’ defensive performance in 2022. No defense has allowed fewer points than San Francisco (277), and the 49ers tied for second in yards per play allowed (5.0). Just 25.7% of SF’s opponents’ drives end with an offensive score, the best mark in the NFL.
For more, check out our DeMeco Ryans NFL Head Coach Profile.
Shane Steichen, Eagles Offensive Coordinator
Update: Steichen interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 14.
Shane Steichen worked under Reich with the Chargers and eventually became LA’s offensive coordinator, guiding Justin Herbert to an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2020. Since joining the Eagles, he’s helmed an offense that can exploit any defensive weakness while helping turn Jalen Hurts into an MVP candidate.
Steichen was expected to be among the most popular head coaching candidates available this offseason, and that’s held true so far. In addition to the Panthers, he’s also expected to meet with the Colts and Texans regarding their vacancies.
For more, check out our Shane Steichen NFL Head Coach Profile.
Steve Wilks, Panthers Interim Head Coach
Update: Wilks interviewed with Carolina on Jan. 9 and interviewed for a second time on Jan. 25.
If the Panthers left their head coaching decision up to their players, Wilks would already have the job. Veterans like Shaq Thompson and Derrick Brown have voiced their support for Wilks, who guided Carolina to a 6-6 record after replacing Rhule.
The Panthers kept playing for Wilks down the stretch, which is a testament to his leadership ability in the locker room. Carolina was left for dead at 1-5, but they had a shot at the playoffs entering their Week 17 matchup against the Buccaneers.
Wilks has been an NFL head coach before. He was dismissed — probably unfairly — after posting a 3-13 record in his only season with the Josh Rosen-led Cardinals. With a much better showing in his second opportunity, Wilks has placed himself squarely in contention for the Panthers’ head coaching job.