The Panthers are the second NFL team to make a coaching change. Frank Reich was let go Monday after just 11 games, one of the shortest tenures for a head coach in league history. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor will be the team’s interim coach, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Just as we did when the Raiders parted ways with Josh McDaniels, we’ll come up with a curated list for the Panthers, peeling from my inventory of nearly 100 up-and-coming coaches that I wrote about earlier this year. Oddly enough, Panthers defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero was a candidate some important folks in the industry viewed as a “lock” for a head coaching job in 2024. Now, he is not even the interim head coach for the Panthers.
To me, this speaks to a sort of mismanagement of assets. For example, Thomas Brown, the team’s on-again, off-again and now on-again play-caller, would seem like the perfect fit for an interim job but was instead reinstalled as play-calling offensive coordinator. The interim role would have suited his strengths; those who know Brown had always expected him to rise much like Mike Tomlin, riding the strength of his personality and leadership capabilities over his schematic abilities (this is not to say that Brown and Tomlin are bad play-callers, but when you are in a dire situation, don’t you want to maximize everyone’s best strengths?). Similarly, Evero, who will probably still get head coaching interviews this offseason, deserves a full-time audition, even if Panthers owner David Tepper ignored Steve Wilks’s stellar audition in that role last year after he fired Matt Rhule.
Anyway, I would imagine the Panthers will be hiring a coach with an offensive background. I would also imagine that—like the Rhule deal—Tepper will have to offer an unconventional six-year contract because this roster is an absolute mess. A new coach is going to have to calm and rejuvenate Bryce Young, and deal with the growing pains of a bad offensive line, a depleted secondary and a roster full of mismatched parts.
With that in mind, here’s who we would consider a good fit.
Ben Johnson, offensive coordinator, Detroit Lions
It was no secret that Tepper was infatuated with Johnson during the hiring cycle last year and that Johnson was his top choice. Johnson wisely returned to Detroit, where he spent the year refining his abilities both as a play-caller and as someone who could observe and interpret game management decisions. His learning from Dan Campbell, one of the league’s most authentic and aggressive head coaches, will be an incredible asset for Johnson. The 37-year-old was born in South Carolina, was raised and played high school football in Ashville and went to college at North Carolina, where he walked on to the football team. In terms of a sensible hire, this is overwhelmingly the way to go for the Panthers. And, no doubt, Tepper needs a slam dunk here.
Frank Smith, offensive coordinator, Miami Dolphins
Tepper seems to value both emotional intelligence and book smarts in his evaluation process. Johnson, a mathematics and computer science major, fits the bill just like Smith, a genial and deeply interpersonal coach steeped in one of the most innovative offensive rooms in the NFL. I see Smith as a kind of 1A to Johnson, even though Miami’s offense is equally as impressive as what Johnson operates in Detroit, but for different reasons. Smith, having been on the ground floor of Tua Tagovailoa’s career revival, would be a must interview for Tepper, who is (rightfully) protective of Young’s future since it is so intimately tied with his own perception.
Bobby Slowik, offensive coordinator, Houston Texans
Here’s one I’d keep an eye on for several reasons. Slowik worked under Kyle Shanahan and is calling the offense for C.J. Stroud, a quarterback many believe Tepper should have taken atop the 2023 draft (not me, for the record, and hindsight is 20/20, right?). Slowik is on my must-interview list, and ability as a play-caller is obvious. He also has access to a slew of DeMeco Ryans’s hand-picked defensive assistants as possible defensive coordinators and could bring rising star Jerrod Johnson, the team’s quarterbacks coach, with him as an offensive coordinator. He could also pilfer from the Shanahan tree, where there are still a ton of really valuable coaches and prospective big-time play-callers.
Jim Harbaugh, head coach, Michigan
Harbaugh and Tepper have spoken, and did so during the Panthers’ hiring process last year. Harbaugh’s name will perpetually be linked to NFL openings, and one could imagine that operating in the NFL is far less stressful than in the Machiavellian world of college football. If Tepper can get past the troubling, but possibly politically motivated accusations of cheating, Harbaugh would seem to be a great candidate. He is a shot in the arm for any franchise, he works wonders with quarterbacks of all types, and he can match Teppers’s relentlessness. Of course, the hire would also mean Tepper willingly taking a step back. Harbaugh, unlike Reich, likely isn’t going to take suggestions on who the play-caller should be.
Mike Macdonald, defensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
While this list is mostly populated by offensive coaches, Macdonald’s candidacy is almost impossible to ignore. One could imagine Macdonald and Tepper connecting via Macdonald’s smarts; he has a track record of impressing the room. I’m not sure why Ravens defensive coordinator isn’t an automatic line-skipper for résumés. Rex Ryan took a lowly Jets franchise to two AFC championship games and built one of the great, innovative defenses of the last 25 years. And Wink Martindale is keeping a patchwork Giants defense afloat with his guerilla style defense. Baltimore is a coaching factory, largely untapped. Macdonald could be its poster child.
Brian Johnson, offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
Johnson is confident, poised and has stepped into his own light as a skilled play-caller this season. While some could have expected a dropoff between Shane Steichen and Johnson, who had not held a play-calling role at the NFL level before this season, we’ve seen the opposite: The Eagles are nearly keeping pace with last year’s offense, which dominated en route to the Super Bowl. Kyle Whittingham, Johnson’s former coach and boss at Utah, said Johnson has a great “Alpha” mentality and the brain power to back it up.
Todd Monken, offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
Want a wild card? Monken, 57, has done wonders with the Ravens’ offense this year. Having spent time at Alabama rival Georgia, calling the Bulldogs’ back-to-back national championship runs, Monken has solidified himself as a more than capable designer of offensive systems friendly to the quarterback. Monken was the head coach at Southern Miss for three seasons, turning a one-win program into a nine-win, bowl-bound program in his third year. Should Tepper’s search for a quarterback whisperer continue beyond Johnson and some others, Monken would be worth a call.
Nick Saban, head coach, Alabama
Want a real wild card? Saban, 72, has built and maintained one of the great football dynasties at any level. However, the exhaustive nature of NIL and other schools’ abilities to hurl more prospective cash at players could even the playing field. It could also cause a coach to say forget it. Carolina could be a chance for Saban to finish his career by rectifying the one part of his legacy he has little control over: his time as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins when he went 15–17 over the course of two seasons. Saban is familiar with the quarterback and would be entering a division that’ll be wide open in the coming years. For Tepper, the draw is obvious: Getting Saban means getting access to the Saban program, and Saban coaches, who have gone on to build their own successful programs across the sport.