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Who should Carolina Panthers hire as next head coach?

We go over the head-coaching options for Carolina and assess which candidate makes the most sense.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers became the first NFL team with an opening at head coach this cycle after firing Matt Rhule following a 1-4 start. Rhule’s tenure lasted less than three full seasons and never delivered a winning record.

But while such an early dismissal usually foreshadows a difficult year, the Panthers managed to make things interesting under interim head coach Steve Wilks. Over the final 12 games of the season, the team went 6-6, nearly winning the NFC South in the process. That probably says more about the division than Carolina, but it remains a feather in Wilks’ cap as the franchise determines its next head coach.

Update — The Panthers hired Frank Reich as their next head coach on Thursday, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Known candidates

Jim Caldwell

A head coach with the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions, Jim Caldwell would provide the Broncos with experience and a steady hand. That seems especially noteworthy given the team’s last three hires took the job without ever previously holding a head-coaching position. Caldwell’s best season in the big chair remains his first — a 14-2 Colts squad that reached the Super Bowl — but that came with league MVP Peyton Manning under center.

Ken Dorsey

In his first year as an NFL offensive coordinator, Ken Dorsey kept the Buffalo Bills on course. The unit finished second in DVOA despite quarterback Josh Allen playing through an elbow issue most of the season. While Dorsey has only one season in his current position, he also spent multiple years as a quarterbacks coach. For teams looking to groom a young signal-caller, that experience will come in handy. At the same time, the Bills offense folded on the biggest stage, producing only 10 points in the divisional round. That somewhat reinforces the notion that Dorsey needs more seasoning before he lands a head-coaching job.

Ejiro Evero

Despite all of the Denver Broncos’ issues in 2022, their defense performed impressively throughout. That play came in large part thanks to defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. When Denver removed Hackett with multiple weeks left in the season, the team initially turned to Evero to replace him on an interim basis. Evero reportedly declined in order to focus on the defense and limit disruption. Regardless, he has garnered interest from multiple franchises in this cycle, not just the Panthers.

Mike Kafka

The New York Giants had little plus offensive talent outside of Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley and stud left tackle Andrew Thomas. However, that didn’t stop Mike Kafka from directing a top-10 offense by DVOA and helping guide Daniel Jones to his best season in the NFL. While Kafka became a hot name as the OC for head coach Brian Daboll, he has spent most of his coaching career under Andy Reid with the Kansas City Chiefs. That diverse résumé could help him land a head-coaching job in the near future.

Kellen Moore

As the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, Kellen Moore has served as the bridge from the Jason Garrett era to Mike McCarthy’s tenure as head coach. Through it all, the Cowboys have featured one of the league’s more creative systems, borrowing from multiple coaching trees as well as Moore’s experiences at Boise State. The Cowboys’ disappointing showing in the divisional round raises some questions, but Moore’s résumé extends beyond one year.

Sean Payton

The belle of the ball, former New Orleans Saints headman Sean Payton has received interview requests from nearly every team with an opening. Payton has a well deserved reputation as one of the game’s premier offensive minds and a Super Bowl ring on his résumé. Because he remains under contract with the Saints, any club interested in hiring him will have to provide compensation (presumably draft picks) in addition to the hefty salary Payton will command. New Orleans might demand a premium to send Payton within the division.

Frank Reich

Frank Reich’s unceremonious midseason firing as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts set the scene for the unintentional comedy of the Jeff Saturday era. But that debacle shouldn’t overshadow Reich’s accomplishments which include a 37-28 record over his first four seasons with four different starting quarterbacks.

DeMeco Ryans

In a short amount of time, DeMeco Ryans has established himself as one of the NFL’s premier defensive coordinators with the San Francisco 49ers. The team has reached the NFC Championship Game for the second straight year thanks in large part to Ryans’ unit. And while the 49ers possess immense talent on defense — including Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Nick Bosa — Ryans’ play-calling and in-game tweaks have largely negated weaknesses in the secondary. Ryans drew interest for head-coaching positions last year and has interviewed for multiple teams in this cycle.

Shane Steichen

For a 37-year-old coach, Shane Steichen offers plenty of experience. A one-time defensive assistant, Steichen earned his stripes as a quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Chargers. He then caught on with Nick Sirianni’s staff in Philadelphia, bringing his offensive creativity with him. This cycle represents Steichen’s first as a head-coaching candidate, so he could realistically have to wait another year before landing in the big chair.

Steve Wilks

After Rhule’s midseason departure, Wilks nearly pushed the Panthers to a divisional crown. The effort fell short, but Wilks deserves considerable credit for reviving a team that appeared to have nothing left to play for, especially after the front office traded superstar running back Christian McCaffrey.

Who should the Panthers hire as their next head coach?

Wilks might have the support of the locker room, but the track record of interim head coaches that land the full-time job doesn’t inspire much confidence. With that in mind, Ryans seems like the best of the options for Carolina. The defense should only improve under his watch, and his experience working alongside Kyle Shanahan provides a blueprint for a compatible style of offense.