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13 Panthers head coach candidates, ranked from safe to hilarious

The Panthers need a new head coach, and we have a variety of options

Carolina Panther vs New York Giants Perry Knotts/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers are in the market for a new head coach, and nobody knows what they’ll do. Since taking over as owner David Tepper made a big, splashy hire of an NFL unknown in Matt Rhule and it blew up in his face. Then he went for a stern, proven NFL commodity in Frank Reich — and it blew up in his face.

If we think this is cyclical then it’s time for the Panthers to do something dumb once more, but how dumb remains to be seen. Today we offer you TK potential head coaches of the Panthers moving forward, from the safe bets to the absolute funniest options available.

Safe Options

Ben Johnson, OC, Detroit Lions

Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said no to the Panthers a year ago, refusing to even interview for the job — but the sentiment was more about him wanting to finish what he began in Detroit, rather than jump ship.

The season he’s had in the Motor City has been nothing short of remarkable as his offense has turned former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff into one of the most-reliable quarterbacks in the NFL this season. Could he come up with a system that allows Bryce Young to shine? Absolutely. Does he want to take his first step into head coaching waters with an ever-mercurial owner who demands success right away? That remains to be seen.

Dave Canales, OC, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A hot-shot 42-year-old garnering tons of attention, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dave Canales seems ready to take the jump into a major gig. Coming from the Pete Carroll coaching tree he knows how to maximize the talent on a roster and make it work.

Canales was key in turning Geno Smith’s career around, and while the Bucs are nothing to write home about in 2023 it’s not for lack of effort on the offensive end. This would actually be a really good fit.

Brian Flores, DC, Minnesota Vikings

Would David Tepper fly in the face of his NFL overlords to hire someone with an active lawsuit against two teams and the NFL? Yes, yes he would. If anyone is going to step out and be willing to be hated among ownership in favor of winning it’s Tepper.

Flores is a tremendous coach. The job he’s done this season with a piecemeal Vikings defense is second to none. Flores is creative, dynamic, and able to own what he doesn’t know — bringing in smart offensive minds to carry the other side of the ball.

This is such a smart hire it’s almost guaranteed Carolina won’t do it.

Mike Macdonald, DC, Baltimore Ravens

Not to be confused with Dolphins’ coach Mike McDaniel, Mike Macdonald is the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. He’s create a hard-nosed, violent defense for the Ravens that almost harkens back to the team’s glory days.

Allowing only 15.6 points per game (2nd in the NFL), Macdonald has made life pretty easy for the Ravens offense by simply not allowing many points. It’s the biggest reason this team is 1st in the AFC right now, and if this team goes further he’ll become a very hot coaching commodity.

Kellen Moore, OC, Los Angeles Chargers

As his career was winding down at Boise State, and even with a potential NFL playing career looming, there was no question that Kellen Moore was destined to be an NFL coach someday. The son of a high school head coach who collected and studied playbooks for fun growing up, it just seemed a matter of time before Moore would be running an NFL team.

Things are going south in Los Angeles, and the seat under Brandon Staley could not be hotter. Perhaps ownership views Moore as the “head coach in waiting” for the Chargers, and if so the chance to coach Justin Herbert might outweigh the chance to develop Bryce Young.

But if the Chargers go in a different direction, Carolina could be a landing spot for Moore.

Bobby Slowik, OC, Houston Texans

There are more than a few things that have made life uncomfortable for Panthers fans this season.

Topping the list? Seeing how C.J. Stroud has shined as a rookie. While Carolina is seeing first-overall selection Bryce Young struggle to acclimate to the NFL game, Stroud has stepped into the Texans’ huddle and helped put Houston in the playoff mix, while playing like a veteran.

So while the Panthers cannot pry Stroud away from Houston, perhaps they could land his offensive coordinator?

Eric Bieniemy, OC, Washington Commanders

Every hiring cycle the past few years, Eric Bieniemy’s name came up as a potential option.

And every hiring cycle, Bieniemy was passed over for jobs.

There may be a number of reasons why teams went in other directions, but one of the reasons discussed each hiring cycle was the notion that Bieniemy could not truly develop a quarterback. After all, when you have Andy Reid at your side — and Patrick Mahomes is the QB you are tasked with developing — how much experience do you have in this area?

However, we might be able to put that idea aside, given the job that Bieniemy has done with Sam Howell this year. While there are a lot of problems in Washington, Howell might have done enough to earn that job into 2024. Whether the organization sticks with him, or goes in a different direction, remains to be seen.

But Bieniemy showed he can coach a QB up, one that is not Mahomes.

That might make him a very safe option in Carolina, to help develop Bryce Young.

Hilarious Options

Bill Cowher, Analyst, CBS Sports

Ok we can start here.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach has a very good gig at CBS, and he recently moved to New York full-time to handle his job responsibilities with the network.

However ...

A: He has deep ties to North Carolina, as he played at N.C. State and was inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor. When the Cowher family moved to New York City? He sold a home in Raleigh.

B: Tepper was a partial owner of the Steelers, and while his time in Pittsburgh did not overlap with Cowher, you can imagine the idea of coaxing Cowher out of retirement, and bringing some of that Steelers’ mentality, to Carolina is something that entices the Panthers owner.

Dabo Swinney, HC, Clemson

Let’s get real, real dumb here. Would this be a good hire? No. Would it make the Panthers better? No. Is it the kind of move a desperate owner trying to curry favor in South Carolina might make? Yeaaaah.

Dabo Swinney has already had links to other jobs after reportedly being a candidate at Texas A&M, and at this point I’m not 100 percent sure Clemson fans wouldn’t be okay with him leaving. There are all sorts of buzz words like “championship pedigree” and “commitment to excellence” that Swinney would use to make David Tepper fall in love.

Then in two years we’d be back here, talking about why he was fired from the Panthers job.

Lincoln Riley, HC, USC

Our dear friend JP Acosta said on a recent episode of Monday Football Monday here at SB Nation that Lincoln Riley has quiet quit on the Trojans.

So, perfect.

Jon Gruden, Former HC, Las Vegas Raiders

This is the kind of splashy, nonsensical move we can expect out of David Tepper. Gruden is basically persona non grata in NFL circles after his emails leaked — and we can probably expect that to remain. Never say never, though.

At the end of the day the man has a ring, and nobody can take that away from him. Did he basically gut and destroy the Raiders? Yes. Would he want total control of the organization? Indeed. That might just happen in Carolina, and if finding a quality coach is tough, Gruden could easily rise from the ashes like a homophobic, racist phoenix.

Jim Harbaugh, HC, Michigan

For the past few years, Jim Harbaugh has at least entertained the notion of returning to the NFL. However, on each occasion he went back to Michigan.

But coming off his second three-game suspension of the 2023 season, it does at least feel like Harbaugh’s time in Ann Arbor is coming to a close. Of course, the Chicago Bears loom as a potential NFL landing spot for him, and it would be a natural fit. Harbaugh spent seven years in Chicago as a player, helping the team to back-to-back playoff berths in 1990 and 1991.

And in Chicago, he might get an opportunity to draft and develop a quarterback of his choosing.

Still, if Tepper wants to make a splashy hire, this might be the path he heads down.

Steve Smith, Analyst, NFL Network

Last season, Frank Reich was fired by Jim Irsay and replaced with Jeff Saturday, on an interim basis. A former player coming home to guide the franchise through troubled waters.

What if Tepper took that a step further?

If nothing else, the locker room speeches would be must-watch television.