A to-do list for the next Carolina Panthers head coach

Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer responds to a question from the media on Monday, January 9, 2023 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Fitterer has begun his search for Carolina’s next head coach. Along with owner David Tepper, he will be the main decision-maker.

Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer responds to a question from the media on Monday, January 9, 2023 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Fitterer has begun his search for Carolina’s next head coach. Along with owner David Tepper, he will be the main decision-maker.


Head coaches are not selected. They are elected.

Politicians and NFL head-coaching candidates have plenty in common this time of year. The NFL head-coaching counsel is an annual cycle where information is being exchanged by the second in a nonstop effort by candidates to capitalize on their narratives by convincing NFL owners and decision-makers they are best for the job.

Everyone is selling hope. Slogans aside, potential head coaches present teams an all-encompassing plan that clearly states their plan of attack if elected head coach.

Owner David Tepper and the Panthers wasted no time starting their search for Matt Rhule’s replacement. Carolina has already requested interviews with more than 10 candidates. The team interviewed Steve Wilks, Jim Caldwell and Frank Reich and will interview several more candidates this week.

Whether a candidate is an offensive mind or a defensive strategist, every coach interviewing in Carolina should satisfy these four categories with a detailed plan.

Find a QB

Tepper and general manager Scott Fitterer are leading the team’s head-coaching search. Both will play similar roles in accurately finding a franchise quarterback regardless of who the next head coach is.

The Panthers’ next head coach must have a vision for developing the quarterbacks. Candidates should study how first-year head coaches Brian Daboll (New York Giants) and Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota Vikings) approached the quarterbacks they inherited. The Giants’ Daniel Jones and the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins are flourishing on their respective teams in very different ways.

Jones is winning with his feet while making the throws Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka — who the Panthers requested to interview — scheme open. Cousins is throwing more passes per game than he ever has, which has led to eight fourth-quarter comebacks and an NFL-record 11 one-score wins.

The next head coach must have individual plans crafted for Matt Corral, an imaginary first-round rookie and a theoretical veteran (maybe Sam Darnold) tailored specifically to each thrower. The ideal Panthers quarterback room would feature three quarterbacks at different career junctions. Yet, all three must be ready to play, and the offense should not change much if they do.

Backup quarterback has never been more important in the NFL. Sixty-six different quarterbacks started an NFL game this season, the most since 2007. The Panthers have started three different quarterbacks each of the past two seasons. Having a plan for Corral and a veteran thrower should be as important as developing a rookie.

Former Giants head coach Joe Judge was fired last offseason primarily because he did not improve Jones. In one season with Daboll, Jones had a career year and should earn starting quarterback money this offseason from the Giants or elsewhere.

Could Kafka, Ben Johnson (Detroit Lions), Kellen Moore (Dallas Cowboys), Ken Dorsey (Buffalo Bills) or Shane Steichen (Philadelphia Eagles) be this hiring cycles’ Daboll or O’Connell? It’s possible. Or could a retread like Reich or Caldwell recreate what Doug Pederson did in Jacksonville?

That’s for Tepper and the Panthers to find out by hiring a candidate with a foolproof quarterback plan.

Find an experienced coordinator on the opposite of the ball

Coaching styles vary but every successful NFL leader must possess expertise in five key areas. The coach must be adept at preparation, strategy, tactics, execution and situational intuition.

Preparation covers everything from having efficient daily schedules, especially during OTAs, minicamp, training camp and the regular season, to being ready on game days. Strategy incorporates plotting specific game plans and formulating developmental plans for every Panthers player. It takes sound tactics to maximize strategies. Situational intuition is the oil that makes everything function smoothly.

The Panthers’ future coach should seek these five skills in his coordinators, too.

Six years ago when the Rams made Sean McVay the youngest head coach in league history at age 31, they paired him with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (69 years old), who had decades of head-coaching experience.

Other examples include defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who coaches one of the best defenses in football with the Cowboys. He reached Super Bowl 51 as the Falcons’ head coach. More recently, the Browns fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods after three seasons. The team is reportedly interested in Jim Schwartz and Brian Flores to fill the vacancy. Both are previous head coaches.

The young offensive coordinators the Panthers are interviewing would be wise to present a plan for Carolina’s up-and-coming defense, tied to a veteran defensive coordinator. If Carolina hires a defensive head coach (Wilks or DeMeco Ryans) both must deliver a stellar plan for the offense that includes visionary talent at both offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.

Get on board with Scott Fitterer’s roster-building plan

The Panthers hired GM Fitterer following former Rhule’s inaugural season. With Rhule gone, Fitterer is likely the second most powerful person in the organization entering just his second full season overseeing the Panthers’ front office.

He has earned it. Jaycee Horn, Brady Christensen, Chuba Hubbard, Terrace Marshall, Tommy Tremble, Keith Taylor and Shi Smith are all from the 2021 rookie class and all contributed this season. Horn is already one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Christensen did not miss a start this season. Hubbard could be a bell-cow back if necessary. Marshall flashed at times while Tremble, Taylor and Smith all could improve but belong in the NFL

Ikem Ekwonu highlights the team’s 2022 class and is already one of the most talented left tackles in the league.

Whomever the Panthers hire will have to be on board with Fitterer’s roster-building vision. The team has important internal talent it’s already negotiating with. Retaining center Bradly Bozeman and running back D’Onta Foreman is one of the Panthers’ top priorities regardless of who coaches next season.

It would be advantageous for the next coach to lean on Fitterer’s existing relationships with Panthers players. He’s an organic bridge from Tepper’s initial vision to his redemption hire.

Find immediate alignment with Tepper and Fitterer

Last season when the Vikings were searching for their coach following eight seasons of Mike Zimmer, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh interviewed but did not land the job. There are conflicting reports as to why, but clearly Harbaugh and Vikings ownership did not 100% align.

The Observer confirmed Harbaugh and Tepper had a conversation about the Panthers’ head-coaching vacancy. Since then, Harbaugh released a statement via the University of Michigan’s Twitter that he anticipates returning to Ann Arbor. The Panthers have not yet conducted a formal interview with Harbaugh.

That could change. If it doesn’t then Tepper was not interested in handing over full control of the organization to another college coach like he did with Rhule. The best organizations find and then successfully maintain alignment between ownership, the front office and the head coach.

The next Panthers head coach must align with Tepper’s vision and Fitterer’s plan while serving as a CEO capable of authentic leadership and winning football education and strategy.

Hailing from Minnesota, Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover the Carolina Panthers. Prior, he spent two years reporting on the Browns for Cleveland.com/the Plain Dealer. Having escaped cold winters, he’s thrilled to consume football, hoops, music and movies within the Queen City.

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