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4 top Carolina Panthers coaching candidates to replace Matt Rhule

Carolina Panthers coaching candidates
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is squarely on the NFL hot seat, a favorite to be one of the first head coaches fired. Before Carolina moves on from its head coach, let’s examine NFL coaching candidates who should be on the Panthers’ radar.

A flawed process got Carolina to this point. Rhile was a coveted coaching candidate in 2020 after turning the Baylor Bears program around, receiving interest from multiple NFL teams. After interviewing with Panthers’ owner David Tepper, Rhule was set to meet with the New York Giants. Instead, Tepper made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL.

  • Matt Rhule record: 11-26

It didn’t matter that Rhule lacked any legitimate NFL experience. He began his coaching career in 1998 as a volunteer assistant at Penn State, working his way up the college ranks. He made it to the NFL in 2012, serving as an assistant offensive line coach for the Giants. He then went to Temple and Baylor, rebuilding their football programs and delivering double-digit win seasons.

Related: Carolina Panthers schedule

Tepper, one of the richest NFL owners, ignored the warning signs of a coach who lacked any real experience at the highest level. Fast forward to 2022 and the Panthers are now 1-26 in games when their opponent scores at least 17 points. Rhule made significant bets on quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, each of them failed.

Now that Matt Rhule is fired, let’s examine four Carolina Panthers coaching candidates who should be targeted this offseason.

Related: Matt Rhule becomes first of NFL coaches fired in 2022

DeMeco Ryans, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

So much of the success achieved by the San Francisco 49ers within the past year is credited to head coach Kyle Shanahan. While he is one of the brightest minds in the NFL, San Francisco’s defense carried that team in the second half of the 2021 season and its doing the same thing in 2022. DeMeco Ryan, the former linebacker from 2006-’16, is the architect behind it all.

Look at what this defense is doing in 2022. Through its first four games, San Francisco is allowing the fewest yards per play (3.8) and the second-best team is far behind (Buffalo Bills, 4.2). Likewise, the 49ers’ defense boasts the second-most sacks (15) with the sixth-lowest average passer rating allowed (73.0) and Ryans only deploys the blitz on 9.2% of plays (31st in NFL). He is beloved by players, brings a decade of NFL experience as a player and already has more coaching experience in the NFL at 38 years old than Matt Rhule does now.

Shane Steichen, Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator

NFL: New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles’ offense is one of the best in the NFL with quarterback Jalen Hurts and head coach Nick Sirianni rightfully earning plenty of credit for it. It should be noted, though, that offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is the Eagles’ play-caller and it has been that way since the second half of the 2021 NFL season.

As Sirianni described in June, he and Steichen work together to on the game plan during the week and then create a select group of plays from the play sheet before each series. Based on in-game situations, Steichen then decides which plays they are going to run and when they will be used throughout the game or series.

The results speak for themselves. Philadelphia went 6-2 in the final eight regular-season games last season, with Its offense averaging 375 total yards and a 47.3% third-down conversion rate, all with 20 touchdowns during that stretch. Through four games this season, the Eagles rank second in total yards per game (436.8), fourth in scoring (28.8 ppg) and they rank third in red-zone touchdowns per game (2.8). This is exactly the type of play-caller and head coach the Carolina Panthers should want to work with their next quarterback.

Ben Johnson, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Speaking of explosive offenses, look no further than the Detroit Lions. Unsatisfied with the team’s production in 2021, head coach Dan Campbell promoted tight ends coach Ben Johnson to offensive coordinator. It seemed surprising at the time, considering the 36-year-old was just two years removed from being an offensive quality control coach for Matt Patricia, but Detroit loved Johnson’s mind.

Related: NFL coaches view Carolina Panthers’ Matt Rhule as lame duck

Total YPGPPGScoring RateYards per Play3rd Down RateQB Rating
Detroit Lions offense (2021)322.619.134.4%5.234.7%88.1
Detroit Lions offense (2021)436.83545.8%6.537.7%100
Stats via Pro Football Reference

We can look at a broader scope, beyond the four-game sample. Detroit started giving Johnson more responsibilities late in the 2021 season. Following an 0-10-1 start, the Lions’ offense averaged 305.3 total ypg with a 10-8 TD=INT ratio, 6.2 ypa and a 32.6% third-down conversion rate. In the final six games, Detroit finished with a 3-3 record behind an offense that averaged 354.1 total ypg, a 13-6 TD-INT ratio, 7.2 ypa and a 38.7% conversion rate on third downs.

Johnson’s play-calling is innovative, consistently finding ways to get the most out of an underrated group of skill players and perfectly balancing the run and pass. All of this is being accomplished with Jared Goff, who few in the NFL believe is anything more than an average starting quarterback.

Imagine what Johnson could do with an offense featuring D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey, Laviska Shenault Jr, Robbie Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. If the Panthers want to hire the rising name among the NFL coaching candidates, Johnson seems like a strong target.

Jim Caldwell, former NFL head coach

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions made the playoffs twice from 2012-’21, with both playoff appearances under the leadership of Jim Caldwell. Among Lions’ coaches who served 60-plus games, Caldwell’s .545 winning percentage is the fifth-best in franchise history. One last note on his Lions’ tenure, Detroit won 36 games across four seasons with Caldwell and has achieved 15 total victories in the four years after he was fired.

  • Jim Caldwell coaching record: 62-50, 2-4 in playoffs

It’s also important to remember what led to Caldwell being fired in Indianapolis. With a healthy Peyton Manning, Caldwell’s team went 24-8 in the regular season and even reached the Super Bowl in 2009. But that fateful 2011 season, which saw Manning undergo season-ending neck surgery before Week 1, Indianapolis finished 2-14 and landed the No. 1 pick. But instead of getting to coach Andrew Luck, Caldwell was fired.

If the Carolina Panthers want an experienced head coach with a proven track record and a great mind, Caldwell is the right choice. He brings a better resume than the likes of Kellen Moore and he won’t face the criticisms that Byron Leftwich does for being carried by Tom Brady. If Josh McDaniels gets a second chance, Caldwell deserves one.

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