Consistent with a report that surfaced in the immediate aftermath of head coach Frank Reich‘s dismissal, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com says that the Panthers will be targeting an offensive-minded coach when they conduct a search for Reich’s full-time replacement this offseason. Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson — who had emerged as the frontrunner for the Carolina HC post during the 2023 hiring cycle before he withdrew his name from consideration — is likely to be on owner David Tepper‘s short list once again, per Schefter. Ditto Eagles OC Brian Johnson.
Schefter’s ESPN colleague, Dan Graziano, agrees that Tepper’s search will lean towards a coach with an offensive background given the franchise’s investment in Bryce Young (subscription required). However, both Graziano and fellow ESPN scribe Jeremy Fowler believe that a candidate’s leadership abilities could be more critical than their offensive acumen. After all, new Texans HC DeMeco Ryans is a defensive-oriented coach, but his club — guided by rookie QB C.J. Stroud — boasts one of the league’s most prolific offenses. Likewise, the defensive-minded Steve Wilks led the Panthers to a 6-6 finish as interim head coach in 2022, but Tepper elected to move on from Wilks and chose not to aggressively pursue Ryans.
Regardless of which qualities Tepper prioritizes in the upcoming cycle, it remains to be seen if he will be able to land his top choice, thanks to his growing reputation as an impatient and meddlesome owner. According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Tepper’s comments at a press conference in the wake of Reich’s firing will not help his cause.
During that presser, Tepper noted that the decision to select Young over Stroud in the 2023 draft was unanimous, though Florio finds that hard to believe. That is not because he is looking at the matter through a revisionist lens skewed by the two players’ performances in their rookie campaigns, but rather because the sheer number of people involved in such a franchise-defining choice is almost guaranteed to generate contrasting viewpoints. So even though Tepper says the call was unanimous, Florio believes the reality is that any Stroud supporters realized that Tepper preferred Young and ultimately chose to side with their employer.
Indeed, while all owners natually have the power to veto any decisions made by their staff, Tepper drove that point home when reporters asked him about the Young-Stroud issue.
“The process was done the way the process was done,” Tepper said. “And again, even though if there was a process with five people in the room and the way the votes came in it was Frank was the first choice [as head coach], I always could veto that choice. And even if [it[ was Bryce [as the first overall pick] and the votes came in unanimously in this particular case, I could have vetoed that choice.”
In Florio’s view, the fact that Tepper openly avowed that he wields veto power even if there is unanimity among his football staff is telling. It also underscores his willingness to meddle, which could drive away candidates that might otherwise be interested in the Carolina HC gig. Dianna Russini of The Athletic, who says that Stroud’s success was a key factor in Tepper’s decision to fire Reich, also reports that some members of the organization have been texting Ben Johnson to tell him how “complicated” it is to work for the Panthers at the moment (subscription required).
Another high-profile target is Jim Harbaugh, but as Tony Pauline of Sportskeeda recently observed, Tepper’s propensity to drive decision-making obviously would not be appealing to a candidate like Harbaugh, who will likely want a high degree of autonomy over football operations. Plus, as a source told Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports, “[Harbaugh’s] just as mercurial as Tepper. You want a coach that way, too?”
That said, other sources have told Jones that Harbaugh is a legitimate candidate for the job. While Harbaugh and Tepper did speak about the position in late December 2022/early January 2023, that conversation did not evolve into an interview. According to Jones, Tepper — who had recently fired Matt Rhule — did not want another coach who ran the entire football operation, but it sounds as if he may be more amenable to a Harbaugh hire this time around. And no matter how Tepper may be perceived around the league, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports makes it clear that there will be plenty of coaches who will want the Panthers’ post (video link).
Of course, there may be a new voice in Tepper’s ear when the calendar flips to 2024. GM Scott Fitterer is reportedly on the hot seat, and while Schefter reports that Carolina may prefer to retain him, he has been given no assurances about his future with the club.