The Panthers made a push to hire Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson this offseason, but the rising play-caller withdrew his name from consideration for that job or other HC positions. Despite Johnson turning down the Panthers in January, the team will be prepared to see if it can change the second-year OC’s mind.
Rumored to once again be targeting a coach with an offensive background, the Panthers will have their sights set on Johnson. Following the quick Frank Reich ouster, the Panthers look to be more interested in Johnson than they were earlier this year, Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post notes.
Some around the NFL are convinced David Tepper will up the ante for the Detroit OC, La Canfora adds. Tepper’s increasingly polarizing reputation aside, the Panthers owner’s net worth sits behind only the Walton family in Denver among. Tepper made the comment about no salary cap being in place for coaches this offseason, when he added Ejiro Evero, Thomas Brown, Jim Caldwell, Josh McCown and Dom Capers to Reich’s staff.
But Johnson is on track to be a coveted commodity on the 2024 HC carousel. The Chargers have been linked to him as well, and he is expected to be interested in coaching Justin Herbert — a position expected to become available with Brandon Staley struggling in his third season — in 2024. Tepper’s reputation for impulsive decisions and meddling is also expected to make this search more complicated than those to replace Ron Rivera and Matt Rhule.
Tepper’s willingness to spend for coaches, as evidenced by Rhule’s seven-year deal worth $62MM, could certainly matter to a point. And a GM informed La Canfora the owner may be willing to keep GM Scott Fitterer on to help lure Johnson to Charlotte. Viewed as a GM not insistent on playing the lead role in personnel, Fitterer — who indeed operated as second-in-command during Rhule’s run — does not have experience working with Johnson. The latter has been with the Lions since 2019; he spent the previous seven years with the Dolphins.
It would certainly be interesting for the Panthers to keep a GM on staff in hopes he can lure a promising HC to town, and it would not exactly reflect well on the team’s situation for Johnson to turn the club down twice. Tepper hired Fitterer to work alongside Rhule, but a report last month suggested he joined Reich on the hot seat. With the Panthers starting 1-11, Fitterer receiving a fourth season in the GM chair might be a tough sell. But the Panthers are in an unusual spot, seeing their owner become the center of attention during this run of inconsistency on the sideline and at the quarterback position.
On the latter front, Bryce Young has continued to struggle, doing so as No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud has separated himself in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race. Tepper attempted to insist the Panthers were in full agreement regarding Young over Stroud, but the 5-foot-10 passer did not receive a good draw in Year 1. The Panthers have lost both starting guards for the season, and free agency additions Miles Sanders and Hayden Hurst — each securing the most guaranteed money at their respective positions this offseason — have not moved the needle much. These signings, of course, came after the Panthers included longtime No. 1 wide receiver D.J. Moore in the trade for the No. 1 pick.
Young’s rookie-year issues were evident early to some on staff, as The Athletic’s Dianna Russini adds multiple coaches on staff wanted to bench the former Heisman winner by Week 5 (subscription required). Viewing Young as requiring more coaching before he could be relied upon as a weekly starter, these coaches were ultimately overruled by a Panthers vision that placed a higher priority on long-term Young development rather than potential 2023 wins with Andy Dalton at the helm. The Panthers fired both McCown and running backs coach Duce Staley. Parks Frazier, who rose from assistant Colts QBs coach to offensive coordinator in the wake of Reich’s 2022 firing, is now coaching the Panthers’ QBs, the Charlotte Observer’s Mike Kaye tweets.
It is not known if McCown and Staley backed a Young benching, but Tepper has attempted to drive home the notion the staff was in agreement on the Alabama prospect. Reich was connected to being pro-Stroud early in the pre-draft process, though he said post-draft he was in alignment with Panthers scouts on Young. The Panthers remain hopeful regarding Young’s development, with one team staffer (via Russini) citing the shortcomings of the team’s offensive pieces around him.
Circling back to Reich, La Canfora offers one of the reasons Tepper cut the cord so early was the veteran coach’s lower-key demeanor. Reich, 61, is not known as an intense leader. Reich’s measured approach came up against two outspoken owners during his HC career, with Jim Irsay becoming increasingly involved as the former Super Bowl-winning OC’s Colts run progressed. Reich signed a four-year contract. While Rhule’s Nebraska contract moved the Panthers off the hook for much of the money remaining on his NFL contract, via offset language, Reich said he is likely headed toward retirement. In that event, the Panthers will be paying their former HC through 2026.