Will Steve Wilks Get a Shot at the Top Job in Carolina?

The Carolina Panthers became the first NFL team to fire their head coach in 2022 when they parted ways with Matt Rhule in early October. Steve Wilks has since led the Panthers to a 4-4 record, but Carolina will undoubtedly consider other head coach candidates after the season concludes. Let’s go around the league and determine which coaches could be of interest to the Panthers.

5 Head Coach Candidates the Panthers Should Consider

Before hiring Rhule in 2020, the Panthers conducted a relatively compact coaching search that included only six known candidates. Four of those candidates — Rhule, Mike McCarthy, Kevin Stefanski, and Josh McDaniels — eventually landed head coaching positions.

After striking out with the Rhule hire, owner David Tepper and Co. might do well to encompass a broader spectrum of coaches before making their choice. Here are five coaches that should be on the list.

Steve Wilks, Carolina Panthers Interim HC

Improbably, the Panthers’ recent turnaround has turned a postseason berth into a realistic possibility. Carolina is just one game back of the Buccaneers in the NFC South. The Panthers already hold the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to their Week 7 win, and they’ll get to face Tampa Bay in Week 17.

If Wilks takes Carolina to the playoffs, it will be difficult for the Panthers to let him go. A postseason appearance wouldn’t guarantee that Wilks is retained — just last season, we saw the Raiders part ways with interim HC Rich Bisaccia after Las Vegas earned the AFC’s fifth seed. But usurping the Buccaneers for the division crown would significantly improve Wilks’ chances of retaining the head coaching role.

Wilks was an extremely hot candidate on the 2018 head coaching circuit, grabbing interest from six of the seven teams with vacancies that offseason. He landed the Cardinals’ job, but his stay in the desert ended after one 3-13, Josh Rosen-centric campaign.

Panthers management probably wants a fresh start, and retaining Wilks — a Charlotte native who was previously the team’s defensive coordinator under Ron Rivera — might feel like treading water. Yet, depending on how Carolina fares down the stretch, Wilks may make himself inevitable.

Shane Steichen, Philadelphia Eagles OC

There may not be an NFL coordinator whose stock has risen more this season than Shane Steichen, who has helped turn the Eagles’ offense into a juggernaut and develop Jalen Hurts into an MVP candidate.

Steichen, 37, actually began his coaching career on the defensive side of the ball before rising through the offensive ranks. After serving as Justin Herbert’s OC during his 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, Steichen joined former Chargers colleague Nick Sirianni in Philadelphia in 2021.

Steichen took charge of the Eagles’ play-calling duties midway through last season, spearheading Philadelphia’s transformation into the NFL’s run-heaviest offense and guiding the Birds to a playoff berth. This year, Hurts is playing quarterback better than anyone not named Patrick Mahomes, and the Eagles are second in offensive efficiency.

If the Panthers are searching for a coach to draft and cultivate their next quarterback, Steichen could be their guy. Yet, given Philadelphia’s offensive prowess, Carolina won’t be the only team looking at him.

Mike Kafka, New York Giants OC

The Giants weren’t supposed to be good this year, but at 7-5-1, they’re in contention for the playoffs. New York still has a lot of work to do in terms of adding player personnel, and much of its success in 2022 has come down to coaching.

First-year head coach Brian Daboll, whose excellent run as the Bills’ offensive coordinator landed him the Giants job, opted to turn over New York’s play-calling duties to Mike Kafka. That fact alone should require teams to become interested in Kafka, as Daboll’s confidence in him speaks volumes.

Kafka, a former journeyman quarterback, spent five seasons as Andy Reid’s protégé in Kansas City before joining the Giants. Working as Mahomes’ quarterback coach is notable, but so is getting the most out of a Big Blue offense that lacks wide receiver and interior offensive line talent.

Along with Daboll, Kafka has helped Daniel Jones flourish as a rushing threat and worked with the fourth-year quarterback to commit fewer turnovers. Even if the Panthers feel the 35-year-old Kafka needs more experience before becoming a head coach, he should be on the interview list simply so Carolina can pick his brain.

DeMeco Ryans, San Francisco 49ers DC

DeMeco Ryans will almost surely be a head coach in 2023. He could have potentially been one this season had he not declined a second interview with the Vikings in favor of returning to the 49ers.

Ryans’ performance this year will only mean he attracts more interest this offseason. No defense has allowed fewer points than San Francisco (197), and the 49ers are tied for first in yards per play allowed (4.8). Just 24.3% of SF’s opponents’ drives end with an offensive score, the best mark in the NFL.

MORE: DeMeco Ryans Was the 49ers’ Key Against Dolphins Offense

The Panthers saw Ryans’ defense up close and personal in Week 5 when the 49ers beat the Panthers 37-15. San Francisco sacked Baker Mayfield and P.J. Walker six times and held Carolina to one touchdown and three field goals.

The Panthers’ young defensive talent could entice Ryans, and who wouldn’t want to watch Brian Burns in Ryans’ scheme? But he’d need to assemble an outstanding offensive staff to lead the procurement of Carolina’s next quarterback.

Sean Payton, Free Agent

If he decides to return to the NFL in 2023, Sean Payton will be the most coveted coaching candidate on the market and in recent memory.

Tepper is the NFL’s third-richest owner, with a net worth of more than $15 billion. There’s no salary cap for coaches, and if an owner ever wanted to exploit that loophole, Tepper might be the one to do it.

There are problems with this fit. The Saints may be unwilling to let Payton stay in the NFC South, while Jay Glazer of FOX Sports emphatically reported in October that Payton would not be Carolina’s next head coach.

But we can dream, can’t we? Tepper could be willing to make Payton the league’s highest-paid coach, topping the Rams’ Sean McVay, who is believed to earn between $15 million and $18 million annually. The Panthers could also make Payton their de facto general manager and give him complete control over personnel.

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