Current reporting suggests that Matt Rhule will return to coach the Carolina Panthers if he can hire a “rock star” offensive coordinator. The following will be a list of candidates to whom the Panthers have been publicly linked. In other words, this won’t be our speculation, just an analysis of the guys they have been talking to. One that has emerged in candidates so far is that they all have a significant degree of NFL and/or head coaching experience. Another theme is that many of them have underwhelming resumes. In a search for rock stars, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that some of these guys are just the warm up act.
Meet the mind behind such big names as Andrew Luck, Justin Herbert, and David Mills. Sort of. Hamilton coached Luck in both college and the NFL and was the quarterbacks coach for Herbert’s breakout rookie season in 2020. He has also done an admirable job with a rough situation as quarterbacks coach for the Houston Texans this season. He helped navigate rookie David Mills to an OK season in spite of expectations, that’s no mean feat.
Head coaching experience: DC Defenders, XFL (2020)
Hamilton went 3-2 in the short lived 2020 XFL season as the head coach and general manager of the DC Defenders. He also has had “assistant head coach” included in his titles with the Cleveland Browns(2016) and Michigan Wolverines (2017-2018).
Rock star potential
This is not the strongest head coaching resume on this list, at least in terms of experience. Hamilton does have 24 years of coaching experience, including 13 in the NFL. It is unclear if he has benefited from super star quarterbacks that have fallen into his lap or if he has been an integral part of building guys like Luck and Herbert into who they are (/were).
One way of looking at his experience is that he has never coached anywhere for longer than three seasons. His transitions have been both because of promotions and firings. Regardless, he has yet to demonstrate the sustained success expected out of Rhule’s seven season contract. Hamilton represents the biggest unknown on this list, but also possibly the biggest reward for a team in search of something—anything—to boost their quarterback play.
Gruden’s most recent NFL job was overseeing the 2020 Jacksonville Jaguars tank for Trevor Lawrence. He is one of the most significantly experienced candidates on this list, having been an offensive coordinator since his debut coaching job with the Arena Football League’s Nashville Kats in 1997. Since then he rose up across a number of moderately successful teams until he was offered his first NFL head coaching job in 2014.
Head coaching experience: Orlando Predators, AFL (1998-2001; 2004-2008); Florida Tuskers, UFL (2010); Washington Football Team (2014-2019)
With Arena Bowl titles in 1998 and 2000, Gruden does have a history of success at a certain level. The biggest knock for him is that his five year stint with the Washington Football Team was underwhelming on the field. He was ultimately fired with a 39-45-1 record after an 0-5 start to the 2019 season. His time with the Football Team was most notable for the series of scandals that rocked owner Dan Snyder and, ultimately, led to the downfall of Gruden’s brother, recent Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden who was not affiliated with the team at that time.
Rock star potential
Gruden is fortunate, as are many candidates on this list, that he is not being directly evaluated as a head coaching candidate. His record as an offensive coordinator is far more promising, if you treat the 2020 Jaguars as an intentional outlier.
The most encouraging part of his resume to the Panthers leadership has to be his 2011-2013 run with the Bengals, which saw three consecutive playoff appearances with Andy Dalton under center.
The much maligned Bill O’Brien has been connected to the Panthers opening, much to the despair of fans. Currently the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of Alabama, O’Brien is best known for his failure as the Houston Texans head coach. He climbed the ladder in New England as an offensive assistant, quarterbacks coach, and, ultimately, offensive coordinator for Bill Belichik.
Head coaching experience Penn State (2012-2014); Houston Texans (2014-2020)
This is where the fun begins. O’Brien parlayed a successful run at Penn State into the start of a successful run in Houston. He led a talented defense and a well-coached offense to a surprise and, at that time, unprecedented level of success for the Texans. The acquisition of Deshaun Watson in 2013 led to a few season of being a dangerous team that was held back, often, by injuries.
Things went downhill when he seized control of personnel decisions following the 2018 season and proceeded to make a series of baffling decisions and bonkers trades that generally saw an exodus of talent with little return.
Rock star potential
O’Brien has probably overseen the most consistently successful offenses of anybody on this list. Keep him away from personnel and trade decisions with a ten-foot pole and he is a strong candidate in his own right.
That said, O’Brien isn’t on this list entirely because of his resume. His connection to and reportedly strong relationship with Watson is his highest recommendation to the Carolina Panthers. That’s less because the team is necessarily likely to land Watson in a potential trade and more because David Tepper has been publicly salivating over the idea of landing the quarterback in spite of the still unresolved 23 allegations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him.
This is one of the more baffling candidates that has been tangentially linked to the Panthers. O’Connell is the current offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams and is currently interviewing for the head coaching position with at least the Denver Broncos and possibly other teams this offseason.
Head coaching experience: none
Rock star potential
O’Connell is a popular coach around the league because of his long-time association with Sean McVay. It is unclear how much responsibility he has for the Rams offense or how much he has learned from his time with MccVay, but that is because we have yet to see him outside of McVay’s shadow. The coaching staff there has produced a product that is the envy of the league and somebody is going to give O’Connell a chance to prove his ability to recreate or improve upon that product elsewhere.
I’m certain that Tepper would be happy to give him that chance (just like he pushed to give Joe Brady that same chance in 2020). The challenge for the Panthers is that offering him the offensive coordinator job in Charlotte would be offering him a lateral move to a worse roster with a less stable coaching situation than his current job in Los Angeles. Good luck with that, Dave.