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What to make of the Panthers favorite candidates

Experience is the major theme of the narrowed search

Washington Commanders v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With the reports yesterday that the Panthers are proceeding with a second round of interviews, featuring Steve Wilks, Frank Reich, and Kellen Moore, the coaching search in the Carolinas seems to have finally narrowed. Shane Steichen is a still a possible dark horse candidate, but his inability to interview while still in the playoffs is hurting his chances with an organization that has several candidates it likes and a desire to see things moving forward.

Experience is the watchword of this second round of interviews. The Panthers interviewed—or tried to—all of the top NFL coordinators in search of a young, bright mind to build around. Kellen Moore is the only surviving candidate from that round, while both Wilkes and Reich bring previous head coaching experience to the table.

Many believe that what Tepper truly wants is a team that is coached by Reich and Wilkes. No, we’re (probably) not talking about a co-head coach situation. It is more likely that whoever gets the job will be strongly encouraged to offer a coordinator and assistant head coach position to the other. Or, if Moore gets the job, to both. This sounds more like a fan’s fever dream than an actual organizational strategy, but Tepper does have enough cash to throw at this dream to potentially bring it into reality.

What if Reich gets the job?

This is a best of both worlds scenario for many Panthers fans. Reich is a offensive minded head coach with experience in the NFL, experience getting more from lesser quarterbacks, and has little in the way of tangible connections to previous coaching staffs. He could represent the clean break in a positive direction that many fans were hoping for out of the Matt Rhule era.

Reich has had mixed luck with quarterbacks, with Andrew Luck on the eve of retirement and Phillip Rivers on the eve of not having a shoulder as his best two to date. Everybody else who was on the earlier side of their career fell off a cliff once they left his influence.

Reich has the reputation for elevating quarterback play on his teams. Remember, this is the guy who turned Carson Wentz and Nick Foles into legitimate-looking MVP candidates and Super Bowl winners. The biggest question is whether or not he could maintain that reputation as the head coach, where his attention will be split across more of the team than just the offense. He had mixed success in that realm as the head coach of the Colts, but that could have been as much due to owner meddling as it was to his own capacities being stretched.

As for the fever dream scenario, Reich would probably have a hard time keeping Wilkes on his staff. Wilkes made a strong case for this job for himself, will be at least a strong candidate for a DC job elsewhere in the league, and has complete command of the locker room. Wilkes may not want the job, and Reich may not want an assistant who has a better relationship with the team than him. There has been no reporting on either of these guy’s opinions on the subject, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens and how big of a check Tepper is willing to cut to soothe any ruffled egos.

What if Wilkes gets the job?

Wilkes would be a controversial hire among Panthers fans. Ghosts of Ron Riveras past will haunt a lot of us for a long time, but there is no guarantee that Wilkes would be a clone of his former boss. There isn’t even a guarantee that he would retain Al Holcomb as defensive coordinator next season.

We answered a lot of questions around Wilkes’ potential as a head coach in 2022. His leadership skills are unquestionable, and his game management—while shaky at times—has already shown progress from that of Rivera’s days. The biggest question remaining around Wilkes is who he’ll hire once he has full control of the organization and an offseason to implement his plans for the team, not just a couple of Tuesdays in October to pull something together out of the scraps that Rhule left behind.

The Holcomb question looms large in the minds of some fans, but the bigger question is who Wilkes will bring in at offensive coordinator. Ben McAdoo is not expected to be retained, and the field of successful quarterback coaches is wide open. The earlier the Panthers wade into it, the better the candidates will be. This is the route that Tepper initially wanted to explore in the head coach search, so it should be expected that he’ll want those same stones turned over in a broad search for the next offensive coordinator under a defensive minded head coach like Wilkes.

The other option at offensive coordinator is Reich. If he doesn’t get a head coaching job this cycle then he’ll probably be open to an OC job to help rehab his reputation. The plus side is that the Panthers would get an experienced OC with a long history of success on that side of the ball. The down side is that Reich would likely be more of a rental than a long term employee if the Panthers do enjoy offensive success in the coming season(s).

What if Moore gets the job?

Never say never, while the Panthers seem to be leaning towards a voice of experience, Moore could still blow the team away with his offensive acumen and creativity. He has six years of experience playing quarterback in the NFL and six years as coach, including five as the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.

Moore, 34, has been the name of the last several coaching cycles who was “on the cusp, but not quite ready yet.” He might be ready now, but the Panthers likely won’t hire him unless he can guarantee bringing along several former head coaches in his staff. Reich and Wilkes would both surely be mentioned, but I wouldn’t bank on either of them taking an assistant position beneath someone half their age just yet.

This would certainly be the most exciting hire the Panthers could make off of their short list, but also the biggest gamble. There is every chance that Moore could be the next Big Thing and every chance that he is just a great offensive coordinator coaching on a highly visible team.