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Retaining OL coach James Campen might be a good idea

One head that maybe shouldn’t roll

Carolina Panthers v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

James Campen, a longtime former Green Bay Packers assistant, came to the Carolina Panthers in 2022 as a well respected coach in league circles. His history as both a player and a coach were marked by successful, well coached offensive lines. That history bore fruits as the Panthers 2022 season fell apart and interim head coach Steve Wilks leaned on his unit to establish a successful running game and guide the Panthers to a 6-6 record after starting the season 1-4.

The 2022 team ranked 11th in pass block win rate and 15th (or tied for 8th, depending on how you feel about significant digits) in run block win rate, per ESPN’s Analytic Index. That team also finished the season 12th in rushing attempts, 10th in rushing yards, 11th in rushing touchdowns, and 13th in yards per attempt. The team may not have been good, but their ground game was a source of strength behind a Campen coached unit that had a group of five starters that started nearly every game. The only exception was Bradley Bozeman, who took over midseason for an injured Pat Elflein after recovering from an injury of his own.

The 2023 season, as you might recall, did not have such a storybook progression.

They ranked 23rd (-12 spots) in pass block win rate and 30th (or tied for 28th, depending on how you feel about significant digits; that’s a -15 to -20 drop in the rankings) in run block win rate, per ESPN’s Analytic Index. That team also finished the season 19th in rushing attempts, 20th in rushing yards, 30th in rushing touchdowns, and 23rd in yards per attempt. Those are all significant, statistical steps back from the year prior.

That might look like sufficient reason to buy Campen a one-way plane ticket, but we’ve also all spent the year hearing from Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Indianapolis Colts fans about how Frank Reich had a preference for a zone blocking scheme that did not account for his offensive line’s strengths. The Colts had a line built for it and a running back in Jonathan Taylor who could make anybody look good. The Chargers, in his two season as offensive coordinator there, did not.

Consider first that the Panthers have a line with demonstrated success in a more smash mouth scheme and a line that clearly struggled with the more finesse based zone concepts of Reich. Then factor in that 2022’s continuity on the offensive line was replaced by a rash of injuries that saw the team start 14 offensive linemen (compared to 2022’s six) this past season.

The three Panthers offensive linemen who played every snap in 2023—Bradley Bozeman, Ickey Ekwonu, and Taylor Moton—also all struggled in spite of their health. Give Ekwonu a pass for a sophomore slump if you want, but that still leaves established veterans like Bozeman and Moton giving uncharacteristic performances.

There is a lot of data, and I’m sure the team has more and more specific sets in house, from which to craft an argument for and against Campen’s efforts over the past two years.

New head coach Dave Canales is known for both developing talent and for playing to players strengths. Campen has demonstrated his ability to coach these players in an offense that plays to their strengths. The decision is obviously to yet be made Canales, but don’t be surprised if Campen is retained.