Examining Panthers' head-coaching candidates, as focus turns to long-term QB fix

So far, Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper (foreground) and general manager Scott Fitterer have focused their head-coaching search on offensive minds. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have focused their head-coaching search on candidates with an offensive background as the team continues its quest to fix a long-term problem at quarterback.

Those interviewed thus far are interim coach Steve Wilks, former Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell and former Colts coach Frank Reich.

Those requested to be interviewed, according to sources familiar with the situation, are all current offensive coordinators: Ben Johnson, Lions; Shane Steichen, Philadelphia Eagles; Mike Kafka, New York Giants; Ken Dorsey, Detroit Lions; and Kellen Moore, Dallas Cowboys.

Only Wilks has a defensive background.

General manager Scott Fitterer, who is heading up the search, said Monday that the list of candidates “will not be a large group.’’ At least one more will be added to this list of eight because, under the NFL’s Rooney Rule, teams must interview two minority candidates outside of the organization.

Only Caldwell fits that description thus far.

Here is a look at the candidates:

Ben Johnson, OC, Detroit Lions

Age: 36

Carolina ties: Born in Charleston, South Carolina; went to high school in Asheville, North Carolina; a walk-on quarterback at North Carolina.

Head-coaching experience: None

Why he makes sense: One NFL executive told ESPN.com to keep an eye on Johnson, who was instrumental in the Lions' turnaround this season. Detroit finished fourth in the NFL in total offense (380 yards per game) and fifth in scoring (26.6 points per game). Quarterback Jared Goff finished fifth in the league in Total QBR at 61.2.

Why he doesn’t: Experience. He’s never been a head coach and has been a coordinator for one season.

Ken Dorsey, OC, Buffalo Bills

Age: 41

Carolina ties: Panthers' quarterbacks coach 2013-17; Panthers' pro scout 2011-12.

Head-coaching experience: None

Why he makes sense: He was instrumental in developing former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton into the NFL MVP (2015) and has developed Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen into one of the best in the league.

Why he doesn’t: Again, experience. He has never been a head coach and has been an offensive coordinator for one year.

Kellen Moore, OC, Dallas Cowboys

Age: 34

Carolina ties: None

Head-coaching experience: None

Why he makes sense: In terms of points per game, the Cowboys have ranked sixth (27.1), first (31.2) and fourth (27.5) since he became the offensive coordinator in 2019.

Why he doesn’t: Experience. He’s been a coach in the league for five seasons, with none as a head coach.

Steve Wilks, interim coach, Carolina Panthers

Age: 53

Carolina ties: Born in Charlotte, North Carolina; played defensive back for Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina; started his coaching career as the defensive coordinator at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte.

Head-coaching experience: Savannah State (1999), Arizona Cardinals (2018), Panthers (2022, interim).

Why he makes sense: You can’t ignore that current and former players are emphatic in their support of Wilks getting the job after he went 6-6 as the interim coach and had Carolina within a Week 17 victory of winning the NFC South.

Why he doesn’t: Not much other than he doesn’t have an offensive background and owner David Tepper seems intent on finding somebody to develop a long-term fix at quarterback, perhaps with the No. 9 pick in the draft.

Jim Caldwell, former HC, Detroit Lions/Indianapolis Colts

Age: 67

Carolina ties: Wake Forest, head coach

Head-coaching experience: Wake Forest (1993-2000), Indianapolis Colts (2002-08), Detroit Lions (2014-17).

Why he makes sense: He has experience, has been part of two Super Bowl-winning teams and has a great track record of developing quarterbacks and building high-powered offenses.

Why he doesn’t: He hasn’t been in the league since 2019.

Frank Reich, former HC, Indianapolis Colts

Age: 61

Carolina ties: He was the starting quarterback for the first-ever game for the Panthers in 1995; earned a master's of divinity degree at Charlotte’s Reformed Theological Seminary and was a pastor at Ballantyne Presbyterian; still has a home in the Charlotte area.

Head-coaching experience: Indianapolis Colts (2018-22).

Why he makes sense: A ton of offensive experience. He helped Nick Foles win Super Bowl MVP as the offensive coordinator for the Eagles in 2017 and helped the Colts make the playoffs in two of his first three seasons (2018, 2020).

Why he doesn’t: Some might consider him a coaching retread since he was fired this season after a 3-5-1 start that had a lot to do with offensive struggles.

Shane Steichen, OC, Philadelphia Eagles

Age: 37

Carolina ties: None

Head-coaching experience: None

Why he makes sense: He has helped develop Jalen Hurts into one of the top quarterbacks in the league this year with a Total QBR (66.7) that ranks fourth. He has developed the Eagles into the third-best team in the league this season in total offense (389.1 yards per game) and scoring (28.1 points per game).

Why he doesn’t: Other than his lack of head-coaching experience, he appears ready to take the next step.

Mike Kafka, OC, New York Giants

Age: 35

Carolina ties: None

Head-coaching experience: None

Why he makes sense: He was Kansas City’s quarterbacks coach in 2018 when Patrick Mahomes won the NFL MVP award and the next season when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl. This season, his first as an offensive coordinator, he helped Giants quarterback Daniel Jones to a career-best 60.7 Total QBR that ranks seventh in the NFL.

Why he doesn’t: It all goes back to the lack of head-coaching experience.