The Carolina Panthers decided to cut ties with Matt Rhule Monday, admitting the seven-year, $62 million contract they gave him two years ago was a disaster. Carolina went 11-27 in Rhule's tenure, including 16 of its last 19 games in a regime marred by poor quarterback play and an inept offense.
Carolina averaged just 18.7 points per game under Rhule (28th in NFL) and 316.6 yards per game (29th in NFL). The .289 win percentage was the worst for any head coach in Panthers history, as the franchise went through five different starting quarterbacks in the Rhule era.
Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker, and Cam Newton combined to complete 61.9% of their passes for 34 touchdowns, 41 interceptions, and a 77.02 rating under Rhule -- the ultimate reason why Rhule failed in Carolina.
With the Panthers searching for their next head coach, these are the seven candidates Carolina should consider -- along with how each will fit with the task of turning around the franchise. We'll rank the order Carolina should have the on the priority list.
1. Sean Payton
Payton is going to be at the top of everyone's wish list that has a vacancy, as Carolina got a front row seat toward watching the greatest head coach in the history of the New Orleans Saints terrorize the franchise for years. Payton went 152-89 in his 15 years in New Orleans (.631 win percentage), winning seven division titles, nine playoff games, and Super Bowl XLIV in the 2009 season.
Would the Saints really be interested in allowing Payton to go to a division rival? The Saints have Payton's rights until 2024 and the head coach will be enticed by many other offers. The Panthers did offer Rule $62 million, so money nor draft pick compensation should be a problem for owner David Tepper.
2. DeMeco Ryans
The San Francisco 49ers have one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL in Ryans -- a coach that certainly deserves an opportunity to become a head coach in the league. Ryans didn't think he was ready to become a head coach last offseason, but this year may change his mind.
San Francisco has allowed the fewest points per game (12.2) and yards per game (249.2) through five weeks, allowing the lowest yards per carry average (3.0) in the league and the fewest passing touchdowns (two). A defensive coordinator for two years, Ryans has never ran a defense that has been ranked lower than third in yards per game -- and the 49ers defense is even better in year two under his system..
Ryans rose up the ranks with the 49ers since being hired as a defensive quality control coach in 2017, this after the 38 year old was a star linebacker for 10 years in the NFL -- winning defensive rookie of the year and earning two Pro Bowl invites.
If the Panthers decide to go defense, Ryans may be their first call.
3. Shane Steichen
The Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator is getting serious consideration for head coaching jobs this year thanks to the development of Jalen Hurts and the high-powered Eagles offense. Hurts is fifth in the league in completion percentage (67.9), sixth in passing yards (1,359), second in yards per attempt (8.5) and eighth in quarterback rating (97.4) as the Eagles are off to a 5-0 start.
An innovative play caller that gets the most out of his personnel, Steichen was responsible for the Eagles having the No. 1 run offense last year and has received rave reviews from Hurts and Justin Herbert back when he was the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Eagles rank in the top five of eight major offensive categories, courtesy of Steichen. The 37-year-old offensive coordinator is getting a head coaching shot soon.
4. Eric Bieniemy
Bieniemy should have been an NFL head coach by now. The Kansas City Chiefs have scored the most points per game in the NFL (30.4) since Bieniemy became the offensive coordinator in 2018, along with the most yards per game (403.1). Kansas City also has the best record in the NFL during Bieniemy's run, going 53-16 with three conference championship game appearances and a Super Bowl title in the 2019 season. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes also has the most passing yards, passing touchdowns, and the highest passer rating since the start of the 2018 season -- all with Bieniemy as the offensive coordinator.
Bieniemy is a branch on the Andy Reid coaching tree, and Reid's assistants have plenty of success in the NFL (see John Harbaugh and Sean McDermott). Reid's develops coaches like Bieniemy to be an innovative play caller and leader of a football team -- something the Panthers franchise desperately needs.
The 53-year-old Bieniemy deserves an NFL shot. The Panthers had their best run when hiring a former Reid assistant before in Ron Rivera. Why not try again?
5. Ken Dorsey
Dorsey has been the Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator for just five games yet already appears set to take on a head coaching gig sooner rather than later. The Bills are second in the NFL in points per game (30.4) and first in yards per game (440.4), while leading the league in passing yards (1,640) and passing touchdowns (14). Buffalo's offense is better than last year when Brian Daboll -- who is now coaching the New York Giants -- was running the offense.
Credited with developing Josh Allen as his quarterbacks coach for three years, the 41-year-old Dorsey pent five years in the NFL and was the quarterback of University of Miami's 2001 national championship team. There's a Dorsey connection to Carolina too, as the Panthers gave him his first coaching job as a scout in 2011 as Dorsey later was promoted to quarterbacks coach -- including grooming Cam Newton to the league MVP award in 2015.
Dorsey may be a head coach sooner than many think. Carolina could use his innovation in its building.
6. Mike Kafka
Kafka is an intriguing candidate as a first-year offensive coordinator, especially since he's made Daniel Jones competent and is getting the most out of an offense that is down several wide receivers and has one of the worst offensive lines in football. there's a reason the New York Giants are 4-1 after all. What can Kafka come up with if he actually has talent?
Getting the most out of Saquon Barkley and making him a MVP candidate, Kafka can do the same with Christian McCaffrey as a play caller in Carolina. Another member of the Reid coaching tree, Kafka was the Chiefs quarterbacks coach since 2018 and part of the brain trust that developed Mahomes into the best quarterback in the league. Kafka also played under Reid when he was the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Just 35 years old, Kafka may be a year away from serious head coaching consideration. He could be an outside-the-box hire that pays tremendous dividends, just like Reid did with the Eagles 23 years ago.
7. Steve Wilks
The Panthers interim head coach will get serious consideration for the job, but should he? Wilks' first head coaching job in Arizona was a disaster as the Cardinals went 3-13 in his one seaosn, having the league's worst offense in points scored and total yards. Arizona was last in yards per attempt and passing yards, not great for an offense that has the fewest yards and first downs through five weeks.
The 53-year-old Wilks has a history with the Panthers as defensive backs coach from 2012 through 2016 and was the assistant head coach for three seasons before taking the head coaching job in Arizona. Wilks is well respected in the Panthers organization and will get the opportunity over the final 12 games to showcase how he can turn around the franchise with a much better collection of talent than he had with the Cardinals.
Wilks is a longshot for the job, but he's a candidate.