Panthers coaching search expands as interviews continue

New candidates, opt-outs and NFL rules violations have complicated the process

Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is a top candidate to be the next coach of the Carolina Panthers. (Matt Slocum / AP Photo)

A funny thing happened to the Panthers as they tried to establish some stability in the organization. Good old chaos returned to town.

When the Panthers’ offseason began earlier this month, the team’s most pressing piece of business was finding a coach. It was expected to be a quick, efficient selection, with interim coach Steve Wilks a strong candidate to retain the job permanently. The team planned to talk to a handful of other candidates and come to a decision. The initial list of interviews was about a half-dozen names long.

A few weeks later, the team has talked to nine known candidates and also run afoul of NFL rules regarding coaching searches — not exactly the running start the team was hoping to get as it begins its rebuild.

It hasn’t all been the Panthers’ fault. None of the five NFL teams to part ways with their coaches have made a new hire yet, and the Colts, Broncos, Texans and Cardinals are all, like Carolina, still running through the interview process. Part of the reason for the slowdown has been the NFL playoffs. Many of the top candidates, including Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, Buffalo OC Ken Dorsey and Giants OC Mike Kafka, were all still busy with their current teams heading into last weekend’s games.

Of course, there are always hot coordinators preparing for playoff games when teams are looking to hire coaches. And the Panthers had plenty of available candidates on their initial list, including Wilks, Jim Caldwell, Frank Reich and Detroit’s Ben Johnson.

Johnson has since his name from coaching consideration, announcing he would remain with the Lions. He had reportedly been the Panthers’ top choice and the favorite to win the job at The Panthers found another current offensive coordinator to replace him as head coaching candidate, however, bringing in Dallas’ Kellen Moore for an interview this week.

Perhaps as a result of the ongoing lawsuit against the league filed by former Miami coach Brian Flores, the NFL appears to be encouraging teams to take greater care in the hiring process, which may also be contributing to the slow pace of the searches. The league has added some rules that have slowed the process, including a ban on interviewing candidates currently employed by another team until after the wild card games, meaning that most searches only started in earnest last week.

It also required that all “decision-makers” undergo mandatory inclusivity in hiring training before starting the search. That’s where the Panthers hit a roadblock. Last week, a report surfaced that Nicole Tepper, the team’s chief administrative officer and wife of owner David, did not complete the training. The team denied the report, issuing a statement that she “had been trained,” and it’s not clear what, if any, punishment the team faces if the charges are verified.

The Carolina coaching search also was delayed briefly last week when Charlotte FC player Anton Walkes died in a boating accident. The MLS club is also owned by Tepper, and the organization took time to mourn Walkes and plan a way to honor his life.

The Panthers’ search — as well as the searches of the other four teams filling coaching vacancies — also had an intriguing wild card thrown into the game when former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton emerged as a possible candidate. The winningest coach in Saints history and a Super Bowl champion, Payton stepped down before this season. Any team that hired him would have to first provide compensation to the Saints, who still have Payton under contract. The coach said on a national radio show that he expected “the compensation would include a mid-to-late first-round pick … it could be a future one.”

The Panthers have reportedly already met with Payton, who, like all the other initial candidates other than Wilks, comes from the offensive side of the ball. However, the team now appears to be considering other defensive-minded coaches as well, a sign that perhaps Wilks is fading as a candidate. The team spoke to Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, and they got permission to speak to 49ers coordinator DeMeco Ryans. That interview was never scheduled, however, due to logistical issues, although the two sides could reportedly circle back later in the process. The team was also rebuffed by Patriots linebacker coach Jerod Mayo.

Payton has expressed a preference to go to a team out west, preferably one with a strong quarterback, so the Panthers appear to be a long shot to land him, all of which leaves things wide open in the Carolina front office.

Steichen appears to be the current consensus choice as the frontrunner for the job. He’s also interviewed with the Colts and Texans for their jobs. The team is reportedly going to hold a second round of interviews with the finalists for the job and will need to find time in Steichen’s schedule to make that happen.

Earlier this month, as the team embarked on the process, we wrote that the coaching decision was “far too important to get wrong. Again.” As the small gathering of a few candidates has grown to a far-flung, multiround search, the urgency of getting it right continues to be high, even as the confidence that it will happen may be starting to dim.