CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers could have targeted Bill Belichick or Jim Harbaugh. They did talk to Mike Vrabel in an 11th-hour interview that was a bit of a dog and pony show.
But rather than go the retread route — and it’s weird to think of Belichick in those terms — Panthers owner David Tepper chose to hire an ascending, offensive-minded coach who has called plays for one year at the college or NFL level.
While Dave Canales lacks in experience, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator had two things that helped him stand out in a field of 12 candidates: A history of resurrecting quarterbacks and close ties to new Panthers general manager Dan Morgan.
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Canales, who joins Ron Rivera as the only Hispanic head coaches in Panthers’ history, worked with Morgan for eight years with the Seattle Seahawks, where Canales climbed the ladder on Pete Carroll’s staff over a total of 13 years but was never offensive coordinator. The Panthers have not officially announced the hiring of Canales.
The 42-year-old Canales did not interview with any of the other seven teams with head-coaching vacancies this hiring cycle (the New England Patriots didn’t interview anyone before naming coach-in-waiting Jerod Mayo). Despite Canales’ background in Seattle, the Seahawks never talked to him after Pete Carroll stepped down.
But the Panthers needed someone to get quarterback Bryce Young turned around, and it became increasingly clear they weren’t going to land Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. Canales’ track record with struggling quarterbacks is encouraging. Geno Smith won the AP Comeback Player of the Year in 2022 when Canales was the Seahawks’ quarterbacks coach and the Bucs’ Baker Mayfield is a finalist for the award this year.
There’s a rich irony that the Panthers hired Canales in part for his work with Mayfield a year after they released him when interim coach Steve Wilks decided to play Sam Darnold over Mayfield.
After the Panthers promoted Morgan on Monday and started the second round of interviews, Canales’ candidacy was gaining momentum. After interviewing Canales, Panthers defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris a second time, Vrabel was a late entrant with a Thursday morning meeting at Tepper’s house.
It appears Vrabel’s interview was a way to provide the former Tennessee Titans coach leverage with the Atlanta Falcons, who met with him Wednesday, while allowing the Panthers to say they’d done their due diligence before hiring Morgan’s former colleague. About 90 minutes after Vrabel’s interview wrapped up, news broke that the Panthers were closing in on a deal with Canales.
The Panthers stayed in touch with Young’s representatives throughout the search. A source close to Young and his representation said the No. 1 pick is optimistic about Canales and likes that he’s young with a strong track record with quarterbacks.
Both Smith and Mayfield had career years with Canales, with Mayfield throwing for 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns in the regular season before leading Tampa Bay to a wild-card win over Philadelphia.
The Bucs’ offensive numbers overall weren’t stellar. They were last in the league in rushing, 23rd in total offense and 20th in scoring (20.5 ppg), but finished 17th in passing.
Tampa Bay managed just 228 yards and three field goals in a 9-0 win at Carolina in Week 18, when Morgan and Canales spent a few minutes catching up before the game at Bank of America Stadium. The Bucs’ offense fared better in Canales’ first meeting against Carolina and Evero, whom the Panthers hope to retain.
Evero remains in the mix for the head-coaching openings in Atlanta and Seattle. But he’s under contract with the Panthers, who can block him from taking a lateral move.
Dave Canales is a SPECTACULAR hire by the @Panthers specifically for Bryce Young. Canales helped relaunch the careers of Geno Smith and Baker Mayfield in back to back years by building the offense around their strengths in his west coast scheme. Excited to see him work with Bryce pic.twitter.com/39pgtu21pb
— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) January 25, 2024
Personnel executives and other officials around the league said they’ve heard good things about Canales but don’t know much about him because of his relative inexperience. As recently as 2020, Canales was helping out with the Seahawks’ tight ends as the team’s passing game coordinator. Former Panthers Greg Olsen, who was in Seattle that year, recently posted on X that he “spent a lot of time talking ball and philosophy” with Canales.
The football world will learn a lot more about Canales in the coming days and weeks. He’s likely to be formally introduced next week, when he’ll be asked a lot of questions about his plan for Young, who was sacked 62 times in 2023 — more than any rookie in NFL history but David Carr (76).
If Canales is successful in putting Young on a path to success, Tepper will look like a genius for hiring him before anyone else was considering it. If Young fails to thrive in Canales’ system — which, like Thomas Brown’s, is an offshoot of Sean McVay’s — Tepper will be blasted for hiring one of Morgan’s buddies and pairing an inexperienced head coach with an inexperienced GM.
Essentially, Canales has one job. And no one in the organization can afford for him to screw it up.
(Photo of Dave Canales: Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)