There’s nothing like a new regime to invigorate an NFL fanbase. It brings new ideas, dreams of what can be, and hope for the future.
At least that was the case last year—when Frank Reich and his all-star coaching staff was hired. And then there was 2020, when owner David Tepper reached into the college ranks and plucked Matt Rhule to lead the Carolina Panthers.
And now we’re back here again—with the third coach in just five years. So what’s going to be different this time?
According to former Panthers’ star and the team’s new general manager Dan Morgan, it’s alignment.
“There’s going to be alignment in our building and we’re going to do things the right way to build a championship team here. Everybody on the same page, same mission, same vision. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about alignment.”
That appears to be the phrase that pays for this new regime.
Continuing with the theme, Morgan and new head coach Dave Canales, who both met with media at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday, were aligned in Seattle for seven years with their offices just two doors apart. They don’t need any warming-up period to get to know each other, which seemed to be an issue last year; while the incoming coaches had great resumes, they weren’t necessarily on the same page — or should I say … aligned?
Hearing from Dave Canales
Dave Canales steps into a field full of landmines, and he’s aware that he’s just the latest to fill a spot that’s seen high turnover. When asked about it, however, he insisted it’s not on his mind.
“I don’t think that way,” Canales said. “For me, coming into this situation — same like Tampa — I want to look at what we have, what can we do, not what can’t we do. That’s just my mentality.”
It’s clear that Canales was hired in large part because of the success he has had with quarterbacks over the past few years, starting with some of Russell Wilson’s best seasons with Canales as his quarterback coach and passing game coordinator in Seattle.
Geno Smith, a journeyman quarterback, found new life as Wilson’s successor in Seattle with Canales whispering in his ear. In 2022, he had a Pro Bowl season throwing for 4,282 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Smith has already voiced his belief that Canales can turn things around in Carolina.
His success in Seattle led Canales to landing the offensive coordinator position for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he helped to resurrect Baker Mayfield with a career high 4,044 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions after a bad season with the Panthers in 2022.
That brings us to Bryce Young, who had a tough rookie season in 2023. He was constantly running for his life behind an offensive line with too many leaks, looking for a receiving corps with not enough targets. The offense just didn’t align with his strengths as a quarterback.
With three of a kind already in his hand counting Wilson, Smith and Mayfield, will Young make it four? That’s what the Panthers are hoping.
Canales seems ready for the challenge, having worked for 14 years under one of the best coaches to ever roam the sideline in Pete Carroll. The Seahawks made the playoffs 10 of the years Canales was there, and a surprise Wild Card win against Philadelphia last month took him to the 21st playoff game of his career thus far. The Panthers are hoping that’s just the beginning.
Of course, the head coaching role means expanding his areas of focus, something Canales credits Carroll with teaching him.
“I’m just really appreciative of Pete Carroll, who pushed me to think about the next thing,” Canales said on Thursday. “Quit looking just at the quarterback. Quit staring at the wide receiver’s route. Open your eyes. Did you see what the defense is doing? Think bigger. Be prepared. I can’t thank Pete enough.”
Even as head coach, however, Canales plans to work directly with his young quarterback to help develop him in the ways that he worked closely with his previous proteges.
“Thinking about the quarterbacks that I’ve worked with over the last couple of years, we are going to become what Bryce is great at in the pass game. We’re going to grow to the capacity that he can handle. Let’s get into these situations and see where he looks most confident.”
Though he said he didn’t want to get too into the weeds with football philosophy on Thursday, Canales did give a glimpse at how he might pursue that goal.
“It starts with the ball for me,” he explained. “There’s a way to win games in the NFL. It’s defense. It’s run game. It’s an explosive pass game that comes off of that run game, and then in the pass game getting that ball out in 2.7 [seconds] or less. That’s a critical deal for me … Plus one equals 82 percent win. That’s a historical number. If we can just be one turnover better than our opponent, we’ll set ourselves up for success.”
As for dealing with the size issue relating to Young, he added, “I think there are certain challenges. I’m not going to go and tell the whole NFC South what those advantages are. But I will say that there are just certain things you can do to help. There are ways to find what that quarterback’s comfortable seeing.
“Whether you’re 5’11” or whether you’re 6’1″, you can’t really see over any of the linemen” he continued. “There’s an approach to it, and at the end of the day, it’s about decision-making and just kind of making sure that we can have as many of our five eligibles available for the quarterback from a visual standpoint.”
Turning the ship around
Coming into a situation in Carolina that could only be described as a train wreck over the last few years, and with no first-round pick in the coming draft, Dave Canales insisted that he is simply focused on maximizing the strengths of the players currently on the roster.
“For me, it’s about building that culture, building our language, making sure we’re using specific language,” he said. “We all speak the same language, and we’re all heading in the same direction with that alignment that we talk about.”
Defensively, Canales mentioned that he hoped current defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero would remain with the team — something that has since been reported as probable. He praised the Panthers defense and how tough it was to play against last year, as evidenced by his Tampa Bay offense scoring just nine points against the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in the last game of the regular season.
Morgan, who was with the Panthers for three years as the assistant GM before being promoted to the GM position, has a vision for what he wants to build with this team. “We’re going to do everything in our power to build this team the right way, not only on the field but off the field. The type of character guys that we bring in are going to be guys that love football, play with passion and play with a relentless pursuit of greatness.”
Also in the building on Thursday was new Executive Vice President of Football Operations Brandt Tilis, who was with the Kansas City Chiefs for 14 seasons, three of which in the same role he will now serve in for the Panthers.
Tilis is expected to be responsible for all football administration and non-coaching matters related to operations, equipment, video, and analytics. According to a Panthers press release, he will also include contract negotiations and salary cap management among his duties, but he had a non-speaking role at Thursday’s press event.
Dave Canales had no problem speaking, however, and came across as the potential leader the Panthers have been searching for.
When asked when he believes the Panthers could become a playoff team, he responded, “My timeline is today. How can we win today? Today this looks like a win for me, and that’s just the way I think. It looks like getting with Dan, looking at this roster and really coming up with an airtight plan for who we want to become.”
Not as eloquent a speaker as Canales, Morgan summed up his thoughts this way: “We’ve got to bring back here to Bank of America Stadium to where people get excited about coming to see our team. When teams drive up to this stadium, we want them to fear that logo. The logo has to be feared again, because right now, it’s not feared. We’ve got to get that back.”
What wasn’t mentioned was any concern about Tepper sticking his fingers in the mix. Outside of introducing his new hires and smiling for a few photos, the micromanaging owner remained in the background on Thursday — purposefully so.
It remains to be seen if he will stay that way. Will he let the newly aligned leadership do its job, or will he grill them after every loss? What role will he play in the upcoming draft? Those are questions that are for another day far into the future, as the football season is a long ways’ away.
Getting back to Morgan’s comments about fearing the logo, I think another part of his comment was more important, regarding making “people excited about coming to see” the team.
Watching Panthers games has been a bore for the past few years, and if Carolina fans are excited to attend the games and actually do so instead of selling their tickets to opponents’ fans, that will be our first sign that the alignment is working.
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