As the Carolina Panthers continue their march toward a possible perfect season, players have increasingly talked about how the team will have a target on its back each week.
Another offshoot of the Panthers’ 11-0 record: their assistant coaches figure to be targeted for head-coaching opportunities.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and offensive counterpart Mike Shula were mentioned in separate national reports Sunday as candidates likely to be interviewed for head-coaching vacancies.
Shula, 50, has been a head coach before. He went 26-23 in four seasons at Alabama but had only one winning season at his alma mater and was winless in four tries against Auburn.
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McDermott, 41, who has overseen a top-10 defense the past four years, interviewed with Washington two years ago before Jay Gruden was hired. He was scheduled to interview with the New York Jets last offseason, but the meeting was canceled after the Jets decided to go with Todd Bowles.
McDermott said he’s “honored to be in that conversation” again this year but emphasized he’s focused on the task at hand.
“You don’t get to 11-0 very often in your career. I’ve been in this league 16, 17 years, and I’ve never been 11-0. I’ve been close to it, but never 11-0. This is a special situation,” McDermott said Monday. “And you don’t get to 11-0 by not being focused. So I’m going to continue to try to do my better each and every week, and I’m asking the players to do the same.”
You don’t get to 11-0 by not being focused. So I’m going to continue to try to do my better each and every week and I’m asking the players to do the same.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott
Two NFL teams have already fired their head coaches – Tennessee and Miami, which also has canned both coordinators in addition to former coach Joe Philbin.
Shula has strong ties to Miami, where his father, Don, led the Dolphins to back-to-back Super Bowl titles, including the NFL’s only perfect season in 1972, on his way to becoming the league’s all-time winningest coach.
Shula was mentioned in connection with the University of Miami job last month after the Hurricanes fired Al Golden.
Like McDermott, Shula wasn’t particularly interested in discussing his future Monday during his weekly session with reporters.
“I swear – and if you’d asked me this 20 years ago, I’d have the same answer – I really don’t think about it,” Shula said. “I think one of the best things that I’ve learned throughout the years is don’t worry about any other job than the one you have. And then everything else takes care of itself.”
But with the Panthers closing in on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and chasing the ’72 Dolphins’ undefeated mark, McDermott and Shula will continue to have their names linked to potential head-coaching vacancies.
I think one of the best things that I’ve learned throughout the years is don’t worry about any other job than the one you have. And then everything else takes care of itself.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula
The earliest any Panthers assistant could interview would be during wild-card weekend, when Carolina should have a bye before the divisional round.
McDermott would seem to be a likely candidate at Philadelphia, where third-year coach Chip Kelly has dropped three games in a row. McDermott grew up in Philly and spent his entire coaching career with the Eagles before joining Ron Rivera’s inaugural Panthers staff in 2011.
Rivera was among eight new coaches hired in 2011 and is one of only two still in the same position. (Dallas’ Jason Garrett is the other.)
Seven of the eight coaches hired in 2011 were former NFL assistants. Ex-Panthers coach John Fox, who left Carolina for Denver when his contract wasn’t renewed, was the lone exception.
Of the 37 coaches who have been hired the past five years, more than half (20) were NFL assistants (almost all of them coordinators). Twelve of the hires were so-called “retreads” – former NFL head coaches hired by another franchise – and five were college head coaches.
Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame general manager for Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis, says hiring a current assistant can be beneficial because he typically has a lot of NFL experience and is up on the latest trends across the league.
While Shula’s name carries weight in the NFL – Don’s son Dave coached the Bengals from 1992-96 – Polian says Mike Shula will be judged on his own body of work. That includes his stint at Alabama.
Shula, a former Crimson Tide quarterback, took over an Alabama program that had been hit by NCAA sanctions that preceded his tenure and was reeling from the debacle surrounding Mike Price, who was fired without ever coaching a game.
“Mike obviously has had head coaching experience at Alabama at a time when they were in dire straits, as much as that’s hard to believe these days. But they were,” Polian said. “He has the added benefit of being a head coach before, which I believe is meaningful.”
Polian says he knows Shula better than McDermott but has been impressed with both.
Polian said he had “a four-page checklist” hiring coaches, but boiled it down to three criteria a strong head-coaching candidate should have:
▪ A sound football philosophy;
▪ A track record of success;
▪ The ability to lead players and withstand tough times.
Polian pointed to Rivera when describing the final trait.
Polian remembers broadcasting the Panthers-Giants game in Week 3 in 2013. The Panthers were off to another slow start under Rivera and there was speculation Rivera wouldn’t survive the bye week if Carolina dropped to 0-3.
“Everybody in the media had Ron fired if they lost the game. It turns out they sacked Eli Manning seven times and he kept his job,” Polian said. “In the eye of the storm, he stood firm. Players believed in him. They believed in the system. And the rest, as they say, is history. So that’s the kind of person that you’re looking for.”
McDermott, who played at William & Mary with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, hasn’t denied his desire to be an NFL head coach. He believes he’s ready now, but there’s some unfinished business first.
“I don’t think there’s many people that have prepared the way I prepare, whether it’s doing my job or for that next step when that time comes, whenever it is. If that’s what the good Lord wants, then I would welcome that challenge,” McDermott said.
“At this point, though, there’s the New Orleans Saints that are in front of us, and that’s going to be a big challenge for us.”