How Dave Canales Started the Task of Turning Around the Panthers

The first-year coach is bringing lessons he learned from Pete Carroll and experience he has reviving quarterbacks to a franchise that needs it.
New Panthers coach Dave Canales speaks to the media during his introductory press conference
New Panthers coach Dave Canales speaks to the media during his introductory press conference / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
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Last weekend, new coach Dave Canales, GM Dan Morgan and the Panthers’ staff made the short trip to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600, getting a look behind the scenes of the race with the Hendrick Motorsports team.

Right after the draft, much of the same group went to the Kenny Chesney concert at the stadium as well. Before that, there was a Topgolf outing. Right after everyone was hired, they had a staff dinner at Steak 48 in the suburbs. And they even had one of these nights, at the Triple A Charlotte Knights game, when Canales couldn’t make it—he happened to be tied up with family in Tampa.

All of this, of course, is intentional, and much more than a series of meet-and-greets.

“It’s really important,” Canales said over the phone Thursday. “One of the things that I’ve learned along the way is, you got to have high ground for hard days. I know that hard days will come in the season, just because of the nature of the business and the work that’s required. If we spend time together, we’re able to weather those storms together. We’re able to talk to each other. We’ve got history with each other beyond just being in the office.

“Those things are really important—the relationship part comes first.”

So the first thing has come first, and the truth is Canales would probably approach things like this regardless of where he landed his first head coaching gig. It just so happens that his team needs what he brings more than just about any of the other 31 teams would have.

Consider being a Panthers player over the past few years. You’re now, if you include the interims, on your fifth head coach in less than two years. You watched your franchise trade away arguably its three best players: Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Brian Burns. The Panthers have changed out offensive coordinators like swing tackles over the last half decade. The front office has been restructured. The owner’s been colorful, to put it kindly.

No matter how you slice it, these guys have been through a lot.

And, now, here comes Canales, 43 years old and ready to take over the NFL’s worst team, and force feed it positivity by the mouthful. You don’t do that, of course, by looking back at the 2–15 record, or the six-year playoff drought that encapsulates Tepper’s stewardship of the franchise. Canales is doing it with his eyes fixed forward, in a place that badly needs to put the past behind it.

Welcome in to our first column of June, with vacation for everyone right around the corner. In this week’s takeaways, we’ll give you a look at …

• The rush of receiver deals getting done before Justin Jefferson gets his.

• How the Rams are valuing every minute of training camp.

• Why the NFLPA’s proposed changes are so uniformly despised among coaches and scouts.

But we’re starting at the bottom, with a Panthers team clawing to climb out of that hole with a coach who is doing all he can to turn the page for the franchise.

When Panthers GM Dan Morgan started as a scout, as a Seahawks intern in the summer of 2010, Canales had been working there as a quality-control coach for less than five months. The two were green and learning—Morgan fresh off his playing career and Canales having come with Pete Carroll from USC, where he served as a strength coach.

To say their current circumstances were a long way off would be like saying California is a long drive from New York.

“I’d be lying if I said I envisioned this,” Morgan says. “It wasn’t because I didn’t think he could ever be a head coach. I think the time that I was out in Seattle, we were both so young and so green at our jobs that you never think about that. I was a pro scout that was trying to become the assistant pro director. He was the quality-control coach that was trying to be a receiver coach. I think that’s the cool part about it.

“You never know how things will work out. It just so happened that the stars aligned.”

With the benefit of hindsight, both guys can see why.

Working with Carroll and GM John Schneider gave the young coach and scout some perspective on a different way winning in the NFL could happen. Morgan admired how Carroll could build a cohesive program with an authentic positivity that put a shine on a demanding, competitive environment. And even then, with Canales just down the hall from him, Morgan started to see some Carroll traits in Canales.

“He’s like a young Pete in a lot of ways,” continues Morgan.  “He’s enthusiastic every single day about his job and makes everyone around him better just because of the energy that he brings and his love for football. It’s really contagious and really similar to how Pete was.”

Accordingly, seeing Carroll succeed weaponized the positivity that Canales always had inside of him. So instead of trying to carry himself the way others expect a football coach to, he got to see that being himself would be enough.

“It validates people like us,” Canales says of watching Carroll. “We’re just a certain type of way. A lot of people have different dispositions, and a lot of them have been successful and it works for them. I think it’s just about being really who you are. I’m just genuinely sunny and happy to be here. I love just connecting with people. Pete has a lot of those qualities. For me, it was just freeing. It’s freeing to know that this model works, too.

“You don’t have to try to be a certain way just because football may say this should be a really gruff type of person and deliver harsh words and all those things and it’s like, Hey, I know that works for people. I’m not doubting that at all. It’s just … that hasn’t worked for me.”

Perhaps his lack of sharp elbows slowed his rise through the ranks—he stuck in Seattle for 13 seasons, going from QC to assistant quarterbacks coach in 2013 to receivers coach in ’15 to quarterbacks coach in ’18 and pass-game coordinator in ’20. He finally got his shot to call his own offense in Tampa, but along the way his approach left its mark.

And in particular, his positive approach worked with quarterbacking resurrections he helped guide, first with Geno Smith in Seattle, then Baker Mayfield in Tampa, to give those franchises soft landings in detaching from the Russell Wilson and Tom Brady eras.

“What I love is to be a part of a great story,” he says. “Geno Smith’s story, I just remember Geno talking. We were together for a couple years before he got his opportunity. I remember Geno having it like he was in a place of frustration, but not with anybody or any situation, just that he wanted to have one more chance. He would just say, When I get my shot again, if I ever get my chance again I think I can get this done. …

“And then thinking about the resilience of Baker, who really bounced around—three different teams the year before I got him in Tampa—and to see him come in with such an openness, a humility, a hunger, but a hunger that wasn’t driven by negative forces. It wasn’t like, I’m gonna prove it to everybody. It was more like, I’m gonna prove it to myself. I know who I am, I know what I can do.”

So now, after getting players, or groups, out of ruts, he’ll try to do it for a whole franchise. And Morgan gets to see those Carroll-like qualities Canales flashed on another level.

Canales politely cut me off at the pass when I asked about the scar tissue that guys such as Derrick Brown, Jaycee Horn and Ickey Ekwonu, high-end talents drafted over the past few years, have built up after what they’ve seen in Carolina.

It’s not irrelevant, of course. But Canales doesn’t think it should be front of mind, either.

So where he started to dig in with his team was something incredibly simple.

“Just today—it was just today,” he says. “The first time I got to talk to the team, the focus was just on that. Today, we’re introducing the fundamentals of the Panthers’ offense. And Panthers defense, you guys have heard these terms, except for the new players. The focus goes forward. The focus isn’t about the past. The focus is, Where are we headed? Let’s just get our football right.”

By any measure, and Canales and his staff know this, the Panthers had a long way to go in that regard when they arrived. The roster had been stripped down over the past couple of years, with draft picks taking the place of established stars. Some of those picks worked out (Brown, notably), others didn’t. But the trend lines laid the truth bare—seven, five, five, five, seven and two wins in the past six seasons, and a minus-180 point differential in 2023.

The first job in digging out is, as Canales alluded to, getting guys’ minds in the right places.

To do that, the coach has established what he’s looking for, and, yes, all the buzz words are in play here. Effort. Enthusiasm. Toughness. Showing that toughness through the running game on offense. Playing together and full throttle on defense and special teams. Exhibiting football IQ in situational play. All of it.

And Canales had an interesting way of showing what he wants (and what he doesn’t want—“the catastrophic plays”) on tape. Yes, he showed the coaches’ tape. But he also gave his players plenty of the TV copy, and did so with a purpose.

“You get so much information,” he says. “You can actually see the amount of time on the bottom of the screen. You can see the actual seconds that are happening during a play, say, in a two-minute drill or in four-minute. You can see some of the high-definition, zoomed-in, one-on-one shots of players getting great technique. It’s a really cool tool. … It really engages players. I like to mix that into what we do as well; it’s not just the all-22.”

That, of course, flows into the second task, which is finding a way to reach guys already on the roster, draft picks left over from Matt Rhule, Frank Reich and Scott Fitterer, and try to get more out of them.

For his part, Canales swears he didn’t inherit something that was completely broken. There is talent on hand, he thinks, and, just as important, a lot of the right types of people.

“Initially, without adding anybody, what I found was a core group of guys that are really hard working and that really have a great way of creating a locker room environment,” Canales says. “That’s pretty cool to be in. These are tough guys. These are guys that love being here. They love being in the weight room. They get along great. They’re playful with each other. I think it all starts off with this blue-collar toughness to the guys that I love.

“I love seeing it. The people that we’re adding, we’re just saying, Hey, look, we already have this part of a dynamic happening. If you’re not sure how to be, watch these guys. It’s our Derrick Browns. It’s our Shaq Thompsons. It’s Austin Corbett, it’s Chuba Hubbard, it’s Tommy Tremble. … Really, a great core group of guys.”

Then, there’s the quarterback.

How Young plays in his second season will go a long way in determining whether the Panthers can turn around quickly. / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers can talk about the other stuff until they’re some shade of blue in the face.

They know, really, a lot of this boils down to the fate of Bryce Young. Morgan was a part of trading up for and drafting him in 2023. Canales was hired, in large part, to get him turned around. And last year’s results, especially when juxtaposed against the guy drafted right behind him, C.J. Stroud, weren’t great. Young posted an anemic 73.7 passer rating, averaged a paltry 5.5 yards per attempt (worse than Bailey Zappe and Tyson Bagent), failed to hit 3,000 yards or complete 60% of his passes, and threw for 11 touchdowns against 10 picks.

So Canales knew after taking the job that he’d have to be in the weeds with Young from the beginning, and that started with a pair of dinners with the quarterback, so he’d have a chance to get to know what made him tick. He went in with a baseline of knowledge from inside the Panthers’ building, and also his connections in Southern California, where both Canales and Young are from. He knew character had never been a problem. Those dinners showed why.

Young came off as a guy who’d make it or die trying.

“He’s curious, and he really challenges himself,” Canales says. “He challenges himself to be great. He’s not satisfied with technique. He works on it to master it. He’s very methodical in how he goes about his studying, wants to know what’s happening with the routes, wants to hear the information. I love the curiosity that he brings to his work every day, and he’s got a patience about him too. He’s open to trying stuff.”

Taking it on the field confirmed something else research told Canales about Young—that he’s deadly accurate. “I really don’t have to spend a lot of time looking to where the ball goes because it’s usually right on the money, in stride,” Canales continues. “So I get to just focus on his base, focus on his footwork, where your eyes are at and those things.”

And as they’re doing that, and teaching Young to be more effective from under center, it’s obvious to the staff that the quarterback is not just accurate thanks to his prodigious arm talent, it’s also thanks to his knack for grasping the why of a play, putting him a step ahead.

Of course, Young, like everyone else, is in shorts now, and has plenty left to prove when that changes. That makes the good start he’s had with Canales just that: a start.

“He’s got a great foundation to build off,” the coach says. “Now it’s just a matter of throwing the core of what we’re doing at him and then seeing what things he looks most rhythmic with and most comfortable with so we can continue to try to find an identity for who we’re going to be."

With the overarching idea being if that means Young takes a big step, the Panthers will, too.

Morgan knows how the past few years have been in Carolina. Hired by his old Seahawks colleague Fitterer in May 2021, the former Pro Bowl linebacker returned to where he played seven seasons. He’s been witness to, and a party to, all that’s gone wrong in the franchise over the past three seasons.

He’s seen misery, so he’ll be first to echo Canales in reiterating that making Carolina the kind of place where NFL folks, both players and staff, want to work is Job No. 1.

“It is definitely something that we talked about from the jump,” Morgan says. “As soon as we got the job, we talked before that, but when he got the job, we wanted to make this a place that, whether it’s people in the building, in the front office or on the business side, and obviously the players and the staff, we just wanted them to be excited to get up in the morning and come to work.

“It was going to be a positive environment where you could reach your goals, reach your full potential and just have fun, whether it’s playing or just doing your job.”

So the trips like the ones to Topgolf, NASCAR and Chesney, and dinners like the outing to Steak 48 will keep going—Canales’s rule is to have at least one of those per month.

All the same, he plans on living that promise day-to-day too.

“Hopefully, they can feel the love and respect that I have for them,” the coach says. “Hopefully we’re able to reciprocate that across the board to each other. It’s just that inside-out thought process. If we treat each other well, then we’ll treat our players well. And this whole building, we all just have this love and respect mentality where we’re here pulling in the same direction. Those are the things that are important to me.

“Hopefully, they’ve been able to feel that this offseason.”

Safe to say that everyone in Carolina has. Whether they’ll still be excited to come to work in December and January, of course, remains to be seen.

For now, Canales is just happy to give his guys the best chance he can to get there.

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Albert Breer