National Football League
Pete Carroll says protégé Dave Canales will show Panthers ‘what they can become’
National Football League

Pete Carroll says protégé Dave Canales will show Panthers ‘what they can become’

Updated Jun. 6, 2024 2:36 p.m. ET

New Panthers coach Dave Canales spent 13 years as a Seahawks assistant working under Pete Carroll, and with a staff full of similar transplants from the Pacific Northwest, it's easy to cast Carolina as Seattle South.

Those Seahawks teams made the playoffs 10 times, won five division titles and made the Super Bowl twice, winning a championship and nearly another. Finding anything close to that success in Charlotte would be remarkable, especially with Canales taking over a team that had the worst record in the NFL last year at 2-15.

Carroll, now 72 and 30 years removed from his first season as an NFL head coach, said the 43-year-old Canales has set himself up for success.

"He's way better prepared as a young head coach than I was," Carroll said by phone last week. "I was totally unprepared. It took me a while — I had to get kicked around enough before I got going. He's got a much better runway to starting this. He's well-versed, he knows what's going on, he's very articulate. 


"So much of it is how well you can convey the message, and he's a really good communicator. I'm totally jacked about watching him, because he's ready to go."

In Carroll's first season as an NFL coach, he went 6-10 with the Jets and got fired. His second stint, as the Patriots' head coach, featured a division title and winning record, but he was still fired after three years. The NFL is not a patient place, and his success in Seattle came only after nine years (and two national titles) at USC.

In his final season with the Trojans, Carroll hired Canales as a strength coach and video assistant. The two had met when Canales, then coaching at a community college in Southern California, worked part-time at Carroll's football camps. When Carroll left for Seattle in 2010, Canales went, too. He rose through the ranks from offensive quality control coach to assistant quarterbacks coach to wide receivers coach to QB coach to pass game coordinator. 

Carroll said no Seahawks assistant understood the system better than Canales.

"He has the background, the understanding, the philosophy and the principles, all of that," Carroll said. "He gets to use whatever he wants to. We did a lot of winning, a lot of good things, had our hardships, so he's had a really well-rounded experience."

It's been a remarkable 16 months for Canales, who became an offensive coordinator and playcaller for the first time last year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coaching Baker Mayfield in a bounce-back season that gave the Bucs their third straight division title. One huge leap led to another, and in late January, Canales was chosen by Carolina to take over a team that has had six straight losing seasons and has burned through six coaches (counting interims) since 2019.

Now, with his first chance to make an entire team his own, he'll take inspiration from the coach who brought him to the NFL. There is a lot of Carroll in Canales, especially in his high level of energy and relentless positivity.

"He taught me a long time ago: 'Don't try to do what I do, just seek what I'm seeking, the bigger-picture things that matter to me, and then make it your own,'" Canales said. "That's always been his challenge."

Canales spent 14 years working under Carroll at USC and in Seattle and will now use the lessons he learned to try and turn around the Panthers. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks)

Canales' baseline optimism, his natural default buoyancy, should serve him well in Carolina, even if it's likely to be tested this fall. The Bucs hit a midseason rut last year when they lost six of seven games, scoring 20 points or fewer in six of those games. But Canales stayed focused and helped the team win five of its last six games and claim the division title.

"I don't think there's any doubt that's going to help, because there's going to be some hardships along the way, figuring it out," Carroll said. "Somebody's going to have to hold the vision of the future, and he will. He'll be really positive and forward-thinking. He won't let things knock him off course. He'll be really resilient. He'll show them what they can become and stick to it."

Canales is only part of the Seattle presence in Carolina. New general manager Dan Morgan spent eight years in scouting and the front office with the Seahawks. Among the new coaching staff, offensive coordinator Brad Idzik, special-teams coordinator Tracy Smith, quarterbacks coach Will Harriger, tight ends coach Pat McPherson and Carroll's son, Nate, now Carolina's passing game coordinator, were all with Canales in Seattle.

Smith's father, Carl "Tater" Smith, spent 10 years with Canales on the Seattle staff, and next to Carroll, he might have been most influential in molding him into the coach he is now.

"I would credit Tater for really giving me my football education, in terms of situational football, how to win a game, how to train a quarterback, how to talk to the quarterback and teach him to be a leader," Canales said. "He just has a methodical way of dissecting critical variables. How long does an incompletion take? Five seconds. What could you expect in this situation? 

"And as an offensive coordinator, just call the next play, trust what you came up with in the solitude of your office with a cup of coffee with nobody yelling and no pressure. You believed that was a great play, so just call it. All these little lessons. I could go on. There are multiple times a day I think of him and words of wisdom he was able to give me."

Smith, 76, visited the Panthers during their rookie minicamp to catch up with old colleagues and watch the new head coach build relationships with his players. He said Canales is an instinctive playcaller who reminds him of a coach he shared a booth with as Browns assistants from 2001-03. Back then, Todd Bowles was barely 40 and Cleveland's nickel package coach.

"Todd was having to just sit back and wait, because somebody else was making the calls," Smith said. "I remember a couple of times when the coordinator would ask Todd in the box, and just a barrage of thoughts came instantly. He'd been holding back the whole game, and that was the first time I knew that Todd, OK, this guy can do it. He's going to go to the next step. Similarly, with Dave, nobody knows what it's going to be like your first time as a coordinator, but I felt confident he was going to do it."

Smith cited what he calls "emotional control" in Canales, an ability to remain calm when everything around him is not, a levelheadedness that can be hard to find in the profession.

"He has control, and that's a gift. He'll retain that as a head coach," Smith said. "Some coaches are successful without it. Bruce [Arians] didn't always have it, as a matter of fact. Dave, as a coach, he's done his work and he's decisive. He was like that in the box. He was unflappable, economical. It didn't surprise me he did well as a playcaller."

So much of Canales' immediate future, and of Carolina's success and failure, will hinge on the progress of quarterback Bryce Young, the top pick in the 2023 draft. The Panthers traded a substantial package to move up for Young, including what turned out to be this year's No. 1 overall pick, and Young had an underwhelming rookie year, throwing for 11 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

The common thread in Canales' past two seasons is getting high-round quarterbacks who'd fallen on hard times back to their primes. In Seattle, he helped Geno Smith become a Pro Bowler after he had started just five games in the previous six seasons. In Tampa, he bonded quickly with Mayfield, who had been with three teams the previous year but bounced back with a Pro Bowl season despite the daunting challenge of taking over a team from Tom Brady.

Carolina has also worked to upgrade the talent around Young this offseason, spending $153 million on a pair of free-agent guards in Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, trading for Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson and using three of its top four picks on skill-position players in receiver Xavier Legette, running back Jonathon Brooks and tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders. On defense, meanwhile, the Panthers lost some of their biggest stars and are rebuilding that side of the ball under returning coordinator Ejiro Evero.

Canales is excited to have his own team back together. Since his hire, his wife Lizzy had stayed in Tampa with their four children, allowing them to finish the school year before moving, with Dave making regular trips home. With the school year finished, the family drove to Charlotte this past weekend, happily reunited after a second relocation in as many springs.

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In his new office, Canales has a photo of himself standing in the end zone, talking to a group of players in light blue and black uniforms. It's not his Panthers, but a shot from 20 years ago, when he was the freshman football coach at Carson High in California, where he graduated. The scoreboard shows a 12-0 win, and he still remembers the opponent that day — Taft High. As much as things have changed for him, Canales looks at that moment as a reminder of how much they can stay the same. That was the last time he was a head coach, and after two big leaps in one year, he's now doing it at the sport's highest level.

"I don't think I ever dreamed that it would have happened this fast," he said. "The coolest part for me is to never forget the passion that I started this profession with. Never let it go. I never want to lose that."

Greg Auman is FOX Sports' NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.


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