Steve Wilks

Steve Wilks Making “Strong Push” For Panthers’ Permanent HC Post

Since taking over for Matt Rhule in October, Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks has been making the most of a difficult situation. Although Carolina is 2-4 with Wilks at the helm, a missed extra point was the deciding factor in a Week 8 loss to the Falcons, and the Panthers and Ravens were tied 3-3 midway through the fourth quarter of their Week 11 contest before several late turnovers sealed a Baltimore victory.

Simply put, the Panthers have been more competitive under Wilks, and as Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports writes, owner David Tepper has taken notice. Earlier reporting indicated that Tepper would want an experienced option as his permanent replacement for Rhule, and while Wilks’ previous head coaching gig lasted only one season — a disappointing 3-13 campaign with the Cardinals in 2018 — his time in Arizona and his stint as Carolina’s interim HC will give him 28 games as a sideline general by the time the 2022 season comes to an end.

Whether that is sufficient experience for Tepper remains to be seen. One factor working against Wilks is that his background is on the defensive side of the ball; outside of his time as a head coach, all of his jobs in the collegiate and professional ranks have been as a defensive coach or coordinator, and per Jones, Tepper is seeking an “up-and-coming offensive mind.”

It’s worth noting that Jones’ report and the prior reports concerning Tepper’s desire for an experienced former NFL head coach do not necessarily mesh. Someone with significant NFL head coaching experience probably does not qualify as an “up-and-coming” offensive guru, which puts one in mind of Sean McVay before he was hired by the Rams, or Kevin Stefanski before he was hired by the Browns. If Tepper does tab someone other than Wilks as his permanent HC, perhaps it will be a candidate like Lions OC Ben Johnson, who — unlike Rhule when he joined the Panthers — at least has considerable NFL experience, even if none of it has come at the head coaching level.

One way or another, Jones says Wilks is “making a strong push” to have the interim label removed from his title. Carolina’s recent fortunes have been undermined by the team’s quarterback situation, as its 2020 Teddy Bridgewater acquisition and subsequent trades for former top draft choices Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield have yielded nothing but disappointment. The locker room support that Wilks presently enjoys, the adjustments he has made due to inconsistent QB play — adjustments that have resulted in an improved running game despite the trade of Christian McCaffrey — and the club’s competitive fire under Wilks will certainly give Tepper a lot to consider.

Of course, as Jones acknowledges, Wilks’ win-loss record over the final six games of the season will also factor into Tepper’s decision. Wilks’ efforts to secure the permanent HC post will continue in Sunday’s Week 12 battle with the Broncos, a game in which Darnold will make his 2022 debut.

Panthers QB Notes: Darnold, Mayfield, Rhule, Herbert, Stafford, Tepper, Watson

Although the Panthers are starting Baker Mayfield in Week 11, they want to see Sam Darnold in action this season. Steve Wilks said he would like to give Darnold some work, though the interim HC did not indicate that would be certain to happen this week against the Ravens. “I’m interested in winning the game. This is not pay $250 to get to play,” Wilks said, via The Athletic’s Joe Person (on Twitter).

Carolina used one of its injury activations to move Darnold onto its 53-man roster last week, but the former No. 3 overall pick did not see any action against the Falcons. P.J. Walker is out of the picture for the time being, after becoming the third Carolina QB this season to suffer a high ankle sprain. Mayfield will make his first start since sustaining his ankle injury in Week 9. Here is the latest from what has become one of the more complex QB situations in recent NFL history:

  • After playing hurt last season, Mayfield has not turned it around. On the radar for a potential franchise-QB deal in 2021, Mayfield is on track for free agency for the first time. The market for the former No. 1 overall pick may check in at $5-$7MM on a prove-it deal, David Newton of notes. Mayfield’s 17.7 QBR ranks last in the NFL.
  • This situation has been in flux since Cam Newton‘s 2019 foot injury. Prior to the team making the Newton-for-Teddy Bridgewater change, GM Marty Hurney and most of the Panthers’ scouts were high on Justin Herbert. But Matt Rhule did not view 2020 as the window to draft a quarterback, with Jeremy Fowler of indicating in an expansive piece the team saw a jump from No. 7 overall to No. 4 — ahead of the QB-seeking Dolphins and Chargers — as too costly. While then-Giants GM Dave Gettleman was not keen on trading down, going most of his GM career without ever doing so, the Panthers not making a push for Herbert has led to QB chaos.
  • After the Panthers determined Bridgewater — a preference of former OC Joe Brady — would be a one-and-done in Charlotte, they made a big offer for Matthew Stafford. Negotiations between new Panthers GM Scott Fitterer and Lions rookie GM Brad Holmes at the 2021 Senior Bowl led to Panthers brass leaving Mobile believing they were set to acquire Stafford, Fowler notes. It is interesting to learn how far the GMs progressed in talks, because Stafford made it known soon after he did not want to play for the Panthers. The Rams then came in late with their two-first-rounder offer, forcing the Panthers and others to look elsewhere.
  • Rhule then pushed hard for Darnold, Fowler adds, after Panthers staffers went through film sessions evaluating he, Carson Wentz and Drew Lock. The Panthers sent the Jets second-, fourth- and sixth-round picks for the former No. 3 overall pick and picked up his guaranteed $18.9MM fifth-year option. Owner David Tepper begrudgingly picked up the option but became irked by the 2023 cost hanging over the franchise, per Fowler. Tepper is believed to have held up this year’s Mayfield trade talks in order to move the Browns to pick up more money on his option salary. The delay was connected to the Panthers already having Darnold’s fifth-year option to pay.
  • Tepper’s main prize during this multiyear QB odyssey, Deshaun Watson, was leery of the Panthers’ staff uncertainty, Fowler adds. All things being equal between the four finalists — Atlanta, Carolina, Cleveland, New Orleans — the Panthers were not believed to be Watson’s first choice. The Falcons were viewed as the team that would have landed Watson if the Browns did not make that unprecedented $230MM guarantee offer.
  • Fitterer offered support for a Mitch Trubisky signing this offseason, according to Fowler, who adds the team never engaged in extended talks with Jimmy Garoppolo‘s camp. While Garoppolo said the Panthers were in the mix, the team was believed to be leery of his injury history. Trubisky is in Year 1 of a two-year, $14.3MM deal. While Trubisky may well be available again in 2023, the Panthers — having added six draft picks from the Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson trades — will be connected to this year’s crop of QB prospects.

Panthers To Start QB P.J. Walker In Week 10

Despite the pair of recent factors suggesting a change could be made, the Panthers will return to the status quo at quarterback this week. Interim head coach Steve Wilks has tapped P.J. Walker as the team’s starting QB for Thursday’s game against the Falcons (Twitter link via Tom Pelissero of NFL Network).

Walker was benched at halftime yesterday after Carolina trailed the Bengals 35-0. Baker Mayfield replaced him, marking his first game action since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 5. Mayfield’s level of play (a marked improvement on Walker’s 0.0 passer rating), not to mention his status as the team’s starter heading into the campaign, could have led to him resuming the No. 1 role.

Instead, Wilks confirmed that Mayfield will once again serve as the backup, Joe Person of The Athletic tweets. That decision was made in part due to the short week, Wilks added, and it will leave the team with the same starter from their previous meeting with Atlanta.

That contest, which happened just two weeks ago, saw Walker score what could have been the game-winning touchdown on a last-minute, 62-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore. A missed extra point (and subsequently, missed field goal in overtime) led to the Falcons ultimately winning the game 37-34. Walker’s performance did enough to have him quickly confirmed as the Week 9 starter, despite the fact that Mayfield had recovered and was able to dress.

Earlier today, the Panthers activated their other veteran signal-caller. Days before Sam Darnold‘s three-week window to be activated from IR expired, Carolina brought him back after he dealt with his own ankle sprain. His addition could have left Walker on the outside of a number crunch, but Wilks indicated that nothing has been decided yet with respect to the team parting ways with any of its three passers.

Attention will turn back towards Walker this week, with the team hoping he can rebound from yesterday’s performance. The 2-7 Panthers will have multiple options moving forward if they wish to make a change, though.

Panthers Activate QB Sam Darnold

The Panthers have added another name to the mix regarding their fluid quarterback situation. The team announced on Monday that Sam Darnold has been activated from IR. This will be their second activation of the year.

Carolina had until this Wednesday to make the move. If not, Darnold would have been ineligible to return this season. Interim head coach Steve Wilks‘ comments on the matter left the situation somewhat murky, but it comes as little surprise that Darnold will be available moving forward after his return to practice.

The 25-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason, leading to the expectation of a prolonged absence to begin the campaign. That opened the door to offseason trade acquisition Baker Mayfield having an even firmer grip on the starting QB job in the opening weeks of the season, but he struggled mightily before suffering the same injury himself. P.J. Walker took over the No. 1 role for the next three games.

His level of play left Mayfield on the bench despite retuning to health, until halftime of yesterday’s blowout loss to the Bengals. Walker had guided one of the worst offensive performances through two quarters in franchise history, leading Wilks to replace him with Mayfield for the remainder of the game. That move left the starting spot wide open in advance of Carolina’s upcoming Thursday night game against the Falcons. Darnold – who, like Mayfield, is a pending free agent – will now factor into the team’s plans in the coming days.

In other Panthers news, more changes have been made along the team’s coaching staff. Cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper and defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni were fired today, as detailed by ESPN’s David Newton. Cooper had been one of several assistants with ties to Matt Rhule, and his job description included a scouting role. He will be jointly replaced by defensive staffer Bobby Maffei and interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb. Pasqualoni, 73, has five years of DC experience in the NFL; this was his first season in Carolina. Don Johnson and assistant d-line coach Terrance Knighton will occupy his vacated role.

These moves come less than one month after Rhule and DC Phil Snow were fired, of course, as the turnover in the organization continues. With a new configuration on the sidelines, and, potentially, another new face under center, the 2-7 Panthers will host the Falcons to begin Week 10 as they hope to rebound from yesterday’s loss.

Baker Mayfield Replaces P.J Walker As Panthers QB

At halftime of today’s game against the Bengals, the Panthers’ offense had struggled to historic proportions, and it resulted in a quarterback change. Baker Mayfield replaced P.J. Walker for the second half of Carolina’s 42-21 loss.

Carolina faced their largest halftime deficit in team history (35-0) after Walker’s performance through the first two quarters. The former XFLer posted just nine passing yards and a pair of interceptions before being benched. As a whole, the team’s offense managed just 19 yards of offense, setting the stage for the switch.

Mayfield had returned to health last week, after suffering a high ankle sprain. His absence was limited to just two games – a shorter recovery time than expected – but interim head coach Steve Wilks made it clear that Walker would remain the starter for the time being. Especially given Mayfield’s struggles during his five-game stretch as the No. 1, that led to serious doubt that he would see the field again as a Panther.

Amidst the uncertainty, however, the pending free agent revealed earlier this week that he is open to the possibility of re-signing in Carolina. In his return to a starting role this afternoon, Mayfield completed 14 of 20 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns and a QBR of 126. While the circumstances related to the score certainly affected that statline, it will lead to further questions at the position moving forward.

Sam Darnold has yet to suit up this season, as he recovers from his own high ankle sprain. The team has until Wednesday of this week to activate him from IR, something Wilks has not entirely confirmed will take place. Doing so would leave the team with three quarterbacks as they try to evaluate their immediate pecking order and potential replacements in the offseason.

When speaking after the game, Wilks declined to name a starter for Carolina’s next game (Twitter link via Joe Person of The Athletic). That contest will come on Thursday against the Falcons, so a decision on Darnold will have been made before it happens. The Panthers’ QB plans will be interesting to watch throughout the week.

Panthers QB Baker Mayfield Likely To Return In Week 8; P.J. Walker To Start

The quarterback who began the season as the Panthers’ top option appears set to return tomorrow, but not in his previous role. Baker Mayfield worked with Carolina’s scout team during the week in practice, and interim head coach Steve Wilks said he should be available for tomorrow’s game against the Falcons (Twitter link via Joe Person of The Athletic).

The former Browns starter suffered a high ankle sprain during what was ultimately Matt Rhule‘s final game as head coach. Two weeks was initially considered to be the short end of his recovery timeframe, before further testing revealed a torn ligament. That was expected to delay Mayfield’s return, but he has recovered quickly to the point where he can dress as a backup.

As Wilks suggested on Sunday, however, health would not guarantee Mayfield – or, for that matter, Sam Darnold, who has yet to suit up in 2022 – a first-team spot. The play of fourth-stringer P.J. Walker in the team’s win over the Buccaneers gave him the inside track to start against Atlanta. Wilks said earlier this week, via ESPN’s David Newton, that he “[saw] no reason not to” with respect to keeping Walker in place as the No. 1.

The former XFLer has already matched his career total in starts over the past two weeks from his previous seasons in Carolina. Walker threw for just 60 yards in the Panthers’ loss to the Rams, but had a far more effective and productive game (177 yards, two touchdowns) leading the team to their upset win over Tampa Bay. The decision to trade away receiver Robbie Anderson and running back Christian McCaffrey has left the Panthers’ offense without two notable skill position players, but Walker’s potential upside relative to Mayfield and Darnold make him a logical starting choice in at least the near-term future.

“He understands exactly where we’re going this week and knows his role,” Wilks said of Mayfield (Twitter link via Person). “And he was fine with it.”  How much of an opportunity the latter has to retake the No. 1 role after tomorrow will be worth watching as Carolina looks for its second straight victory of the Wilks era.

Latest On Panthers’ QB Situation

The Panthers secured their first win of the Steve Wilks era today, doing so despite their unenviable injury situation at quarterback. That could change as early as next week.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports (via Twitter) that both Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold have a chance to return to game action next week. Their respective situations in practice will of course be worth watching in the coming days, but that development would give the Panthers options under center.

Mayfield went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 5, the final game before Matt Rhule was dismissed as head coach. It was confirmed shortly thereafter that surgery would not be needed, and it came as no surprise that the team decided against placing him on IR. A initial timetable of two to six weeks was presented for his recovery.

Last week, however, it was revealed that Mayfield suffered a torn ligament in his ankle. That was expected to delay his return, but today’s update means it could still come on the near side of his timeframe. The trade acquisition had struggled mightily prior to the team’s necessary pivot switch. He was on the field for practice in the build-up to today’s upset win over the Buccaneers.

Darnold, meanwhile, has been out since suffering an ankle sprain of his own during the preseason. The team’s 2021 starter was designated to return from IR last week, opening his three-week window to be activated. Taking the field next week would thus represent a logical timeframe for the Panthers’ other 2018 top-3 QB. Performance, rather than injuries, however, will also complicate the team’s decision regarding a starter.

P.J. Walker served as the top option during last week’s loss to the Rams, and did so again today. After he led the team to a 21-3 win over Tampa Bay (throwing for 177 yards and two touchdowns in the process), Wilks said it would be “hard” to remove the 27-year-old from first-team duties even if Mayfield and Darnold are healthy (Twitter link via Joe Person of The Athletic).

Now sitting a 2-5 and in the midst of a selling-off of key players ahead of the trade deadline (yet, on the other hand, just one game out of the NFC South lead), the Panthers will visit the Falcons in Week 8. Which passers will be available at the time – and the team’s pecking order at the position – will be worth monitoring.

Panthers WR Robbie Anderson Dismissed By HC Steve Wilks

The beginning of the post-Matt Rhule era in Carolina hasn’t been devoid of drama. Veteran receiver Robbie Anderson was sent from the team’s sidelines to the dressing room by interim head coach Steve Wilks midway through the game against the Rams (video link via The Athletic’s Joe Person). The incident will, in all likelihood, mark the end of his Panthers tenure. 

Anderson had been involved in multiple heated arguments with members of the team’s coaching staff before leaving the field. He saw limited playing time prior to the incident, and was not targeted. On the season, the 29-year-old has totaled 206 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions – a far cry from the 95/1096/3 statline he produced in 2020, his first season as a Panther.

With Rhule gone, the Temple alum has been named one of the most logical trade candidates amongst several players teams have inquired about in recent days. He has a 2022 base salary of just over $1MM, but is on the books for 2023 as well at a cap figure of $21.7MM as a result of a restructure. The market for Anderson was likely lukewarm at best considering his production, but Person confirmed yesterday (on Twitter) that the Panthers were indeed shopping him (compared to simply the willingness they have shown in fielding calls on other, more attractive players).

Carolina’s endeavors to move Anderson are sure to be accelerated after tonight. If they cannot find a trade partner before next month’s deadline, CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones notes that the team will “very likely” release him after the season ends.

When addressing the media after the game – which ended in a 24-10 loss for Carolina – Wilks remained non-committal regarding Anderson’s place on the team moving forward (Twitter link via ESPN’s David Newton). He added that he will speak privately to Anderson; when the dust has settled, how both parties move forward will be worth watching in the coming days.

Latest On Panthers Coaching Staff

The Panthers organization will have an important decision to make when it comes to replacing Matt Rhule, but the team is more than happy with their current arrangement. Steve Wilks took on the role of interim HC, and Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post writes that this was always the team’s plan if things didn’t work out with their now-former head coach.

[RELATED: Panthers Fire Matt Rhule; Steve Wilks Named Interim HC]

The Panthers convinced Wilks to step away from his defensive coordinator gig at Missouri to be their defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach. The team made this hiring as a contingency in case they had to move on from Rhule; Wilks was still highly regarded within the organization thanks to his previous stint with the Panthers, and ownership was more than happy to hand him the reigns. Per La Canfora, Wilks will get a legitimate chance to keep the head coaching gig beyond this season.

While Panthers owner David Tepper is more than willing to make a big splash on the sideline, sources tell La Canfora that Sean Payton is not a realistic target. Those sources don’t believe Payton would mesh with Tepper, and the organization’s lack of draft picks and a foundational QB means a quick rebuild is unlikely. Plus, one GM told La Canfora that the Saints would prefer to trade Payton to an AFC squad, and it’s especially unlikely they trade him within the division.

Elsewhere on the coaching staff, Al Holcomb will take over as the defensive play caller. The 51-year-old coach was originally hired as Carolina’s defensive run game coordinator. He’ll replace defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who was fired alongside Rhule. Wilks told Joseph Person of The Athletic that it was his decision to move on from Snow, and Person later wrote that the interim HC had some “philosophical differences” with the DC.

“It was my call and my decision,” Wilks said. “I just felt like I wanted a different approach moving forward … The schemes aren’t gonna change much,” he added. “But I think you have to be creative in the process of what you’re doing. And everything is predicated on who we’re playing.”

Panthers’ Post-Rhule Fallout: Termination, Replacement, Trades

The NFL news circuit was set ablaze today when news broke of the firings of Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow. The termination of Rhule was not necessarily a surprise, as he’s been firmly on the hot seat all year and the possibility of firing Rhule had been discussed “well before” today, according to Josina Anderson of CBS Sports, but it did create a newsworthy fallout of information that is of interest to those who follow the sport.

Many have talked about the contract implications of Rhule’s termination, alluding to the millions of dollars still remaining on his contract. While it’s completely applicable to Rhule’s situation, it doesn’t sound like it is a concern to Carolina. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network tweeted out that “Carolina is on the hook for this season, but the salaries for the ensuing seasons are offset by what his future college job pays him.” Essentially, Rhule will absolutely get his guaranteed money, but the onus won’t be on Carolina to pay it. Whenever Rhule, who is presumed to be a top college coaching candidate for next year, gets another job, his salary from the new school will offset the amount the Panthers owe him.

It was also announced that Panthers defensive passing game coordinator & secondary coach Steve Wilks will sub in as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. The defensive-minded former head coach of the Cardinals has apparently already begun to make the team his own. When Panthers owner David Tepper was asked why Snow was fired, he reportedly pointed the finger at Wilks, telling reporters to direct that question to the interim head coach, according to ESPN’s David Newton.

Here are a few more fallout items from today, starting with some ideas on Rhule’s replacement:

  • The biggest nugget to come out of today concerning Carolina is that, as most NFL executives expected Rhule to lose his job, many in league circles are expecting the Panthers to start dealing veteran assets in an attempt to accrue draft capital that might make the head coaching position more attractive, according to Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post. The Panthers currently only hold four draft picks for 2023: first-, second-, fourth-, and fifth-round picks, supporting the idea that trading away veterans could improve their current situation. Trading away veterans with expensive contracts, such as star running back Christian McCaffrey or wide receiver Robbie Anderson, could prove troublesome, according to La Canfora, so the Panthers are reportedly willing to eat some of those salaries in order to facilitate moving those assets. Early reports claimed that the Bills have reached out about McCaffrey and that they did in the offseason, as well, according to Person, but Tom Pelissero of NFL Network clarified that, while every team will be calling about McCaffrey, the Panthers haven’t engaged in any trade talks yet. In addition to McCaffrey and Anderson, Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports expects wide receiver D.J. Moore, defensive end Brian Burns, and defensive tackle Derrick Brown to be on the table.
  • Jeff Howe of The Athletic posed the question today of who might replace Rhule and offered quite a few suggestions. Howe started the list with Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn who took the Falcons to the Super Bowl as head coach in 2016. Next, he mentioned 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Ryans interviewed for the Vikings’ job this offseason and was expected to interview for the Raiders’, as well. The 38-year-old has rocketed up coaching boards since retiring as a player in 2015. Another name mentioned was Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon who also interviewed for the Vikings last year, in addition to the Texans and Broncos. Howe went into great detail on every candidate, seeming to list anybody who may be up for a head coaching job in the next few seasons. His list included former NFL head coaches including the retired Sean Payton, Steelers senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach Brian Flores, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and former Colts and Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, as well as the current interim head coach, Wilks. Other serious candidates Howe mentioned were Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, and Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. The list essentially devolved into an article about anybody who may make the jump to NFL head coach in the next few seasons, pointing out “wait and see” candidates such as Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, Dolphins offensive coordinator Frank Smith, Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell, and Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.
  • One interesting name that came out of today’s rumors was former Panthers All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly. Joe Person of The Athletic advised that an eye be kept on Kuechly, who remains close with Wilks and new defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, to come back in some capacity. After retiring from a pro scout position last year, Kuechly has been working as an analyst on Panthers radio broadcasts.