CHARLOTTE, NC — As the Panthers’ offense piled up before a third-and-three in the third quarter, interim coach Steve Wilks returned to the sideline after checking on injured running back D’Onto Foreman. When Wilks approached the bench, he waved his hands down to get the crowd at Bank of America Stadium to stop waving.
Wilks can forgive the fans for the slip: it’s been a while since they’ve had something to cheer for.
A day after Matt Rhule was named Nebraska’s head coach, the Panthers used a complete game from offense and a dominant day from Brian Burns on Sunday to beat Russell Wilson and the Broncos 23-10.
The Panthers improved to 4-8 and moved within two games of Tampa Bay (5-6), which lost in overtime at Cleveland but remains in first place in the NFC South. The Panthers still haven’t won two games in a row and are 0-5 on the road this season.
But they improved to 3-0 at home under Wilks after going 5-15 in home games in two 5-plus seasons under Rhule.
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“Going back (to) Thursday night’s game (against the Falcons), it took me back in time,” said Wilks, an assistant with the Panthers when they made the playoffs three straight years in 2013-15. “It was electric. I want those guys to come out and continue to support us in high fashion.”
The next step for the Panthers is a road win at Charlotte, defeating a team with a winning record and picking up two wins, and they can check all of those boxes with a win in Seattle after the bye week.
In the meantime, take a look at what Sunday’s win meant to Wilks and the Panthers.
Is Wilks’ candidacy gaining momentum?
It’s safe in the locker room, which is something owner David Tepper can’t ignore. Read also : Marcus Mariota takes off on the ground and in the air for a touchdown run from a pylon. The Panthers are 3-4 since Wilks replaced Rhule in October, and would have been 4-3 if officials hadn’t flagged DJ Moore for taking off his helmet in Atlanta or if Eddy Pineiro hadn’t missed two shots late in the loss to the Falcons.
During his media onslaught last week, Rhule said it took until his third season to really connect with the players, in part because he trained under a mask and on Zoom calls during his first season affected by COVID-19.
Wilks has a way with the players, who have responded well to his direct approach. After last week’s 13-3 loss in Baltimore, Wilks started the week by challenging the stars to play like stars. To get the message across, Wilks had the video department put photos of all the draft picks and notable free agents on a projector screen in the meeting room.
It was like a name calling. But the way Wilks presented it was more like a challenge, lineman Frankie Luvu and other players said.
“These are the stars. Be the stars,” Burns recalled Wilks saying. “And we said, ‘Yes sir.’
The stars answered. Luvu had a team-leading eight tackles. Burns hit Wilson twice, including a takedown, and three back shots. Foreman posted his fourth 100-yard rushing game and Moore had his best game in a month.
“I love Wilks, man,” Burns said. “It’s probably too early to say what he’s going to do, but I love Wilks. That’s my dog.”
On Saturday, Panthers defensive end Derrick Brown tweeted support for Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, the interim coach at Brown’s Auburn alma mater. On Sunday, Brown offered a strong case for stripping Wilks of his interim title.
“He has a dressing room right now. We are listening. We want to win. He’s got the same (approach),” Brown said. “He’s not kicking us out. He’s not just coming in here like, ‘Hey man, we’ve got to get through this for three weeks.’ He comes here (and says), ‘This is what we have to do. We will win.'”
Brown called Wilks a leader who is honest, which allows players to talk to him “directly.” But Brown knows that his players’ support alone won’t be enough to land Wilks a permanent job.
“It’s not a secret in this business. You have to win to stay in,” Brown said. “That’s the mindset right now.”
Carolina interim coach Steve Wilks. (Bob Donnan / USA Today)
Could Sam Darnold play his way into the Panthers’ future plans?
The Panthers appear intent on selecting a quarterback in the first round of next year’s draft. To see also : Traffic reporter Sha Tabb’s dating profile is a Times Square billboard. But if Sam Darnold continues to play the way he did Sunday, general manager Scott Fitterer could consider bringing Darnold back as a bridge quarterback and/or mentor to Matt Corral and whatever quarterback they choose.
In his first start of the season, Darnold avoided mistakes and threw the ball downfield with authority — something Baker Mayfield hasn’t done all year. Wilks is a big proponent of looking at game tape before making personnel decisions, especially at the cornerback position. But Darnold’s performance was strong enough for Wilks to say after the game that Darnold will start Dec. 11 in Seattle.
Darnold completed just 11 of 19 passes for 164 yards as the Panthers continued to emphasize the ground game. But three of Darnold’s completions covered at least 20 yards — including a 52-yard bomb to Moore that Wilks called “phenomenal.”
Darnold avoided the changes that destroyed him. Even when he dropped the ball to the ground — as he did on a goal-line play in the third quarter — Darnold picked it up for a 2-yard touchdown run. Darnold’s best touchdown throw came on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Moore, who beat Patrick Surtain — the Broncos’ No. 1 pick in 2021 — on a crossing route.
But Darnold’s most important job was to get Moore — one of those stars Wilks pointed out — more involved. Moore’s 103 yards receiving (on four catches) was more than he had totaled in the previous three games combined.
“It was good,” Moore said of Darnold’s passing. “For the first game of the season, he came out calm, cool, collected. Sam is usually like that. I didn’t expect anything different. He came out and showed what he can do.”
Darnold, who started the season on injured reserve with a major ankle sprain, credited the run for helping set up the passing attack.
“To be honest, I think it took a few plays to finally feel comfortable out there,” Darnold said. “Once I got my feet wet out there and threw my first goal, I feel like everything went smoothly, especially with the way we played football.”
Are the Panthers playing their way out of being high enough in the draft to take a QB?
Maybe. The Panthers dropped from No. To see also : Carolina Panthers could be without a key offensive lineman this weekend. 2 to No. 6 in the draft after Sunday afternoon’s games, which — if they stay in that range — could put them out of the running for Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud.
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One of those guys will go to Houston, which lost to Miami 30-15 on Sunday to fall to 1-9-1. But all the teams currently in between Houston and Carolina look like quarterbacks. That draft order will undoubtedly change between now and the end of the season, potentially putting the Panthers in a trade scenario if they are captivated by Young or Stroud.
In addition, there are other options, namely Kentucky’s Will Levis and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. And while all of this is nice to talk about, it’s not something Wilks is thinking about as he tries to instill a winning culture in a franchise that has endured four losing seasons since Tepper bought the team.
So which franchise is in better shape — the Broncos or Panthers?
The Panthers traded three draft picks for Darnold, paid part of Teddy Bridgewater’s salary to unload on him in Denver and threw another QB dart at Mayfield in July. But those moves were relatively small compared to what Denver shelled out for Wilson — five draft picks, including two first-rounders and two second-rounders — before giving him a five-year, $245 million extension.
Fitterer, a longtime Seattle scout, called Seahawks GM John Schneider last winter to see how things were going with Wilson. Fitterer got the impression Carolina wasn’t one of Wilson’s favorite destinations, which turned out to be one of those moments of thanking God for unanswered prayers.
Frankie Luvu sacks Russell Wilson. (Bob Donnan / USA Today)
The 33-year-old Wilson had another down day Sunday, completing 19 of 35 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, the 300th of his career. That’s how long Wilson extended the game with his feet. But he can’t or won’t do that anymore, which helped explain why the Panthers were able to sack him three times and get 10 hits.
“He’s still Russell Wilson. I don’t take anything from him. I have a lot of respect for Russ,” Burns said. “I just think everything went my way today. All my moves were spot on.”
Burns also falls into that category of a move that fans should be glad the Panthers didn’t make. Before this year’s trade deadline, Fitterer turned down the Rams’ offer of three picks — two future first-round picks and a second-round pick — for Burns, who went to his first Pro Bowl last season and should go again.
Pass rushers are golden in this pass-driven league, and the Panthers have an up-and-comer in the 24-year-old Burns. His two sacks on Sunday gave him 10 for the year, surpassing his previous season high with five games to go. Credit Burns for playing through the pain after taking a hit on his left knee and then making it worse when a Denver punt blocked him.
That didn’t stop him from getting to Wilson with a series of moves involving some of the different strengths, which Burns was particularly proud of.
“It’s something I’ve been working on because it’s been my downfall since I’ve been in the league, since I’ve been in college, since I’ve been playing D-end. (Critics say) too small, not strong enough, la da da da da da,” he said.
“No offense to (the Broncos), but look at that film, there’s a lot of cats on their backs. Pardon my language, this is… strong.”
(Best Photo of DJ Moore: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)