CHARLOTTE — Welcome to square one.
Five games into the 2022 NFL season, the Carolina Panthers lost their head coach and quarterback in the blackest of Mondays.
Baker Mayfield joined Sam Darnold on the injury report after suffering an ankle sprain in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco, leaving the stadium in a walking boot. A Monday MRI ruled him out for an unspecified number of games. Darnold is already on injured reserve with an ankle sprain and was reportedly “not close” to a return when the last status update was given a week ago. That gives the Panthers two quarterbacks taken in the top three picks of the 2018 NFL Draft, and neither will be taking the field in the foreseeable future.
Backup PJ Walker is currently the only healthy quarterback on the Panthers roster. The team will likely bring someone in before the next game.
The team also parted ways with head coach Matt Rhule, after two-plus unsuccessful seasons on the job.
The last straw for Rhule was Sunday’s 37-15 loss to the 49ers, which dropped Carolina to 1-4 on the season despite having four home games in the first five weeks. Sunday’s loss at Bank of America Stadium came in front of a crowd that may have featured more red 49ers jerseys and blue empty seats than hometown fans clad in Panthers colors.
There were still enough Panthers fans in the building to boo loudly when Rhule opted for a field goal with the team down 30-12 in the fourth quarter.
In a contentious press conference on Monday, nominally to explain the reasons for the Rhule firing, Panthers owner David Tepper denied that a lack of fan interest was a factor behind the move.
“I have respect for the fans,” he said, “but fans can’t be the reason you make a change like this.”
Tepper did point out later in the press conference, “We had 63,000 butts in seats, unfortunately, there were too many red butts in seats.”
Tepper also spoke harshly about the Panthers team he inherited and has spent the last several seasons rebuilding.
“We need to figure out how to get a culture of winning,” he said. “We haven’t had that in a long time in this city. We’ve never had two winning seasons (in a row), and I don’t think we’ve ever had a real culture of winning.”
Tepper, who appeared to take issue with several questions at the press conference, also claimed that the city of Charlotte had “no live music” until he bought the team and stadium.
For the Panthers, former defensive coordinator and Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks will take over as interim coach.
Wilks is a Charlotte native who went to West Charlotte High School and played at App State. He also played for the Charlotte Rage minor league football team in 1993 and spent several seasons on Ron Rivera’s Panthers staff as defensive backs coach, including the team’s trip to the Super Bowl following the 2015 season. He became the team’s defensive coordinator in 2017, then left the following season to spend one year as Cardinals coach, going 3-13. Since then, he’s served as defensive coordinator for the Browns and University of Missouri before returning to Carolina on Rhule’s staff this season.
“Steve loves this area,” Tepper said. “He loves Charlotte. Obviously, he’s going to be excited.”
Wilks’ first move was to fire defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
“The head coach gets to choose his coaching staff,” Tepper said of the move.
Tepper refused to answer questions on the search for a permanent replacement, saying, “We have a lot of season left. I’d rather talk about the season left. Right now, Steve Wilks is the coach.”
As for whether Wilks would be considered for the job, he said, “We’ll see how the season goes. He’s in position to be considered.”
The team is currently in line to choose first in next spring’s NFL Draft. Tepper said that tanking in order to use that pick on a potential franchise quarterback was not an option, saying, “We always have the expectation to win. That’s never changing.”
Still, the temptation will be there to deal some of the high-value pieces on the current roster — running back Christian McCaffrey jumps out as an obvious target — to accrue draft capital.
Tepper didn’t mention McCaffrey when he discussed what he called the “foundation pieces” of a good team which he thought were in place. He brought up the defense and the offensive line.
He also declined to answer questions on the team’s plans for the upcoming trade deadline, although he did say several times that it would be important to have patience as the team tries to turn things around.
“It’s a funny thing, patience,” he said. “If you ask the average fan, they’ll think I was ridiculously patient.”
“Things take time,” he said. “As a former fan, I don’t want to hear that.”