It’s OK Dave Tapper: Time to hire Wilkes, find a QB

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Warming up for the Carolina Panthers now:

Owned by Dave Tepper.

This probably scares you if you’re a Panthers fan, and it should be. Since Tepper took over the Panthers in 2018, they have gone on a five-game losing streak.

But this is where we are going Carolina’s 10-7 win at New Orleans on Sunday. The Panthers’ season is over. Carolina went 7-10 and is in second place in the NFC South and will likely remain selection #9 in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Now Tepper has a big decision to make that will set the stage for many others: Who will be the Panthers’ next head coach?

As I’ve written before, I believe it should be interim head coach Steve Wilks.

After that, Wilkes was able to lead the Panthers to a 6-6 record Matt Rule was fired after starting 1-4. That was despite Wilkes losing its best player when Christian McCaffrey was traded for just one game in 12 games. However, the coach still kept the Panthers in every game but one.

If DJ Moore hadn’t taken off his helmet in Atlanta, we might be writing stories about the Panthers going into the playoffs.

Tepper will have plenty of other options, of course, and will have to go through a lengthy interview process (as he should). He’s already had a conversation with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, though that doesn’t appear to be happening. There are many other candidates, with big and small names, and no doubt several of them will be suitable.

But this is a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” situation.

we to know already that Wilkes will succeed. The players respect him and generally want him back. He grew up in Charlotte and has deep roots in the Queen City. He needs to find a new offensive coordinator and, more importantly, a quarterback (along with a tight end, safety, nickel corner and wide receiver).

But give Wilkes players and the man can handle it.

However, if Wilkes doesn’t get the job, at least he went to class on Sunday. In a game that didn’t really matter to either the Panthers or the Saints, for that matter, Wilkes survived a terrible passing game by quarterback Sam Darnold for the win. Darnold went 5-for-15 for 43 yards with two interceptions and no TD passes for a 2.8 QB rating.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold runs around New Orleans Saints defensive center Marcus Davenport during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) Gerald Herbert AP

To put all of this into perspective, the Panthers’ lowest pass rusher in a long time was Jimmy Clausen, who went 1-9 in 10 games in 2010 as the starter for a terrible Carolina team. But the fewest yards Clausen threw for — at least in the 10 games Clausen started — was 61. Darnold didn’t even reach that.

Darnold had just 22 yards passing on Carolina’s final drive when he nearly doubled his performance with a 21-yard strike to Terrace Marshall to put the Panthers within field goal range. Eddie Piñeiro made a 42-yarder as time expired and Carolina won (a loss would have meant Carolina was drafted at No. 7, but who’s counting?) Darnold, who, in truth, threw for 341 yards against Tampa Bay a week ago, ended up 4-2 as a starter for the Panthers this season.

The game doesn’t deserve much ink because it wasn’t important in the scheme of things. But to summarize: these were two below average teams. New Orleans (7-10) scored on its first drive when 35-year-old cornerback Josh Norman missed a tackle and Chris Olau took a short 25-yard pass for the score.

But then the “saints” did not score again. Carolina’s defense played well, even without Brian Burns.

And Saints quarterback Andy Dalton didn’t play any better than Darnold after that first drive. In the third quarter, Darnold fumbled the ball into the end zone, which was pounced on by backup guard Michael Jordan — yes, Michael Jordan finally scored for the Charlotte team!

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Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper must now decide whether to retain interim head coach Steve Wilks or hire someone else to coach the team in 2023. Alex Slitz alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

Two players were ejected for fighting — New Orleans defensive lineman Marcus Davenport and Carolina running back D’Onta Foreman. Even without Foreman, the Panthers kept running the ball because Darnold couldn’t throw it (and it didn’t help that his receivers couldn’t get open and he was running to escape about a third of the time). In the end, Carolina kept us all from facing the unpleasant prospect of overtime in a meaningless game when Pineiro scored the game-winning goal.

Yes, it was all very little to look at. But Wilkes used the word “proud” four times in his press conference to describe how he feels about his team. The West Charlotte and Appalachian State graduate knew going 6-6 as an interim coach sounded a lot better than going 5-7. He gave himself a chance. Carolina went 5-3 in the final eight games of the season.

Wilkes must now give himself the best chance by establishing who will be his new offensive coordinator and showing Tepper “What’s next,” not “What just happened.” No, Wilkes is not an offensive genius. That doesn’t mean he can’t hire him.

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Carolina Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks wears a shirt in support of Buffalo Bills running back Damar Hamlin before the NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in New Orleans. The Panthers went 10-7 to finish the regular season at 7-10. Butch Dill AP

Most importantly, the Panthers need to address the quarterback issue. A top-10 draft pick should help with that. Maybe Matt Corral will make it. Perhaps Darnold — Sunday notwithstanding — could be the bridge quarterback for another year.

A lot of big things have to happen for the Panthers, but they will all be off the field. The Panthers will one day be in the playoff conversation again at this point in the season.

That won’t happen this season. But Wilkes can get them there.

This story was originally published January 8, 2023 at 5:38 p.m.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He is the author or co-author of eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won 18 APSE National Literary Awards and hosted The Observer’s “Carruth” podcast, which Sports Illustrated named “Podcast of the Year” in 2018. His new podcast and online series, Carolina Sports Legends, features one-on-one interviews with NC and SC sports icons.
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It’s OK Dave Tapper: Time to hire Wilkes, find a QB

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