Last week, Steve Wilks was officially introduced as interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers in a press conference filled with hope and optimism.
The honeymoon lasted almost exactly five days.
“I want to be a part of trying to turn this thing around. … I’ve been around when it’s good,” said Wilks, a Charlotte native and former defensive coordinator who went to the Super Bowl with Ron Rivera and Cam Newton in 2015.
The Panthers then went out and showed that things are about as far from good as they can be, blowing a lead against the Rams and falling to 1-5 on the season. Backup quarterback PJ Walker was just 10 of 16 for 60 yards before giving way to Jacob Eason, a veteran of exactly five NFL passes heading into the game.
Showing just how dire the quarterback situation is, receiver D.J. Moore couldn’t recall Eason’s name when listing all the options the Panthers have to start this week, a list that includes injured high draft picks Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield.
As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, Wilks didn’t make it to halftime of his first game before facing a player revolt. Veteran receiver Robbie Anderson, upset he had not been targeted during the game and was being taken out on third down, got into a sideline dust-up with receivers coach Joe Dailey.
“I’m here to do all I can to help us win,” Anderson told the media afterward. “It’s third down, I’m being taken out the game. I don’t think I should be OK with that, you know what I’m sayin’? So, I made a comment. It’s money down. Why am I being taken out? And that’s that.”
Wilks yelled at both Dailey and Anderson to stop bickering and eventually sent Anderson back to the locker room in the second half.
“I was confused, honestly,” Anderson said. “I was honestly confused ’cause I wanna be in the game. I’ve never been told in X amount of years to get out the game, in the fourth quarter. I was honestly confused and upset by it, as I should be.”
After the public blow-up, Wilks wasted little time in resolving the matter, trading Anderson to Arizona — the team Wilks formerly coached.
“I spoke (to the team) this morning,” Wilks said on Monday after sending Anderson out of town, “and we want Robbie to excel and do well. But I also pointed out to the players that it’s about acting like a champion, being accountable, that great level of commitment and really building that trust and believing in the process.”
Wilks held up Moore as a role model for the team, pointing out that the receiver “didn’t get the touches he likely wanted, but if you really study and watch the tape, his blocking was phenomenal – outstanding. That’s tough for a receiver to buy in and do because he really wants the ball. So we want guys that are going to be accountable, guys that are committed and, most importantly, guys that we can trust.”
The process Wilks wants the team to trust could get even rockier as time goes on. With the Nov. 1 trade deadline less than two weeks away, the team is reportedly accepting offers for star running back Christian McCaffrey as it appears the Panthers will strip things down to the bolts and start over.
There’s also the matter of Wilks’ interim tag. As he tries to put his stamp on his hometown team and inspire respect in the locker room, reports have surfaced out of Dallas that Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is the favorite to take over as Panthers head coach following the season, with one outlet reporting the deal is already all but done.
In the short run, the team needs to settle on a quarterback. With Walker, Darnold and Mayfield all ailing, it’s possible Eason will get the ball on Sunday. If not, it could be someone not yet on the roster.
The team is already going deeper into the depth chart at wide receiver with Anderson gone.
“It is more opportunity for guys to come in and show what they can do,” said Shi Smith, who will likely see his touches increase, along with backups Terrace Marshall and Laviska Shenault. And, if the team pulls the trigger on McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman will see their carries increase. Of course, all of it could be for naught as, like Wilks, there’s the possibility the team will move on from all of them as part of the rebuilding process.
Steve Wilks said he was around when it was good in Carolina. It’s not clear who on the team, if anyone, will still be around when it happens again.