Where do Panthers go after tank talk ends?

Carolina lost draft position with its big win but may have found its coach

The Panthers pulled off an improbable 21-3 win at home over Tampa Bay, making some wonder if the right man to lead the franchise might have been right under the team's nose in interim coach Steve Wilks. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — A funny thing happened on the way to the first overall draft pick.

The Carolina Panthers were in line to pick first in next spring’s draft in the “if the season ended today” projections, then they got to work setting up their tank job to secure the first pick.

The Panthers traded away wide receiver Robbie Anderson, a move that likely had more to do with removing a locker room cancer than stockpiling draft capital. Then they traded their best player — running back Christian McCaffrey — and the tank was fully in: Stink out loud for C.J. Stroud. Play like dung to draft Bryce Young. Whoever the Panthers identified as their quarterback of the future was as good as theirs.

But it turns out the Carolina Panthers can’t even tank right.

Playing with an interim coach and a third-string quarterback coming off of a neck injury, the Panthers blew the doors off Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs. Suddenly, the Panthers were closer to the NFC South lead than they were to the first overall pick.

“Circle the wagons and come together,” said interim coach Steve Wilks, who made a statement that he deserved consideration for the permanent job after getting his undermanned team to turn in their best effort of the season. “That definitely wasn’t a team out there today that was trying to tank it. These guys right here have come together. They believe in one another and it’s about trying to win football games.”

Ironically, after weeks of now-fired head coach Matt Rhule claiming that the Panthers were “close” to getting over the hump, the team had its breakthrough game after taking a big step backward.

All of which leaves the Panthers in no man’s land. There are plenty of other pieces on the current roster that could be dealt away to get more draft picks and accelerate the rebuild that is still necessary. But it’s tough for the front office to justify further depleting the roster.

Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible the Panthers had an emotional last-stand game, but the talent remaining on the Carolina roster makes a run to the playoffs unlikely, even in a division where a .500 record might be enough to finish first.

P.J. Walker had a big game, showing he had the accuracy to lead a team and was able to throw the deep ball. After two straight starts and some previous appearances off the bench, defensive coordinators have now amassed enough of a tape library to begin countering what he does well.

Backup running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard had big games against the Buccaneers, but carrying the rushing load for the rest of the season seems like a big ask.

If the career backups revert to form, the team could struggle through a lackluster season instead of being truly terrible. That means a possible 5-12 season and a draft spot in the bottom half of the top 10 instead of first overall. Have a season that’s blah to draft someone from UGA, perhaps.

Still, the team’s refusal to tank, even when the front office appears to be pushing it in that direction, is a big argument in favor of retaining Wilks. The former Arizona head coach is part of the Brian Flores lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of minority coaches who weren’t given a fair opportunity due to discrimination. Flores allegedly turned down offers of a six-figure bribe for each loss he coached the Dolphins to in 2019. Now Wilks is showing a similar fighting spirit, which rubs off on his players.

“It didn’t bother me,” Wilks said of the tank talk, “because I really keep my focus on the men in this room right here each and every day. But I just want to put it out there and let you know these men in this room have too much character to even dive into something like that.”

“It was a lot of pride,” Walker said after beating Brady. “You know the guys around, and you can just feel the energy as you came into this building today. You just feel the energy. You feel the vibe of us wanting to go out there and play this game. We talked last night in our team meeting about making that jump, and today we did.”

When the Panthers are again contending for a playoff spot, it’s possible Walker will have moved on, along with many of the other players now getting an opportunity this season. But the team might have found its first key to success in the coach who put his hand up and stopped the tank’s progress.

“I told the guys, ‘Men, we’ve got to go out there with a leap of faith and believe in one another and know that we can get this thing done. Once we do, we will take off,’” Wilks said. “That was the point of emphasis and guys really bought into that.”