Panthers must get it right twice in crucial offseason

Carolina can’t afford to miss again on its coaching and quarterback choices

Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks’ future with the team is uncertain, though he will be considered for the full-time job after leading Carolina to a 6-6 record after replacing Matt Rhule. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

During Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper’s ill-fated meeting with the media earlier this year, he emphasized the importance of creating a winning culture in Charlotte.

“I think that we have to figure out how to get a culture of winning here,” Tepper said, “which we haven’t had in a long time in this place. As I said at some point, this team has never had two winning seasons (in a row). So, I don’t really think it ever really had a culture of winning.”

The comments came after the team fired coach Matt Rhule five games into the season. Fan apathy was high, illustrated by a home game against San Francisco that saw far more people in the stands wearing 49ers gear than Panthers colors.

Tepper struggled, to put it mildly, in his press conference following the coaching change, at one point claiming that Charlotte didn’t have any live music before he brought it to the city with concerts at Bank of America Stadium. But his thoughts on a winning culture will be at top of mind as the team embarks on a pivotal offseason.

Carolina has plenty of holes to fill, and, as we saw with the last rebuilding effort under Rhule, the wrong decision can set the franchise back years.

The first decision facing Tepper and the Panthers is who will be the next man to run the show. The Panthers have been active early in their coaching search and will likely talk to more than a half-dozen candidates.

The man who currently holds the job is one of them. Interim coach Steve Wilks, a Charlotte native, led the Panthers to a 6-6 record, posting more wins in a partial season than Rhule did in either of his two full years on the job and becoming the first Panthers coach since 2017 to turn in a .500 or better record.

Despite Carolina trading away star running back Christian McCaffrey, Wilks was able to keep the team from surrendering to a lost season. The Panthers were in the playoff race in a weak NFC South until the final weeks of the season and showed fight and effort until the final gun sounded on the year. Wilks appears to be the choice of the locker room, and the culture he created in a very short time should be what Tepper is searching for.

If the Panthers choose to go with an outsider, it will come from a pool that includes former Colts coach Frank Reich, former Lions coach Jim Caldwell, and a group of offensive coordinators that includes the Lions’ Ben Johnson, the Eagles’ Shane Steichen, the Bills’ Ken Dorsey and the Giants’ Mike Kafka.

It certainly appears that the Panthers are focused on the offensive side of things, which could work against Wilks, but he said he planned to unveil a strong plan for that side of the ball in his interview. The team set single-game franchise records for yardage and rushing during Wilks’ term and had one of the top pass efficiency ratings under Wilks, so he certainly has a case.

Whoever gets the job will have some work to do with the roster. The trades of McCaffrey and receiver Robbie Anderson leave the team in a tough cap situation, so some cuts will likely have to be made. That’s especially true if the team wants to retain running back D’Onta Foreman, who had a breakout year taking over for McCaffrey, and center Bradley Bozeman, who was the team’s most reliable lineman.

Carolina then must address the most important position on the field — for the third year in a row. Since Cam Newton left town the first time, the Panthers have had a revolving door at quarterback, and, as this season showed, the team is in desperate need of a franchise passer.

Wilks made do with a smash-mouth rushing attack this season, but going forward, the Panthers will need a star quarterback to contend. Sam Darnold, acquired by trade before last season, hasn’t shown he is the answer, and Baker Mayfield, acquired prior to this year and already released, certainly wasn’t either. Given the team’s cap situation, the Panthers will likely need to find their future quarterback in the draft.

The Panthers hold the ninth overall pick. That will likely be too late to land Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, thought to be the top two quarterbacks in the class. The team will either need to be convinced that Kentucky’s Will Levis, Florida’s Anthony Richardson or Tennessee’s Herndon Hooker is the answer or find a way to move up.

Much like the coaching decision, the quarterback choice is one that’s far too important to get wrong. Again.

A culture of winning can only start after a culture of making the right decisions.