The Carolina Panthers are busy trying to make anything of value that they can out of a lost season. The defense has been good in some games and patchy in others, belying a mild talent and scheme mismatch on the one hand and an offense that does them no favors on the other. The offense has shown a steadily, until yesterday, improving running game that is held back by inconsistent and, at best, below average quarterback play. All of that is fine in a year where they fired their head coach. To be expected, even.
As fans, we can get excited about splash plays from rookie linebackers Amare Barno and Brandon Smith in the first half while not being too upset at the Ravens for pulling away with victory in the final minutes. Indeed, some fans certainly were happier to see the Panthers play a competitive game without also compromising their draft position.
In last week’s preview, I said the only thing that I really cared to see on Sunday was a Panthers team that showed up against the Baltimore Ravens. We’ve been talking for so long about young, flashing talent without seeing a hint of their capacity to compete against an actually good NFL team that I was starting to worry. “Talent” only matters when those with it can work together as a team. Wins against the Bucs, Falcons, and Saints did not qualify. Games like that against the Cincinnati Bengals were starting to feel more relevant.
Interim head coach Steve Wilks got the Panthers to more than show up against the Ravens. They never trailed by more than a field goal for the first 52:00 minutes of that game. Usually when I’m writing about that span of time in a Panthers game I’m writing about the time between first downs. This week was an actual game decided by a late turnover, the way actual games often are. A couple plays here or there and this could have been a very different story for either team. In the end, it was simply a far cry from the 13 point spread that had the Ravens favored at kickoff.
The Panthers season is well and truly dead at 3-8. That is no surprise at this point. Yet Wilks’ now 2-4 run as head coach has also proved that he is worth more than just a courtesy interview for the official title at the end of the season. He should have the confidence and the backing of ownership required to throw “competition” out of the window and focus on development. Those tackles for loss we saw from Barno and Smith in the first quarter will only come more frequently with more coaching and more playing time.
It’s time to get better for next year, regardless of who the head coach is. That the Panthers even could be better in 2023 is an outlook miles ahead of where they were when Matt Rhule was fired. It’s hard for me to believe, but I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m also looking forward to seeing what our guys can do with nothing left to lose (on the field). It won’t be a good home stretch of the season, but it certainly should be fun.