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Monday Morning Optimist: A coach in the hand is worth a quarterback in the draft

The Panthers have a long list of to dos before the 2023 season. Here is one item they can check off right now.

Denver Broncos v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers are not a good team, but they did do the first thing that good teams have to do: they took care of business against a bad team. The game was never really in doubt after the teams traded an initial salvo of punts. The Panthers faked a punt on fourth and short, scored a touchdown a few plays later for the first score of the game, and never looked back. They never trailed in this game. This is what getting better looks like. Successfully doing things that are expected of good teams, things that these same Panthers weren’t capable of as recently as a few weeks ago. That improvement comes down to one factor: the leadership of Steve Wilks.

A coach matters nearly as much as a quarterback does and as the Panthers play themselves out of contention for the cream of the 2023 draft crop they are discovering that they do have a head coach. Time will tell if team owner David Tepper keeps him, but the effect that Wilks has had on this team over time is undeniable. Last week they took the Baltimore Ravens down to the wire and this week they looked like the only pro team on the field against Russell Wilson’s hapless Denver Broncos. All of this they did with a few weeks of taking their licks against a variety of teams and with no consistency or quality at the quarterback position to speak of.

Sam Darnold was 11/19 for 134 yards and one touchdown through the air. He also ‘added’ three carries for three yards and a touchdown on the ground. Those are hardly world breaking numbers, but they were enough and impressive enough in their own right against one of the top defenses in the NFL. The Panthers offense combined for 46 carries for 185 yards. DJ Moore topped 100 yards receiving and D’Onta Foreman topped 100 yards rushing again. All of these stats are great in a win, until you notice that Darnold attempted fewer passes than the Panthers scored points.

He was as efficient yesterday as he needed to be, but he was also visibly slow in processing his reads and a faster a defense or tighter game would likely have pushed him into the type of mistakes that got him benched the first two times.

Wilks is clearly coaching a team that is greater than the sum of its parts and deserves all the praise for it. That dichotomy has too often been reversed in the history of the Carolina Panthers. Momentum was already building from within the organization for Wilks to retain the head coaching job next year. This win will do nothing to quell that support.

Questions still abound as to who Wilks would pursue for his own offensive coaching staff. Technically, I suppose current offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo could be a candidate for the job. However, since this a column about optimism, let’s assume that there will be positive change in that regard.

I’ll stake out this controversial real estate in Panthers punditry today: I’d rather have the right coach and the ongoing quest for a quarterback than the right quarterback and the wrong coach. Wilks may just be that coach.