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Monday Morning Optimist: I believed

I believed in Steve Wilks. I still do, too.

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers have officially been eliminated from the 2022-3 playoffs. Not winning took them out of the division title race and not forcing a tie eliminated them from wild card contention. It’s a big let down after weeks of building momentum towards an aggressively improbable outcome.

Let’s talk about the game itself first. The Panthers lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Jaycee Horn broke his wrist during the fourth quarter of last week’s game against the Detroit Lions. The NFC South champion Bucs took advantage of the tall and fast Mike Evans against a collection of Panthers cornerbacks who are not both, if either, of those things.

Carolina’s defense held up remarkably well on the occasions when the Bucs did not target Mike Evans deep. When they did remember their insurmountable mismatch, the Bucs generally scored. Evans caught three of four deep targets for 150 yards and three touchdowns. They scored one touchdown off of a turnover in the Panthers own red zone and otherwise didn’t find much success with the ball in Tom Brady’s hands. They had two 15-play drives that resulted in zero points: one field goal missed and another blocked.

Evans was the difference in this game. Responsibility does not get more clearly distributed than that in the NFL. Yes, Darnold turned the ball over three times. But the Bucs only got ten points off them, including a dagger touchdown when the ball was fumbled at the Panthers six yard line. Darnold made mistakes and had bad luck, and the Panthers still would have won if they could have covered Mike Evans.

So, there’s the season.

Lost to bad injury luck. Not to bad coaching. Not to bad quarterback play. Not because they traded away their best player. All of those things certainly happened, but interim head coach Steve Wilks kept his team together in spite of it all. He had the Panthers in position to win the NFC South after inheriting a 1-4 team in the middle of a west coast road trip.

The NFL places a lot of public emphasis on the idea of parity. It is behind the playoff seeding system, the draft order, even the regular season scheduling process. They want evenly matched games all season long. The parity they strive for places a relatively even level of talent across the league. No one team, barring terrible management (See: Texans, Houston), can be outrageously worse than the rest of the league. Coaching, the one scale the NFL keeps its fingers largely off of, decides the games.

The Panthers started the 2022 NFL season with a demonstrably bad coach and proceeded to reaffirm that evaluation by going 1-4 through the first five games. Wilks took over and kept even with the rest of the schedule, going 5-6 over the 11 games he has coached. He did that with less preparation than any other coach in the league. He effectively walked into a building where he knew one position group and, at most, some other people’s names and pulled together a competitive team on the fly.

That’s not a result of platitudes or storybook luck, Wilks took these Panthers to a place they thought was beyond reach and he did it by displaying a level of football acumen and leadership that has been missing from the Carolinas for years. If this league is decided by coaching then Wilks showed he belongs.

I was tired of Matt Rhule about half way through last season when his penchant for throwing players under the bus seemed to outshine his ability to win games. He was just better at one of those activities. I wrote this season off as soon as Rhule was retained as head coach following the 2021 season. It wasn’t just that I thought Rhule was going to lead the Panthers to a last place finish in the division, it was that the track record for interim head coaches is so poor that I had no faith in anyone’s ability to resurrect the 2022 Panthers and turn them into an enjoyable product.

Wilks not only brought culture and fun back to Charlotte on Sundays, he brought back hope. The Panthers hadn’t played in a meaningful December game since 2017, let alone a meaningful January game. Arguments could be made for November. Wilks took this team from the brink of irrelevance and made me believe, right up until the last week of the season, that they had a chance.

I’ll say it again, because it is incredible to me: I believed in the 2022 Carolina Panthers.

Wilks is as responsible for that sentiment this season as Evans is for his three touchdowns yesterday. Which is to say that there was a whole team underscoring the event, but superlative individual effort made all the difference in the world.

Sure, the Panthers aren’t going to the playoffs and we’re going to have to start talking about the draft soon. But I won’t do it yet. We should all take a beat this week and enjoy being disappointed in not finishing first in the division. It’s a damn sight better than the general apathy we thought we’d feel right now about finishing last again.