clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Panthers vs Saints preview: Three storylines to watch

One last look at the 2022 Carolina Panthers in action

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

This column began as a way to focus attention on each week’s game, an effort to make sense of a win or a loss in the context of the season as a whole. I started it because I didn’t expect the 2022 Carolina Panthers to be particularly successful and I thought that having concrete things to watch for beyond “being good” might make the season more enjoyable. It turns out that the Panthers weren’t particularly good across the whole season, but little else that I predicted came true.

Still, the season is over and there isn’t much left to be said for Wilks that would qualify as new. That goes for Sam Darnold as well, who has raised a few eyebrows with consistent and generally positive play across his five starts this season. But, let’s try.anyway. These are the loud stories that have a chance to bear consequences for the 2023 season. And then there’s the Panthers offensive line, which has quietly been a strength of the team this whole season. These are the three things that I am watching as the Panthers wrap up their ever unpredictable 2022 season.

Let’s start with the coach.

Interim head coach Steve Wilks confounded all late season expectations for this team. His 5-6 record in 11 games matched his predecessor’s win mark through each of Rhule’s two full seasons. Today he has a chance to pass it while leading a team whose staff he had little influence on hiring and whose roster he had less influence in constructing. He is in the position he is now because he took another man’s broken nothing and has turned it into something that we can all recognize as an NFL team. That is, to my eyes, an incredible job.

For fans of his, a word of caution. He can’t be offered the job tomorrow unless the Panthers have kept a number of actions well below the radar. The NFL’s Rooney Rule requirers the team to interview two external minority candidates for a head coach position. That’ll take a little time, even if Tepper has shockingly decided that Wilks is the guy and has no interest in taking a look at the field.

I say “shockingly” because nobody should want this to be a single focus search. The last head coach search zeroed in on a guy pretty quickly and then featured a maniacal, meatball filled escapade to secure him. That ultimately led us back here.

This time around, we can expect—or at least hope—Tepper will lead a more comprehensive candidate search that asks penetrating questions. Questions like “have you ever seen an NFL game?” or “do you have any schematic philosophies that go deeper than ‘make ballman go fast?’.” Such questions and more like them could illuminate that charlatans that will inevitably make their way into the building.

Now, this has dragged us a bit away from why we are watching Wilks at the game today. Last week he drew criticism for how he managed the game. There were, specifically, defensive adjustments that were unable to cope with Mike Evans and a few fourth down calls on offense that left fans disappointed.

This is Wilks’ last chance to respond to that criticism. It is the last advantage he will get over any other candidate seeking the full time head coach job in Charlotte. From here out it is all interviews and pitches about his (probably) new staff.

Do we still Fear the Beard?

The thing that strikes me the most about Bearded Darnold, the Panthers new and unrecognizable starting quarterback is that he is actually incredibly recognizable as both the Sam who went 3-0 to start 2021 and the Darnold who flamed out of the starting job in the weeks thereafter. The same flaws are there, the same potential is there. If anything, the biggest change is that he is more self aware.

That awareness has created a consistency that, along with a drastically improved running game, has allowed the Panthers offense to stay on schedule more often since removing Rhule’s influence. Consistency translates to scoring drives which, occasionally, has translated to wins. That is why the Panthers are only considered to be -3.5 point road underdogs by DraftKings Sportsbook to a Saints team that has been playing shockingly well of late.

That isn’t to say that Darnold has been ‘fixed’. His processing time is still concerningly slow and he still has a tendency to slightly under throw some of his later deep balls. It has simply been less noticeable behind a much improved offensive line unit.

He isn’t perfect by any means and I think we have glimpsed his ceiling outside of a situation that features head coach and offensive coordinator stability and familiarity that stretches on for multiple seasons. Still, there is something here to work with. Another relatively mistake-free game today could elevate his stock going into the offseason. He would make a great, cheap back up to a rookie quarterback on any team next year at the very least. At the most, for all you sickos out there, he might even impress some team desperate for a starter that he could be just that. That leaves open the door for a potential compensatory draft pick.

Oh, the Hog Mollies

The Carolina Panthers offensive line in 2022 has been nothing short of a marvel when compared to years past. Taylor Moton, Austin Corbett, Brady Christensen, and Ickem Ekwonu have played every snap this season. Center Bradley Bozeman has played every snap since Pat Elflein went on injured reserve in Week 7. Offensive line coach James Campen has worked nothing short of a miracle and should be retained by any new head coach who walks in the door. Campen gets his guys and they clearly play for him. This is one of those “if ain’t broke” situations that should be obvious to any new regime.

The most incredible thing about this unit is that, with the exception of Bozeman, they are all under contract through at least the 2024 season. Bozeman should be a priority free agent for this team. His signing would give the Panthers the opportunity for stability along the line for the first time since Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton retired. This would even surpass that era.

I’m watching today’s game with a prayer for the health of every one of these guys, but also because I want to see them take a seat for a few plays and see what younger guys like Cade Mays and Sam Tecklenburg can do with a few snaps of their own.