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The Optimist: Everything changes now

The 2022 season is over, and the Panthers have every opportunity for change in front of them between now and the 2023 season.

Carolina Panthers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jane Gershovich/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers saw the 2023 season out with a win over the New Orleans Saints, and it only cost them one spot in the 2023 NFL draft. You’d have to be trying to complain about that. It was a wild season, made all the more so by the moderate successes of interim head coach Steve Wilks and the remarkably quiet—until yesterday—play of Sam Darnold in the latter half of the season.

Panthers fans were in a race for the number one overall pick when former head coach Matt Rhule was fired after a Week 5 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. They saw their best overall player, Christian McCaffrey, traded to those same 49ers in the middle of Week 7. Then they got to watch an interim head coach win more games in 12 tries than they had seen the Panthers win in a whole season since 2018.

Wilks, along with a rotating cast of quarterbacks and a cascading series of defensive injuries, swept the Saints, ended the season with a 4-2 record in the NFC South, contended for the division title, and generally kept the Panthers fun to watch. We’re going to make the arguments for and against keeping Wilks later, but it would be hard to do an end-of-season column without referencing Tepper’s own words when Wilks was promoted. He said that the interim head coach would have to do an “incredible job” to get a shot at removing the interim tag. I’d call this season incredible.

Whether or not Wilks gets the job, somebody is going to come in and shake up most of the organization housed at Bank of America Stadium. New coaches and new philosophies will change much of what has become familiar about the Carolina Panthers. This team could stay a ground-and-pound on offense, soft-zone on defense team (the horror!) or it could evolve overnight into a high flying aerial assault with an afterthought for the defense.

Truly, anything could happen, which is why we are going to focus our coverage here on the head coaching search until such time as a hire is formally made. After all, it’ll be hard to analyze the draft until we know who is leading the team. A new head coach hopefully won’t have the same power over the draft that Rhule did, but he should still have some heavy influence on the players he wants to coach.

The search for the next head coach is also the most monumental event the Panthers will be a part of this off season. Talent is, by design, relatively even across the league. Coaching makes the difference in most games as it is the only part of the game that is not subjected to a draft or a salary cap. There are haves and have-nots in the league when it comes to leadership and the Panthers and Panthers fans are more keenly aware of that after two-and-a-half years of Rhule than they ever have been.

The ultimate decision on who will next lead this team comes down to owner David Tepper. He picked up the shiny object last time around instead of investigating substance. Now is his chance to show growth and maturity after four-and-a-half years and a lot of turmoil in his ownership of the Panthers.

I don’t know what he is going to do or what he really wants in a next head coach. I can imagine that he wants a safer hire than a college head coach. He probably is looking for an experienced voice that has some understanding of success. More than anything, he wants a strong hire who will keep him out of press conferences for a couple of years.

Maybe he wants actual NFL head coaching experience. Maybe Tepper wants a bold, young coordinator to redefine the Panthers offense, the next Sean McVay. Maybe he wants actual Sean McVay.

Uncertainty about what, exactly, comes next is a feeling we all got familiar with while watching this team in 2022. It’s a comfortable feeling to start the offseason with, but also one that presages optimism. Not because I am 100% confident that the next head coach is going to be “the guy” who takes the Panthers to their third Super Bowl, but because I’m confident that Tepper has learned something in the last few years. I’m confident that the next hire will be better than Rhule. The Panthers are about to take a step forward, probably quite soon, and that step is going to give us some degree of certainty about what the near future will look like.

That’s not something that we, as fans, have had in a long time. Not since Cam Newton’s shoulder injury in 2018 started the downward spiral that brought us to where we are now. It is finally, hopefully, time for the Carolina Panthers to open a new chapter.