CHARLOTTE — It's that time of year when you dig around in the attic, find things you haven't used in a while, and drag them out to remind you of a simpler time.
No, not holiday decorations. Quarterbacks.
Going back to Baker Mayfield wasn't necessarily a matter of choice for the Panthers this week (since PJ Walker is the latest quarterback to suffer a high ankle sprain), but hey, it's Week 11, and here we are.
The interesting thing about him getting another chance this week is that things are certainly different than when we last saw him hobbling off the field against the 49ers.
For one thing, Christian McCaffrey is a 49er now, and they're actually running better (or at least more). But between that, the subtraction of Robbie Anderson, the addition of an interim head coach, and an offensive line that's starting to find itself, it's absolutely a different offense (as outlined here yesterday).
Will he play any better than he did early on? We'll find out. But this stint as a starter doesn't feel nearly as long-term as in this summer, when he won a weeks-long competition for the job, and the plan was for him to come in and play some league-average football. (Narrator voice: He did not play league-average football.)
But right now, the Panthers are in a very week-to-week spot, which is partially because that's what interim coach Steve Wilks has preached since taking over, a "win the day" message that people seem to have responded to.
So right now, Mayfield's getting under center, and things feel very different than the last time he did that. It's very retro, and would be more nostalgic if it went better the first time. But sometimes that's true of holidays too.
So let's knock the dust off this Mailbag, and see what's in there this week:
Good morning Darin. I know this is a big "if" but I've got to ask. Let's say Baker comes in and picks up where PJ left off. Is playing Baker more than 70 percent of the snaps worth a playoff push? Or will we likely see Sam Darnold? — Cody, Four Oaks, NC
Yeah, this question contains multitudes (which is kind of the theme for this season).
Cody's thesis begins with "where PJ left off" as a good thing, and it's worth remembering that a former XFL quarterback was playing better than the former No. 1 overall pick who won the preseason competition with Darnold (and not PJ).
And then there's the concept of "playoff push," which sounds weird, but hey, even the trashiest neighborhood can have an HOA, and somebody's got to be president of it, so the NFC South is going to send someone to the postseason regardless.
Cody also touches on the all-important future draft compensation as part of the trade that brought Mayfield here. As it stands, the Browns get the Panthers' 2024 fifth-round pick unless Mayfield plays 70 percent of their offensive snaps, in which case it's their 2024 fourth-rounder.
Right now, Mayfield is at about 55 percent of the snaps for the year, but there's about 41 percent of the season left (#math).
I don't necessarily think the playtime percentages, as it pertains to the trade, are really going to drive any decision-making about who plays the rest of the year. When there are so many interims around here (from the coach to pretty much all the quarterbacks), stuff that happens in 2024 isn't really the priority.
So if Mayfield caught hot and turned into the 2020 version of himself and they won the division and went roaring into the playoffs or something, I don't think the difference between a pick in the low 100s and a pick in the low 130s two years from now would be much of a factor in present-day decision-making. It's something, but not everything. As George Seifert once said, "I don't want to overstate it, but I also don't want to understate it." Or, as John Fox once said, "It is what it is."
All that said, I kind of expect to see Darnold at some point this year anyway, whether by accident or design. It's just that kind of year. But if he takes the field at some point Sunday or some point later this season, it probably won't be because they're afraid of giving up 32 spots worth of draft position; it will likely be because they want to see if he can play quarterback any better than what they've seen so far.
Hi Darin! Although most things in the NFL seem cyclical - teams hire a college coach, then an experienced NFL one, or a defensive coach, then an offensive one - here's hope that consideration is made to the importance of leadership and overview of the team on the next hire. I know that David Tepper probably had that in mind with the Matt Rhule hire (and in theory, he was right in looking for that), but I fear the pressure for an offensive wizard goes through. Not that an offensive-minded coach can't do those things, but it should be secondary to those other qualities. We can look at Mike Vrabel, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh as long-term examples of good coaches that don't have that sought-after "offensive genius" label (even Steve Wilks seems to be doing something along those lines also, . . if he were to be considered). Any thoughts? — Fernando, São Paulo, Brazil
Fernando's read this Mailbag enough to know that one of my true beliefs of coaching searches is "if the last one was fat, the next one will be skinny." And that often is the case, no matter who's doing the hiring or where. There's generally a reflex between the reason you fired a guy and what you're looking for in the next one.
The law of supply and demand applies here (there are more people looking for bright young offensive minds than there are bright young offensive minds). But the examples Fernando pointed to are valid.
What you want in a head coach is a good head coach. That's not the same as being a great play-caller (though that's a very important part of it). Great coaches like Tomlin and Harbaugh (and Vrabel appears to be on that track) are, first and foremost, executives — people who have the vision and personality to run an entire building. And there's no real handbook for doing that when all you've ever done is be an assistant coach. (That's also why I think teams should look at more special teams coaches such as Harbaugh, because they're the one assistant coach on every staff who has to deal with the entire roster, and their whole job is based on adapting on the fly to ever-changing conditions.)
There's a lot of projection involved in hiring a head coach. As Tepper said earlier this year, you have to take some risks sometimes, and there's no guarantee they work out.
But finding a great leader is definitely harder than finding a great X and O guy.
The other thing not enough people consider in coaching searches is what kind of staff the new guy is bringing with them. New guys often can't get all the assistants they want because they're under contract to other teams. So even if you find a coach you love, there's no guarantee he's going to be able to put together a staff he loves, at least not at first.
Whether any of this matters as it pertains to Wilks remains to be seen (and he knows from his days in Arizona that the staffing component is key). What I know for sure is that every day he's in the job as an interim is part of his resume now, and he's done some things lately that have gotten the attention of players and co-workers alike. He is positive yet direct, and also decisive, and clear in his messaging, and those are good things for a head coach to be. He's also 2-0 at home, and that doesn't hurt.
Love your work, huge fan. If Drake Maye were eligible for the '23 Draft, he'd be the Panthers' pick at QB, right? Is there any scenario you could see playing out where we don't go QB with our first available selection? — Tim, Charlotte
I'm just coming right out of the chute and making Tim this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and promising him the appropriate honorarium, and not just because he pandered to me (though that's one of the most powerful forces in the universe).
I'm making him the FOTM because he asked a question that I CAN'T BELIEVE NONE OF THE REST OF YOU COWARDS HAVE ASKED YET.
Seriously, you people are slipping. How has this not come up before now? This is like Julius Peppers times Stephon Gilmore to the power of Steve Wilks. This is a by-god homegrown first-round quarterback. I can't believe this hasn't melted the internet and finished killing off Charlotte Twitter already.
(No, really, I'm disappointed in all of you.)
The short answer is, there are a couple of other pretty good ones, but maybe, yeah.
Maye, of course, is not eligible to be drafted yet. He's not even eligible to buy a celebratory beer yet. You have to be three years out of high school to be able to be picked in the NFL Draft, so we've got another year to wait and wonder whether he will or he won't (and the Tar Heels get to enjoy having him). He appears to be quite good at football, and he's also the right size, so let's hope the world doesn't ruin him and he continues to get better.
As for this year's top pick, I could see a few scenarios in which the Panthers don't take one, including "they don't like any of the ones available when they're picking" or "somebody who is great at another premium position is better." It's far too soon to get into too many particular names (we have months for that), but a quick trip in the WABAC Machine (look it up, kids) reminds us of what can happen when you get too locked in on any one position.
In 2002, the expansion Texans, because "the quarterback is the most important position in football," used the first overall pick on quarterback David Carr. The Panthers settled for Julius Peppers. The Lions, because "the quarterback is the most important position in football," took Joey Harrington third.
One of those cats is going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday soon, and it ain't David Carr or Joey Harrington.
The only thing worse than not drafting a quarterback when you have the chance is drafting a bad one or drafting a decent one and breaking him.
Lots of fans have been talking about drafting a quarterback, but what if the answer is on another team? Although this probably wouldn't happen, I think (redacted hypothetical NFL quarterback on another team) could be a great fit with the Panthers. He has traditionally been good even with poor offensive lines, and with a good running game that we have, it could take a lot of pressure off him to do everything himself. I think the Panthers should at least think about using the draft capital they have to try and trade for (redacted hypothetical NFL quarterback on another team), but the front office is understandably wary about another QB trade. What are your thoughts on this? — Grant, Gahanna, OH
I'll use the classic front office crutch of "I can't talk about players on other rosters," just as a way to stay out of this particular rabbit hole.
This one has elements of the previous two questions in one. As we covered, according to Darin's First Law, the last guy being fat means the next one will likely be skinny. And Darin's Second Law would be that you have to draft a quarterback when you have a chance, except when you don't because that would be crazy.
It seems reasonable that the Panthers are drafting one high this year, simply because they haven't done that in a while. When you start down a path of dealing for veterans, it almost gets you on a rat wheel that leads you straight to the next one.
I mean, if the Panthers were able to acquire (redacted hypothetical NFL quarterback on another team) or (redacted hypothetical NFL quarterback on another team) right now, you'd do that, right?
They have to consider everything, and they also have to consider the way the quarterback market has changed. A casual watching of football last weekend reinforced something I have suspected for a while, which is THERE AREN'T MANY GOOD QUARTERBACKS ANY MORE. Like, at all. I count about eight actual good ones, maybe a dozen tops. In a related story, there are 32 teams. They don't all get one.
Some of the really good ones are either old or broken or both, and some of the ones that used to be good are stuck in bad spots and look either old or broken. That leaves a couple of very good young ones, but a lot of guys that make you say "eh."
The temptation to turn an "eh" into a "yeah!" is powerful. As the last three years have shown us, it's not always a productive path.
Which probably means they're going to draft one to get off that wheel. But there's also a finite amount of draftable ones (though a seemingly infinite amount of bad ones), so there's no guarantee that's going to work either.
If there's anything the United States needs right now, it's a steadier supply of affordable housing, clean energy and electric trucks, common decency, sane commentary, and quarterbacks. We, as a country, need to create more of all of the above.
I may be in the minority, but when are we going to switch to the black helmet permanently? And while we are on this topic, isn't it time to move away from the all-white uniform combination? — Paul, Wilmington, NC
Our color scheme is known as the Black and Blue, yet we hardly wear the blue jersey. Why don't we switch to wearing the blue jerseys in the hotter weather and switch to the black once it cools off? Make the whites the alternate. — Stephen, Mooresville, NC
You're not in the minority, Paul. Not at all. And yes, all-white's a tough look to pull off unless you're built like Jeremy Chinn. Linemen hate wearing all white, and as a fellow gentleman of stature, I concur.
I also have a feeling we could start a new mailbag of Ask The Uniform Guy and fill it up.
First off, the all-blacks last week were sweet. And as someone who is not a Uniform Guy, I still feel qualified to say that they were without a doubt cool. And I know I'm not the target demographic.
Those uniforms also started out cool (and the players thought so, too), but then you put them under the lights, and then it rained.
That created something cinematic. Look at this picture that the incredibly talented Chanelle Smith-Walker got of Xavier Woods. That's some National Geographic/Sports Illustrated kind of art right there. Seriously, look at that. Why wouldn't you want to look like that all the time (other than the being wet part)?
As we talked about last week, you only get to wear your alternates three times a year, and going all-black last week counted as one of them. Not dying of heat stroke in Washington in August took another one away, which leaves Tampa Bay at the end of the year as the only other blue jersey day.
Now, if black became the alternate and blue was the normal non-white one, you might have a little more latitude when it comes to adjusting to weather. But when you start changing things like that and helmet colors (and the helmet is the most marketable piece of real estate in the sports world), those decisions are getting made at the ownership and 345 Park Ave. level.
Re: Top 5 memories of past Panthers seasons: 1) January 1997, after beating Dallas Cowboys in their first-ever playoff game, the whole team came out of the locker room and circled the stadium high-fiving fans; 2) September 2003, Jake Delhomme comes in the second half of the Jacksonville game, brings the Panthers back from a huge deficit, throwing a fourth-down TD to Ricky Proehl to start a fabulous Super Bowl season; 3) February 2004, Moose catches the longest TD in Super Bowl history from Jake Delhomme in a most entertaining fourth quarter Super Bowl; 4) November 2013, third and 14 against New England, Cam Newton runs about 67 yards sideways back and forth to finally get a needed first down; 5) November 2015, Luke Kuechly intercepts Tony Romo on two consecutive offensive plays, taking the second one to the house while stiff-arming Romo out of the game on Thanksgiving.
I don't want to short Steve Smith in any of this. He deserves his own category. Thanks for letting me reflect on these memories. — Omer, Wilkesboro, NC
I knew when somebody asked about top moments last week that it would trigger stuff like this.
And I'm glad one of the long-timers like Omer sent this list in.
This is the good stuff right here. Thanks Omer.
Yo Darin! I am arguably the Panthers' BIGGEST (literally and figuratively) fan in Thailand, and I watch the games "live" in your future every week. That being because your 1:00 p.m. Sunday game is 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning for me. At 71, I might also be the oldest fan over here! I have opinions about all that is going on with the team, but I'll hold those for now as I hold out hope for this season to be salvaged.
My question is about the "illness" that has been listed on the injury report for the last few weeks. I'm wondering if the said illness was a possible factor in the Cincinnati game that affected many on the team, causing them to be lethargic and just a bit "out of it." Is it a concern going forward?
One last thing. I used to design and put on corporate picnics in NC and SC, where there were 2,000-5,000 attendees. My Mom and Dad cooked BBQ for me on-site overnight for these events. My Mom made the sauce and was quite famous for it. It was a vinegar and tomato base with chili pepper, brown sugar, etc. She willed the recipe to me, but alas I can't share a sample with you from over here. But believe me, Mom and Dad were quite popular in NC and SC as well as GA for their BBQ. Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving. Keep Pounding! — Tony, Chiang Rai, Thailand
This question makes me happy on many levels, beginning with the fact that Tony is from both a foreign country and the future. He's like a spaceman. No one is cooler than Tony from Thailand. He's grrreeeeat. (Note to self: That would be a great tagline for ads for a sugary children's cereal. Call marketing department when you finish writing this Mailbag. See if anyone else is on this yet.)
Tony also walks with a spirit of gratitude and has a good barbecue sauce story, and I love both of those, but he also asks a valid question.
In case you aren't around many children or know anyone in the healthcare industry, you might not have realized that like half the world is sick right now. COVID remains a thing, and so does the regular old flu and RSV and a lot of other stuff with scary names. So as with any population, stuff goes through a locker room, and they usually try to get the guys who come down with it out of there to keep it from spreading.
(Of course, these guys are also human beings with a right to privacy, so the world doesn't need to know their whole medical charts just because they might be on your fantasy team.)
But football teams aren't immune (pun not intended) from the same illnesses that go around any other workplace. I don't know if that explains why the Bengals beat the brakes off of them in the first half or not, but keeping people well is one of the challenges for every team this time of year, and for civilizations as a whole.
Let's go lightning round (brought to you by Jeff from Fuquay-Varina) to close it out this week:
Do you think that Donald will play again this year? — John, Greensboro, NC
Dang, the Rams are worse off than I thought.
What about Baker Mayfield? — Bill, Seabrook, TX
He's back. And helmeted this time.
Darin, I love the new black helmets, but unfortunately, the Panthers logo on the side gets lost. Are there any plans to change it later, adding a white outline around the logo to make it stand out more? — Jerry, Charlotte
Everybody's a fashion critic all of a sudden. I will forward Jerry's letter to Ask The Uniform Guy.
Lightning Round for Baltimore week. Who should I start as FLEX on my fantasy team this week, DJ Moore or D'Onta Foreman? — Chase, Greensboro, NC
You want a weird flex? I know Bill Voth. He loves your fantasy football questions. Send them to him at @PanthersBill while you still can.
How's David Gettis looking in practice? — Jeremy, Oak Ridge, NC
Ahhh, the classics, they never go out of style. That's why we drag them out of the attic every year around this time.