CHARLOTTE — This could potentially be the shortest Mailbag in the history of Mailbags.
Because, in a sense, the answer to every question is some version of "depends on who the next coach is."
But there are still plenty of pressing questions, other than the elephant in the room (there's a whole zoo full of them, really, based on the volume of mail we're getting here). (Also, if you've been reading this 'Bag for any amount of time, you also know the short ones are still long.)
That elephant is obviously an important one and one we don't know the answer to yet — for a fairly important reason.
The Panthers are engaging in a more robust process to find a head coach this time, which can't hurt.
The Matt Rhule hiring was finalized on Jan. 7, 2020. Today's the 17th, and they're not yet finished with the first round of interviews. They had a four-week head start in 2020 after firing Ron Rivera with a month left in the regular season, and they ostensibly had a three-month head start this time. But this time, there's a lot more legwork, a lot more phone calls, a lot more research. And there are also a lot more qualified candidates.
Steve Wilks made his case by going 6-6 with someone else's stuff, going 4-1 at home, and developing both a personality on the field and the trust of the locker room. Frank Reich is a very good head coach and the original Panthers quarterback, who has a Super Bowl ring as a coordinator and a reputation for developing quarterbacks. Jim Caldwell is a guy who took the Lions to the playoffs, and has five winning seasons in seven years (and the two losing seasons include the Peyton Manning injury year with the Colts).
And those aren't even the names that generate big internet buzz.
That's a long way of saying, this is a much deeper and more solid group than the last time. Will it yield a better result? We'll see. Depends on who the next coach is. But the one thing that's clear is this process is different.
Hi there! I am sure that you may have been asked this question many times, but I wanted to know how long we will have to wait to find out whether the team will keep coach Wilks as the permanent head coach of our beloved Carolina Panthers? — MarCella, Belville, NC
It appears that David Tepper has no intention of making Steve Wilks our head coach. Is Wilks a candidate for another team? Wouldn't it be ironic if he came back as head coach for an opponent and beat us? — Tom, Florence, AL
MarCella's in a hurry, and it's worth reminding people if they announced a hire today, it would be the first coaching vacancy filled in the league. These things take time if done right.
I'm not sure I agree with Tom's thesis, because no one would be immune to seeing what Wilks did with this team over the final 12 games. Wilks made himself a candidate, and a serious one.
But an owner is obligated to do a thorough search, and when you look at the list of names, it's clear that there are a lot of offensive guys also in the conversation. It's reasonable and justified to talk to them all.
It is a little curious to me that no other teams have requested to talk to Wilks, but owners get to make their own decisions. If you wanted to say the Panthers were a bad luck Jaycee Horn broken wrist away from the playoffs, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. And taking a 1-4 team with a quarterback issue and dragging them to that point took some doing. That is not lost on people in the room.
Hi Darin, I'm a first-timer for A.T.O.G . My question/ statement is, why are the Panthers front office so in love with these one-hit-wonder OCs for head coach? Have they forgotten about the last time they hired a one-hit wonder from LSU? — Brandon, Kernersville, NC
Again, if you're going to do a search, do a thorough one. That means talking to a lot of people and getting a lot of different perspectives.
One of the challenges in times like these is separating the wheat from the chaff in terms of who someone might be "in love with." This process hasn't reached its endpoint, so the perception of who might be in favor might not match the reality. We'll see.
Also, Joe Brady catching strays seems a little unfair. He's a really smart young coach, and he's part of a good program in Buffalo now, and he'll be better for the experience. Time may tell us a different story down the road, and it might not have all been his fault.
Congratulations on an outstanding job of keeping readers up with so much news and analysis this season. The backpack of drama you lugged around all over the country was impressive, and I think unpacking the whole thing in review might be a worthy long-piece project.
In the meantime, a couple of career bookend items. 1. CJ Henderson's future with the Panthers and your thoughts on his value, effort, and locker room fit. 2. After that first whiff, how did my old favorite, Josh Norman, play ball? He led the team in tackles and played 100 percent of the snaps and was always smiling, but beyond that, would love to read your review. Thanks again for another great season. — Randall, Old Fort, NC
Thanks, Randall; the 2022 Panthers season certainly contained multitudes. Summing the calendar year up on New Year's Eve was a project unto itself, but that left out a couple of pretty important chapters of the story. And yes, it was a lot, that last year.
So is trying to put a bow on those two players you asked about.
Henderson is ultra-talented. That's why people draft players like him in the top 10, trade for him, and keep him in the lineup. But he also has to be coached up. There were reasons Wilks did what he did with the staff after becoming interim coach, but they were short-handed in the secondary late in the year (Wilks and interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb were out there coaching guys individually during one-on-ones and that's not normal).
The Tampa Bay game wasn't a good one for Henderson and leaving without talking to reporters after a bad game is never a good look. But he rebounded against the Saints and made a couple of plays that were alarming in the other direction. Henderson recovered from a slip, got up, chased Saints wideout Chris Olave down from behind, and punched the ball away and directly into the arms of safety Xavier Woods. That kept at least a field goal off the board. Henderson also got a hand on the late field goal attempt by the Saints that day which gave the Panthers the opportunity to win. It got lost in the wash of the previous week, and the team immediately entering a coaching search, but it was a solid recovery on an individual level for Henderson.
And hey, he's under contract at a reasonable rate for next year ($3.4 million), so there's no reason not to keep him around. Picking up his fifth-year option for 2024 is a different question, but for next year, sure. But I'd also fully and capably staff the secondary room to make sure valuable pieces like him and Horn have the kind of everyday attention from a quality coach they need.
As for Norman, he actually played decently against the Saints (after that first drive when it looked like they were going to target him relentlessly). But 35-year-old corners are rare for a reason. I don't want to insult the man because I think bringing him in was a worthwhile idea, and I think the young DBs benefitted from having him around (the way they did from Stephon Gilmore last year). It's just hard to project to the future for a guy with so much past behind him.
But asked if he wanted to play in 2023, Norman answered quickly and confidently: "I know I still can."
So first, let me start by saying I may not be an "OLD" guy, but I was born in Winston-Salem in September of 1988 and grew up just outside downtown Charlotte, so I can sorta remember bits and pieces of day one Panthers. Mainly I remember taking part in the Billy Graham event and being a young whipper snapper singing gospel on the Ericsson Stadium field. I remember the highs of our first win ever, the now famous X-Clown play (I know it's not your fault, but Mr. Smith got shafted due to being so good on a subpar team), and of course, the highs of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera age. With the highs comes the lows like the embarrassing and horrendous 1-15 season and Mr. Sam Mills being diagnosed with cancer. Sorry I could talk mirth and misery of my beloved Panthers all day. OK so I'm guessing I need to actually ask a question, so here goes:
That long intro leads to my question, I know the NFL is tough but are we the only team in the league to never have back-to-back winning seasons? Do you have any thoughts or beliefs as to why we don't? — Chris, Thomasville, GA
That's a lot to unpack. Then again, so is the history of this football team. But letters like this one underscore the connection sports teams have with fans, which runs deeper than purchasers of other consumer goods. Those communal experiences, whether they're a tent revival or a ball game, are what bring people back and hold them together. Those things last.
And as to the actual question, yes, it's correct. The Panthers have not had back-to-back winning seasons, and every other current team in the NFL has had at least one such instance before. What I can also suggest is I'm not sure that's the most reliable way to measure success.
I remember having this argument with Mark Packer at the local sports talk radio station back in the mid-2000s when the team was about 10 years old. It felt arbitrary then, and it still does. Back then, the only thing that kept the Panthers from having back-to-back-to-back winning seasons was Steve Smith breaking his leg in the 2004 opener and the team getting off to a 1-7 start because of it. They went to a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship Game on either side of it. So was that a good team? Of course, it was. It was just unfortunate. But Mark kept beating that drum, and a lot of people listened to him. Mark is very good at sports talk and also drum-beating, and I admire his stamina.
Also, the Panthers won 34 games and three straight division titles from 2013-15. Was that run invalidated because they went 7-8-1 in the middle of it? If they'd have gone 9-7 two years in a row but never made it out of the wild card round and then went a decade without going to the playoffs, would that be better?
Obviously, you'd always prefer consistent success, but the league doesn't work that way for many teams.
It took the Falcons 42 years before they ever did it for the first time in 2016 and 2017, and the fact the Jaguars did it in 2004-05 doesn't change the fact they're also about 35 games worse than the Panthers over the same 28 seasons they've been in business. The Browns last did it in 1988-89, so I guess if you count them as "the new Browns," they haven't either. The Cardinals had back-to-back winning seasons in 2014-15, but they're also 581-790-41 all-time (.424).
It's a real stat, and it ain't great, but it's just weird to me that it's the only thing some people latch onto. The Panthers are 212-237-1 in 28 seasons (.472 winning percentage). The team immediately above them on the all-time winning percentage list is Buffalo (462-495-8 .483). The teams below them on the list include the entire NFC South (New Orleans 403-460-5 .467, Atlanta 383-493-6 .437, and Tampa Bay 299-442-1 .404), along with the Bengals, Lions, Jets, Cardinals, Texans, and Jaguars.
It could be worse. It could be better. It is, as the wise Eastern philosopher John Fox said, what it is. But the dispersal of winning seasons seems less important to me than their frequency or intensity.
What do you deem as more important, a run-stuffing defensive tackle or an edge rusher who can get after the quarterback? Also, pancakes or waffles? — Eric, Brick, NJ
Not everything should be considered an economic good, subject to the vagaries of the laws of supply and demand. But when you look at how much they cost, it's clear that pass-rushers have a higher value because there are a lot fewer of them.
In the context of the Panthers, as presently constructed, there's a decent argument to be had. A wide-body next to Derrick Brown (who is coming into his own as an impact player) would be helpful and would make it easier for whoever is playing linebacker next year to move around.
A pass-rusher opposite Brian Burns would be fantastic, as long as he's more prototypically sized. Haason Reddick had a great year here in 2021 and is having a better year for the Eagles. But when your two defensive ends stand on a scale together and can't make it say 500 pounds (or, I suppose ouch; I mean, scales have feelings, too) that can also be a problem. The Panthers struggled to stop the run in 2021. They were better at it this year but could stand to improve again.
So I suppose, as with the question of delicious breakfast carbohydrates, the best answer would probably be, "Why not both?" If you can find a pass rusher in the draft, take him. There are a lot more defensive tackles available this year, and that's a spot where it's easier (and cheaper) to find a veteran answer.
Hey DG, it was nice to hear you on the radio pregame, as always, last weekend! OK, a few things on my mind right now. . . . Since we are now drafting at 9, Stroud and Young are out of the picture, and as much as I like AR-15's potential, I'm just not sure we need another project at QB. I am not a fan of Levis at all. So should we make a play for Derek Carr, or throw everything at Lamar Jackson for our QB, or is there another vet option minus Carson Wentz. I just don't want to go through another season with Sam Darnold as QB1. I think he's reached his ceiling, and that won't get us to the Super Bowl.
Finally, how much of a splash will we be able to try and make in free agency? I keep seeing sites saying we are like MEGA over the cap at the moment. OK, mind cleared, talk to you soon, my friend! — Alan, Indian Trail, NC
There was more of Alan's letter, covering a lot of the same coaching search ground as above. In fact, Alan's like a kid coming home from college. He brought all the laundry and didn't really spend much time sorting it.
The quarterback stuff, we can't really offer an intelligent opinion on until we know who the head coach is going to be. I know that doesn't stop many people from offering opinions anyway, but we're trying to climb high mountains here because the view is so much better from up there.
Also, offering opinions on the salary cap situation of teams is also tricky, without context. The important part, and we talked about this 100 years ago back in October, is that the Panthers already have a lot of the key (and expensive) positions filled.
You don't need a ton of cap room when you have an elite pass-rusher like Burns, a lockdown cornerback like Horn, an anchor interior defensive lineman like Brown, and a left tackle in Ikem Ekwonu on rookie-scale deals. Plus, a standout receiver in DJ Moore, who was locked up at a time when contracts at that position were going bananas. Sure, they need quarterbacks since the only one under contract is Matt Corral, but a lot of the heavy lifting is already done.
And there are things that will create cap room in the coming months. An extension for Burns would be expensive, but it would make his current cap charge go down, not up. At the moment, linebacker Shaq Thompson is carrying a $24 million cap number for 2023, the final year of the extension he signed in 2019. And Thompson is a smart man. He seems aware that might not be a number the Panthers want to leave on the books in its current form. That's why in the aftermath of the Saints game, he made his point fiscally clear.
"I got one more year. So I'm going to be here. I want to retire as a Carolina Panther," he said. "I understand we have a lot of guys to pay. So let's pay these guys and run this back. I hope we keep everybody. To build a great team, you got to keep the pieces and just build on them."
"I understand we have a lot of guys to pay," was the operative part of that paragraph, and Thompson also understands the business well enough to know the money always has to come from somewhere.
That's a long way of saying the salary cap isn't going to be the thing that keeps the Panthers from doing what they want to do this offseason. There's a little bit of pruning to do (not much), but the shell of this thing is largely together (other than the coach and the quarterback, no big deal).
How do you and other knowledgeable people rate Scott Fitterer's player draft, trade, and free agent evaluations, given the modest length of service and the reputedly high level of influence that Matt Rhule had? — Sheldon, Apex, NC
I like that. Sheldon writes a nice, concise, densely packed question that includes all the variables. Also, he's not afraid to kiss up to the host by implying that he's a knowledgeable person (reasonable minds can disagree). Combined, that's enough to make him this week's Friend Of The Mailbag, and we'll get the appropriate honorarium on the way soon.
It's hard to separate things in a collaborative environment and give this person credit for Player X and this person the blame for Player Y, especially when the structure has changed the last few years.
I can tell you that Fitterer is well-regarded among other evaluators (and that can be a catty and gossipy group) and respected among agents (which is hard to pull off unless you're the one who always gives their clients money).
Fitterer is, at heart, an old road scout, one who is far more comfortable watching film or practices than sitting in board rooms. But he knows how to communicate with people, and that's what a general manager has to do.
He's also added layers to the scouting system here, and modernized the process. They have more smart people in the room now, and they have the hardware they need to do their jobs.
When you say stuff like "in on every deal," you run the risk of becoming a caricature because some people will think you're only wired one way, but Fitterer has shown the ability to be aggressive (trading everything in sight in 2021) and also patient when the time comes (slow-playing the QB market last spring, not overpaying for Baker Mayfield, and letting Corral come to him late in the third round).
That suggests a certain flexibility of mind, and that's what you have to have to do that job well.
Let's go lightning round, brought to you by the patron saint of the lightning round Jeff from Fuquay-Varina, to close it out this week.
Married-in, overseas Panthers fan here. (My wife is from Charlotte, I'm from Canada, and we live in Australia.) In the following scenario, Dave Tepper realizes the football genius that is Darin Gantt and hires you as both coach and GM. Which positions would you plan to address with the first three draft picks, and which players would you have realistic hopes of drafting at those positions? Or would you try to trade up? — Dan, Australia
My first move would be to give myself a raise and a contract extension. Then, I'd hire a coach and an actual GM because those jobs are hard.
But given your stipulations, I'd be looking hard for another pass-rusher, an impact offensive playmaker (WR or TE, or, depending on the guy, RB), and young linebackers who can run. That's where I'd start. I know QB isn't on my list. I'm not ignoring it; just not sure I love the value at No. 9 if that's where I continue to pick (but I might not).
Can we please get a petition to get PJ Walker more reps at QB? I've watched all the film from all QBs, watched the breakdowns, and as a long-time 23-year-old Panther fan that's played football, I know that he can lead this team to victory next year. So if you could put it in David Tepper's ear and Scott Fitterer's that we don't need to get a QB, we have PJ, Matt Corral, and Sam. PJ deserves to be starting, and Wilks deserves to be our head coach. The fans have spoken. — Jacobee, North Charleston, SC
Petitions never work, for anything. But I guess they make people feel better, and I'm all for free speech. But when I woke up this morning, I wasn't expecting this passionate of a defense of PJ Walker (who is a restricted free agent).
Should the Hornets fire Steve Clifford? — Zach, Charlotte
Nah, Steve's a good coach. Maybe they should try listening to him instead. Besides, I only have room in my head for one coaching search at a time. Also, GO BACK TO CLASS, ZACH.
How long will our O-linemen who got hurt in New Orleans be out? — Bob, Charlotte
We'll know more after they get through their surgeries this week. Left guard Brady Christensen's is the shorter recovery of the two. He's having surgery Tuesday on his broken ankle and thinks he could be back on the field during OTAs. Right guard Austin Corbett is getting his torn ACL repaired this week, but if it takes him nine months, that's pushing up against the start of the regular season. Be glad they have Cade Mays, and they should go find some more depth to go with him.
Greetings from Boone! I'm with you; Darnold has the potential to be a serviceable NFL quarterback. However, his turnovers are concerning. He seemed to have them under control his first few games back but had several bad interceptions and fumbles in the last two starts. Will that keep him from a shot at starting QB next season? — Bill, Vilas, NC
Sam played himself into a shot at a starting job (here or somewhere) with his play over the last six weeks of the season. Amazing what giving him an offensive line can do.
But as with everything, it depends on the next coach. (He said, for the last time this week, and at the end of the longest shortest Mailbag ever).