CHARLOTTE — It's kind of a weird experience, watching a team play out the string.
Also, it's weird because up until last Sunday, the Panthers weren't playing out the string for the first time in a long time.
The emotions of the Panthers crashing out of the playoffs with last week's loss to the Buccaneers were heightened because they had been playing football that mattered in December for the first time since 2017. That's why the locker room last week felt like something meaningful had ended — because it had.
Say what you want about the 2022 Panthers — they entered the season a flawed team, and they remained one — but they made things interesting, and made a run, and made people notice, and made people care.
But then a day later, life intervened, and the NFL came to a halt.
Monday night, the football world stopped all at once to pray for Damar Hamlin. It was a profoundly moving event, and the best news of the week is that the person whose job is Bills safety is apparently making positive strides in his recovery from a cardiac arrest on the field. The images that came out of Cincinnati hit everyone in the business differently because they carried their own perspectives into it. Whether it was a family member who died of heart issues or guys who know Hamlin or played with him — or just have jobs in the same buildings — it is normal and human to feel deeply about what they saw. Augusta Stone did a good job here of describing the conflict some in the Panthers locker room felt and the deep emotions of the day. And it caused us to hit pause here at Panthers.com for a day or so, because writing a Mailbag on Tuesday was neither the right time nor place.
So yeah, this week has been a lot. As the past year has been. The Panthers' season will be over in a few days, and many things will change. As it turns out, you had a lot of questions about that, a few extra with the pause in a normal routine.
It's 4:27 PM on Sunday. What a rollercoaster of a game to end a rollercoaster of a season. My heart hurts. I'm a little numb. What now? — John, Matthews, NC
This could be one of those "don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened" moments in life.
This Panthers team was a weird team in a lot of ways. But it had its charms, especially over the last 12 games.
That's not strictly a reflection on the difference between coaches (which was considerable), but the team's personality. They blocked a certain way, ran a certain way, and played defense a certain way. They also enjoyed each other's company. There's also something adorable about a cast of misfits being set on an adventure they didn't expect. Interim coach Steve Wilks didn't pick this roster or his coaching staff (doing far more subtraction than addition there) and was often the star of one of those cooking shows when it came to his weekly game plan (This week's mystery basket items: PJ Walker, Chuba Hubbard, and Josh Norman, and you have to cook your entire dish using only a spatula).
Once they figured out how they were best able to play, they were actually pretty good at it, winning four of six (including a loss at Baltimore in which they did everything to get a road win against a good team except score points — details). And there was an innocence about them. Maybe the fact they knew nothing was promised at the end of this thing had something to do with that.
Despite the loss to Mike Evans (I can't bring myself to mention the QB), has coach Wilks passed the audition? — Ben, Newport, NC
How do the players feel about Wilks being made full-time head coach? — Sean, Durham, NC
Well, the Panthers aren't the first team to get Tom Brady'd by Tom Brady (sorry, Ben). The way that game unraveled was almost predictable, considering the actor and the scene. The best quarterback of this generation, going against a backup secondary, went about how you'd imagine it was going to.
But when you take a step back from it, you also realize they were within a miraculous save by the Bucs punter from having a chance at their own late-game miracle.
That's the thing Wilks has done perhaps better than anything during his audition — he's convinced that locker room to believe it had a chance.
Once they beat the Bucs in Week 7 and then lost at Atlanta in overtime on a weird penalty and a couple of off-target kicks (after which Eddy Piñeiro promptly forgot how to miss), the Panthers behaved with a collective faith. Even when they were 3-8 and moving on from Baker Mayfield after the Ravens game, they never acted like they were bad. Beating the Broncos seemed almost routine, and the energy the days leading up to the Seahawks game after the bye was palpable. There are some weeks you can just kind of tell something's coming, and that was one of them.
The players absolutely believe in Wilks because he cared enough to be honest with them. He told the good ones when they weren't playing well — often in quite explicit terms — and they respected that.
That's a factor in his favor when it's time for him to interview for the full-time position.
Serious question this week. "What's The Deal With...." In this case, we'll sub in the name Steve Smith Sr.? I'm unbelievably upset, incensed, really!! So, for the benefit of all Panthers fans everywhere, would you please: Explain in plain language the process for being "selected" to the Hall of Fame? After missing out last year, Smith is not even on the final ballot this year. I understand (I think) the process the way it's written. But somehow, that process is not treating Steve Smith Sr. fairly. The names on this year's ballot are OK, but surely no one could say they are better than Smith. So, if you would, please refresh us on the process and then add some "Old Guy" insight into the reasoning behind his being snubbed. I really NEED to know. — Sleepless in Carolina, AKA Howard, Star NC
There are two questions here, one process which I can explain and one outcome that I struggle with too.
Smith was among the semifinalists in voting for the Hall of Fame each of the last two years (it's usually 25, but with ties this year, the list was 28). That was winnowed down from an initial list of 125 or so.
That list is sent to each of the members of the Hall's selection committee, a group of 49 voters, of which I am one. It's mostly veteran writers and broadcasters, one from each city plus at-large voters who have decades of experience and take it very seriously. In recent years the Hall has added a group of Hall of Famers to the committee including Tony Dungy, Bill Polian, Dan Fouts, and James Lofton. We take the list of 28 and cut it to 15 electronically to set up our annual example of Roman democracy, in which presentations are made, and the (presumably) wise men and women vote on each candidate. That's the mechanics.
Now, how you take the list of 28 this year and turn it into 15 without Smith, I have no idea.
Part of the problem is the clogged pipe at wide receiver with Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, and Torry Holt, who have been finalists before, and now resemble the same problem the committee had a few years ago with Cris Carter, Andre Reed, and Tim Brown. Until one comes out the other end of the spigot, none of them are coming out (and they eventually did in 2013, 2014, and 2015). And receiver is just one position the committee is considering, so it's hard to create a representative sample of the game each year if you clear out a particular traffic jam.
But if you isolate this year's list of 28 semifinalists to the seven receivers (Wayne, Johnson, Holt, Smith, Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward, and Henry Ellard), a look at what Smith did in his career makes it reasonable to think he should have been included.
Smith is eighth on the league's all-time receiving yards list (14,731), and all the guys ahead of him on that list are already in the Hall except Larry Fitzgerald, who will be but isn't eligible yet. But Wayne's 10th and Johnson's 11th, with Boldin (14th), Ellard (15th), and Holt (17th) not far behind. Ward is 27th.
Look at the receptions list and Boldin's ninth with 1,076, followed by Wayne (1,070), Johnson (1,062), and Smith (1,031). Ward's 14th (1,000) and Holt's 22nd (920), and Ellard's 34th (814 in a different era).
That's a numerical way of saying these guys are all good enough to have a case. Where I believe (and I am but one of 49) that Smith's best case lies is that he was 5-9 and never played with a Hall of Fame quarterback the way Wayne and Holt (and Ward, I guess someday) did.
Smith won the triple crown (leading the league in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns) in 2005, and the conditions he did it under are mind-boggling. That team ran the ball 487 times. They threw it 449 times. They were coached by John Fox and quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme, and their other receivers were Keary Colbert and 37-year-old Ricky Proehl, who caught 25 balls each. Smith went for 103-1,563-12.
The other three triple crown winners since the 1970 merger were some guy named Jerry Rice (who had Joe Montana), Sterling Sharpe (Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre), and Cooper Kupp (Sean McVay and Matt Stafford).
Those situations are different.
All of the finalists are deserving, but I'll be frank — the next argument I hear that convinces me Torry Holt is better at football than Steve Smith will be the first one. And I could make a similar case, somewhat less strongly, for Wayne. Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning were very good for their Hall cases. Johnson was similar to Smith in that he had to carry a team, but it's easier to carry large things when you're a 6-foot-3 monster than when you're a small angry person.
So that's a long way of saying a few things. 1) It's really hard to get into the Hall of Fame. 2) It ought to be. 3) We have to put other positions in, too, not just guys with fantasy football stats. 4) There are a lot of receivers being discussed. 5) But also a] Smith's better than most of them and b] his time will come, even if not on the timeline he or I would prefer.
First off, I hope that you had a safe and wonderful Christmas with the family. Now then, my question is, what is the chance that Sam Darnold has an actual future here? While the sample size is small this year, he's been playing like you'd want a starter to. Sure he isn't putting up Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes numbers, but who tends to regularly besides the two of them? He seems to be the one who brings out the best in DJ Moore and finds a way to get Terrace Marshall Jr. involved. An O-line levels above last year's and a much stronger run game this year surely are helping him out, but is it possible that say, if they are out of selecting one of the top QBs, they might actually have an answer and contract offers in place for Darnold to be the starter here? — Eric, Brick, NJ
Seems to me that Darnold has proven that he can be a decent QB. Limited receivers with DJ and growing youth; he seems to be a good option to keep going forward. Have no clue what Matt Corral brings to the table, but given that we will pick around ninth; shoring up D-backs and OL along with finding another good receiver we could be in a better position. Hard to play QB laying on your back, and Darnold proved to me that he could play if he wasn't on his back! — Walter, Gastonia, NC
What a time to be alive. We have reached the point of the season when people are realizing that Sam Darnold is not only not bad at football but also that he's kind of pretty good.
Over the last five weeks he's been playing, his 105.3 passer rating is third in the league. He's been efficient and careful (seven touchdowns, one pick), but he's also made some plays. We've surpassed the "backhanded compliment" stage, and I'm not afraid to make the bold statement — Sam has been more than just OK. To the point where you wonder if he had been healthy in Week 6 when Wilks took over if it would have made a difference (the Rams game with a playbook-handcuffed PJ and the one at Baltimore are two winnable games you'd love to have back, in hindsight).
But, as will be the answer to many of the questions over the next month, the answer is, "Depends on who the next coach is."
Each of the candidates will have their own thoughts about the future of the position, and it's certainly near the top of owner David Tepper's list of questions to ask. And depending on who's in charge a month from now, the decision will be shaped by his philosophy.
But here's what I know about Sam in January of 2023. He's more than capable at throwing, when he has time to go through progressions and throw. He has had that time this year, maybe for the first time since he left Southern Cal. He can also run. He is also a fantastic person, respected by teammates, sneakily funny, and the owner of the best beard of December (take that, stop-motion animated Kris Kringle).
Sam has shown he can be a competent starting quarterback in the NFL. Likely, most teams will consider him a bridge to a draft pick if they go that route, and he'd be good for a developmental project because he's smart and has a genuine team-first attitude, and is the kind of human being you want in your locker room. That's a lot. Not everybody who plays quarterback has all of those things. So say it with me, people; there's no need to be ashamed. Sam Darnold, as it turns out, is pretty good.
I'm Antonio from Laurens, SC, and I fully expected my comment to get lost in the mix of things. And for y'all to post and acknowledge me and my family was almost inexplicably exciting. Thank you for that.
I ran to show my Mom and Grandmama because I honestly couldn't even believe it. You had a lifelong fan anyway because I always cheer for the home team, but you just kicked it up a notch in my book. Peace and love. — Antonio, Laurens, SC
Antonio wrote into the Mailbag last week and told a quick story that stopped me in my tracks. Go back and look at it again; it's worth it.
He talked about the impact football had on his family, the connections it created, and why the spirit of Keep Pounding resonates with so many people.
I like writing this Mailbag because it gives me space to explain things and room to make stupid jokes, but also because it underscores the bonds that people create when they have a common cause and feel like it means more to them than just a game. It got me feeling in a holiday way. I'm sending Antonio the Friend Of The Mailbag swag anyway, but I wanted to thank him again for one of my favorite messages we've ever gotten here.
Oh, what a way to start the new year as a Panthers fan! I went from excited and hopeful to bummed and disappointed after Sunday's game. I will take meaningful football in January any day of the week rather than being irrelevant (like they have been the last few years). My hat is off to Wilks for inspiring hope, fight, and urgency to a team and fanbase that needed it.
My question is, what's next for the Panthers? I feel like this is a huge off-season for the direction of the franchise. I want Wilks to stay, but they need to upgrade both OC and DC positions. They have a lot of roster deficiencies as well (DE, TE1, FS/SS, CB, DT, WR) and, of course, QB. I'm sick of the Panthers trading for retread QBs. This is the year with trade ammo, to move up and get Young/Stroud. Happy New Year's to you and the fam! — Jeff, Henderson, NV
Leave it to one of my Jeffs (one of the good ones) to get us back on track with football.
Yes, all those things Jeff said about the team over the last 12 weeks were true. I get stuck in a football bubble, being in the business, but when I leave it to talk to friends and neighbors, I realize this really was a likable team and one that was easy for fans to root for.
Also, they have a lot of stuff to fix (everybody in unison), depending on who the next coach is.
While the quarterback position will get a lot of attention, there is other stuff to do. While I'm not sure I'd write the needs down in the order Jeff did, there are steps to be made. They could also use a young hammer at linebacker (I keep telling you people, this franchise has been spoiled by always having a Sam Mills or a Dan Morgan or a Luke Kuechly in the middle).
And while the temptation to draft a quarterback is real and valid, picking ninth might be a place where you take the best player at another position, and swoop back in with all that sweet, sweet draft capital from the 49ers and come back up and take another one.
(Remember, ninth is the floor for their pick whether they win or lose this week, much to the dismay of the people who wake up angry at the fact a team made of people might actually want to win.)
Looking back at Sunday's game first, I know fans are frustrated with the close loss and even mad about it, and that's fair, but we can't let it get lost what the team (coaches and players) did to get to this point after all that happened on the season (without even considering how the last two to five years went), so I'd like to congratulate all of them for the growth and caring that they showed until the end (they probably are a lot more frustrated than any of us) - and that includes some that receive extra criticism, like Darnold and Keith Taylor Jr. both which were also part of the good things that happened (not mentioning being still young players that showed improvement and also accountability in taking responsibility for mistakes and always facing the press).
That said, it's a performance business, which leads to the look-ahead question: you, Darin (who covered this team since the beginning,) think that the ability that coach Wilks showed of getting the most out of the players and situation is not only sustainable but, along with the front office, able to continue to elevate the performance of the players and also decide which of those young players will be able to contribute in the future? It's kind of a simple and obvious concept, but most teams in the NFL can't say they have that right. Waiting for your words of wisdom on that. Thanks! — Fernando, São Paulo, Brazil
Yep, building on what happened here this year will be the next step (say it with me), depending on who the next coach is.
They can't take that for granted. For instance, if a new coach has a radically different theory of roster construction or game philosophy, then some of the strides made this year might not carry over. For just one example, left guard Brady Christensen has made a leap this year, but not everyone likes their guards to be smaller and more athletic. That's in no way to suggest that Christensen needs to be replaced. Personally, I think he and Ikem Ekwonu are on their way to becoming a Travelle Wharton-Jordan Gross kind of duo that can work together for years and be really good at it. But if a new guy likes his guards to be 330-pound road-graders, that's not what Christensen is. But that's just a hypothetical illustration.
This team has work to do. But this team is also better able to build on it than it used to be. They have a solid support staff with all the bells and whistles you want, a medical team that kept this year's roster remarkably well, and a scouting department that is bigger and more modern than in the past.
That's a good start.
Happy New Year, Darin! I was disappointed in your no-show for Christmas, but it was cold, and there was a winter storm happening, so I'll let it slide. Anyway, sitting around this lovely Saturday, something dawned on me while scrolling the Twitter and seeing other teams doing it, ... There hasn't been a lot of bottom-of-the-roster churn this time of year like we normally see. Why is that? — Dan, Venetia, PA
I was there Dan, and singing! At least until the frostbite set in. Can't believe you didn't let me in, you Scrooge. (Actually, most people call the cops when I show up unannounced).
Part of the reason is good fortune — this team was remarkably healthy this year and didn't need a lot of replacements.
Part of the reason is practical — they didn't have enough people to coach up a bunch of newbies the second half of the year after Wilks cleared out some previous staff members. While the theory of snagging a young corner or defensive lineman off someone else's practice squad is appealing, they didn't have the kind of numbers on the coaching staff to help train a bunch of newcomers when they were focused on the task at hand. When Wilks and interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb were out in practice in recent weeks working one-on-one with DBs, you realized how short-handed they actually were.
The other part of the equation is they have a base of special teams players which helped that unit become solid this year, and the backups that usually make up the bulk of your kicking game are generally where you turn over the roster. So the balance is, how do you weigh the difference between a young safety prospect vs. a known special teams commodity like Sam Franklin Jr. or Sean Chandler? From a broad perspective, you'd love to have developed more guys. But between the shortage of coaches and an honest-to-god playoff push, they made the conscious decision to work with what they had, for the most part.
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.
I got to thinking over the weekend about Wilks becoming the new head coach. But then a startling revelation occurred to me: maybe Steve Wilks gets an offer from another team that he can't turn down. We know he loves the team; he's a home-town guy. But if a more visible team, with perhaps a better roster or an MVP-caliber QB, were to offer him a job, especially with Tepper still doing interviews, why wouldn't he take it? I think we need to temper our expectations, folks. This could be a bumpy ride. Since that was a statement and not a question, I will ask you this: do you prefer your pimento cheese with a little spice or just plain old cheesy? — Chris, Greensboro, NC
Wilks has shown the entire league he can do this job, making the most of an unfortunate situation he inherited in Week 6 (which got harder when they traded Christian McCaffrey the next week). Other people have certainly noticed. He's qualified to be a candidate anywhere. As for pimento cheese, I celebrate its entire catalog. There's a time for spicy and a time for cheesy, which reminds me of Chris anyway.
With Donte Jackson on injured reserve and Christian McCaffrey and Baker Mayfield no longer with the Carolina Panthers, who are the current captains on our team? — Lisa, Oak Ridge, NC
Wilks has depended on his "leadership council" since he took over, which includes those captains plus a group including Darnold, Moore, Frankie Luvu, and Jaycee Horn (he's a second-year guy, but he's that guy). They also recognize other players week-to-week as coin toss captains and last week that included special teamer Sam Franklin, Derrick Brown, and Austin Corbett, along with Burns. Leadership is a thing that happens day-to-day, and they have a solid locker room this year because of it.
Why should we send you questions when you do not answer the prior questions we have emailed you? Maybe you are a joke, after all? — Lisa, Oak Ridge, NC
Words hurt, Lisa.
Lisa was among the readers thrown by our delay from our normal Tuesday publishing schedule. She's handling it well. All I can do is apologize and offer to make her this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and send along the appropriate peace offering soon.
Hi Darin, I read your comments regularly and enjoy your insight. I have a simple question; would Max Duggan be a good fit for us? — Tom, Florence, AL
Last Saturday night, I sat in a hotel bar in Florida next to Jake Delhomme, and he was a big fan of the TCU quarterback during the end of that coconuts game against Michigan. Duggan's not a first-round pick or anything (he doesn't have the size or arm of the top guys), but I think what Brock Purdy has done with the 49ers will make people re-think the way they evaluate quarterbacks. Duggan looks like a guy who will be an NFL quarterback and maybe a decent one. You don't have to be a first-round pick to be one of those. (As Delhomme can attest.)
Also, apologies for being a shameless name-dropper, and for being Delhomme's worst New Year's Eve date ever. We each went quietly our own way long before midnight. He was clearly re-thinking some life choices.
Hey Darin! Since our season is basically over, the focus switches to our draft pick. Regardless of the result Sunday, what are our odds of getting CJ Stroud now (trading up is possible)? Also, I have some puns about the Panthers I made that cheered me up after the game Sunday, and I will list them here: I want Moore fans in Bank of America Stadium. It is a cat-astrophe when we lose. I bet you Gantt get in the Ask the Old Guy Mailbag. — Zach, Charlotte
Please, for the love of all that's holy, GO BACK TO CLASS, ZACH.
Was it your decision to change the font of the Mailbag, or is that above your pay grade? — Jarod, Indianapolis, IN
It is above both my pay grade and my play grade. I promise you if it happens inside a computer, I do not have the capability to do it on purpose. Hell, I don't even know all my own passwords. Ask my wife or my work-wife @pantherstatsguy; they have a better chance of logging me into NBA League Pass, ordering new pens, uploading a photo, or changing the fonts on the website. You people give me way too much credit.
What are the chances that we actually spend draft capital to get our guy at QB in this upcoming NFL draft? — Brad, Greenville, SC
We're going to get a lot of versions of this in the next few months, so I may start doing it mathematically (since, as you know, 98.4 percent of all stats are made up on the spot). Currently, I put their chances of drafting a quarterback at some point during the draft at 63.2 percent.
That'll cover us for this week. Stay tuned for what should be an interesting final week and first few weeks of the offseason. Maybe at some point, we'll breathe.