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Carolina Panthers

More questions than answers at quarterback

Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield

CHARLOTTE — Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks said Monday he thought quarterback PJ Walker would be able to play this week and that Sam Darnold could begin practicing Wednesday. But at the moment, the Panthers don't have a lot of what you'd call certainty at the position.

So with Walker dealing with what he described as a bit of a stiff neck, and Darnold returning from a preseason high ankle sprain having not played in seven weeks, and Baker Mayfield walking through the locker room (without a boot) after his ankle injury, the Panthers are in a bit of a wait-and-see moment at the position. When the practice-squader they called up Sunday (Jacob Eason) ends up finishing a game, sure things are hard to find.

And since nothing's certain, Wilks isn't going to make any sweeping declarations.

Asked if Mayfield (who won the competition for the starting job in camp and started the first five games) would return to that role when healthy, Wilks stopped short of a "yes."

"I can't give you that answer," Wilks said. "But I can tell you right now; those guys are going to compete at that position, just as well as other positions to see exactly who goes out there on Sunday."

A lot of this could become a moot point, based on health.

Mayfield had a solid workout Friday, and Wilks was impressed by the quarterback's toughness. But there's a matter of some ligament "damage" that remained on his MRI that could take him out of play.

"It's a testament to Baker, as I've said before, he's a tough and physical guy, and if you saw the workout, if you were there, you'd probably say, 'I can't believe the MRI showed up this way.' We just want to make sure we're doing the right thing and not trying to force the issue once we realized there was still damage there."

As for Darnold, activating him to practice Wednesday would open a 21-day window for him to return to action. He hasn't played since injuring his ankle in the preseason finale against Buffalo on Aug. 26, so it's reasonable to think he'd still need some significant time to get ready.

That could leave Walker in the starting spot by default, and he's kind of used to that.

"Same approach as last week," Walker said Monday, because that's the stock answer of a backup quarterback who knows he could be called on (and needs to be ready) at any moment.

PJ Walker

But coaches and players alike know that things need to change this week against the Buccaneers.

The Panthers gained a season-low 203 yards Sunday, they gained no first downs in the second and third quarters, and Walker was 10-of-16 for 60 yards passing as they tried to game-plan away from anything resembling risk-taking.

Wilks said he didn't second-guess the game plan they came up with (it worked well for a quarter) and said that shots downfield would eventually come if they continued to run well.

Walker (who has two career touchdown passes and eight interceptions), admitted it was challenging for him to have such a conservative plan.

"It was tough, but you know, that was the plan, and we stuck to it, and we did a good job of sticking to it," Walker said. "It was tough to not see the ball get thrown downfield. I think one of my strengths is throwing it downfield. We had a good game plan, and we executed it well early, but towards the second half, it started to die down a little bit. We stopped moving it as efficient as we were early. . . . You saw what happened yesterday. It's tough to go out and be in that situation and not get them to back off."

View the best photos from pregame and in-game, after Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams.

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