Skip to main content

PJ Walker getting ready again, knows nothing is certain

PJ Walker

CHARLOTTE — PJ Walker has seen some things.

Enough things, honestly, that having to start for the Panthers a week after they fired his college coach, the guy who believed in him and gave him a shot, is almost normal by comparison.

"We know at the end of the day we've got a job to do," Walker said Wednesday, in the middle of a rather tumultuous week here. "And if we don't do our job, we'll be gone too."

The Panthers backup quarterback took all the first-team reps Wednesday with Baker Mayfield out with an ankle injury, and is in line to start against the Rams Sunday since he's the only healthy quarterback on the active roster.

But if you were looking for a lot of emotion, that's not really Walker's thing.

He has learned how to be matter-of-fact about his lot in life, which he might have learned while watching former Colts teammate Andrew Luck retire at the end of training camp, a moment when you realize nothing is normal. Or perhaps it was this summer with the Panthers, when he was sure he was cut.

After backing up Sam Darnold through offseason workouts, he watched the Panthers draft Matt Corral in May and then trade for Mayfield in July, so it was reasonable for him to think he was going to be cut in August. And he might have been, until Corral and then Darnold suffered preseason injuries, leaving him once again a heartbeat away from playing.

"Over the summer, I had a different perspective on this whole situation," Walker admitted, acknowledging his own career prospects before others suffered some bad luck.

"I thought about it for about a week," he said. "After that week, it is what it is. I was still going to be able to go out in the preseason and play, made the best of that. When I did get my reps in training camp, whatever opportunity, I made the best of it.

"It was a lot going through my mind because I felt like I could play. I felt like I was good enough to be the backup here. But things happen. It's a business. At the end of the day, I never stopped my approach of going out there and handling my business."

This week, the business got a little personal for him, as he admitted it was difficult watching Matt Rhule leave on Monday. Walker started for Rhule at Temple and came here with his old coach in 2020.

"The love he had for that group was sincere," Walker said of Rhule's final meeting Monday. "There a lot of guys in the room that felt the same way about him. It hurt to see him walk away, hurt to see him go. You've got to go out there and overcome."

And yet, he understands.

"You've got to win in this league, Walker said. "If that's not getting done, something's got to change."

Interim coach Steve Wilks said directly (Wilks says everything directly) that he had no problem starting Walker this weekend.

"I'm confident in PJ, and I think the players are confident in PJ," Wilks said. "This is one of those situations where, you're sitting where we are right now this season, and everybody could start pressing and trying to do things outside the system. So I foresee that as part of my conversation this week.

"We don't need one guy to go out and win the football game. Just go out and do what you do."

From that standpoint, he may have found his guy.

Walker has shown twice he can go in and win a game as a starter — though they weren't always ideal performances. If a backup quarterback needs to be ready in an instant and have a short memory, Walker's qualified.

He was under center when they beat the Lions in 2020, but he threw two red zone interceptions. He had a pick in last year's start against the Cardinals, but was also 22-of-29 passing in that game, which most people remember for Cam Newton coming in and creating a couple of quick touchdowns in his first game back.

Walker realized then his starting gig wasn't lasting long, not with Newton coming back to a home game against Washington the following week, but he accepted it as he has most things.

"I wasn't disappointed," he said. "I know it's a business. I know what it is. For me, it's always be ready. I understood what was going on. I understood what was at stake at the end of the day. So for me, it was just go out there when my number was called and be ready to play.

"It's staying level-headed, staying humble, one day at a time. Go out there and keep all the noise out."

Of course, it's also not yet settled that it's absolutely going to be him.

Wilks said that after talking with Mayfield Wednesday morning, "we feel like there could be a chance he goes this weekend; we'll see how it goes."

Mayfield didn't practice and was still wearing a walking boot on his left foot, but Wilks remembers being around him in Cleveland in 2019, so he's not ready to rule him out.

"I have a history with Baker. He's very physical, very tough, mentally tough as well," Wilks said. "I trust his judgment. We would work him out, the trainers will, and we'll see where he is with (offensive coordinator Ben) McAdoo. Definitely won't put him in harm's way."

Wilks added that it would be "hard for me to put him out there if he doesn't practice." So with Mayfield indoors getting treatment Wednesday, Walker took all the reps with the regulars on offense, while practice squader Jacob Eason ran the scout team. Walker has been doing most of that this year, leaving Eason with mostly individual work and meetings. Wilks said there was a chance Darnold could be cleared to begin practice next week, but he won't be available for the Rams game. Still, Darnold was on the practice field Wednesday, with an earpiece in and offering advice to Walker between reps.

They were preparing Walker as much as they could. And when asked how comfortable he'd be if Eason had to be activated and play this weekend, Wilks sort of shrugged, because nothing about this situation is conventional.

"I don't think you can ever judge your comfort level," Wilks said. "This is the NFL; things happen, guys go down. I've been in situations where an offensive lineman goes down, and you have to put a tight end at tackle. We can't call a timeout and just get back on the plane.

"So if things happen, he just has to go in and execute. He's been in the meetings, he understands exactly what we're trying to get done at that position, and we can't sit here and try to put a lot on his plate. We have to simplify a lot of things if he goes into the game."

And, as always, they have to be ready to adjust. The good news is, Walker has plenty of experience doing that.

View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Rams this weekend.

Related Content