CHARLOTTE — What a journey the calendar year 2022 has been for the Carolina Panthers.
While there might have been some who saw an improved team coming together and pushing for a playoff spot, nobody saw it happening quite the way it has.
The season was among the most interesting in franchise history in terms of the layers of stories and how they came together to lay the base for what will be a fascinating start to 2023, one way or another.
The Panthers travel to Tampa Bay this weekend with a division title and a postseason berth on the line, something that seemed inconceivable a few months ago.
But the last few months have contained a lifetime already, so it's worth going back to the start to see how this all came together.
— The 2021 season came to a merciful end in Tampa on Jan. 9, 2022 when they lost to the Buccaneers. It was also their seventh loss in a row, and 12th out of the last 14, after a promising 3-0 start was derailed when running back Christian McCaffrey was injured. They tried a bunch of things offensively (Cam Newton came back and Joe Brady left), but few of them worked.
Things weren't great, but owner David Tepper said he wanted to build something for the long haul with coach Matt Rhule, who was 10-23 in his first two seasons. But things were going to change, and there was clearly a mandate to upgrade the coaching staff. Several assistants were jettisoned as soon as the season ended in an attempt to add some ballast to a young core. By the end of the month, they'd have respected offensive line coach James Campen and special teams coach Chris Tabor aboard, along with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
— On Jan. 17, Panthers linebacker Sam Mills was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His family didn't know it at the time, but during a Zoom meeting, the Hall's board of selectors chose him to go through on his final chance on the modern-era ballot.
It was a triumph for the franchise, their first true legend to be chosen, cementing the legacy of Keep Pounding that was born in the way he preserved through a football career that was never supposed to start, and continued through the inspiration he provided so many during his fight with cancer.
Don't tell anyone yet; it's still a secret. But for the Panthers, it was a glimmer of good news, and a reminder of a past worth clinging to.
— There were also football decisions being made. The Panthers were in the market for a quarterback again, and everyone knew it.
Discussions were happening on multiple fronts. They would continue.
— The month actually started in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl, where Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer and most of the scouting staff were looking at most of the top quarterback prospects in this year's draft. Kenny Pickett was there, along with Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, and Sam Howell. Really all of the big names other than Matt Corral were there, so it gave the scouting department a good jump start on what was to come.
— On Feb. 9, the Panthers brought one of their own home, hiring Steve Wilks to become their new defensive pass game coordinator. With a secondary full of promising talents such as Jaycee Horn and Jeremy Chinn, it made sense to invest in their futures with a respected position coach.
They also added more stability to the staff, which more than doubled its amount of NFL experience this offseason by adding three former head coaches (Wilks, McAdoo, Tabor, plus longtime college coach Paul Pasqualoni). Rhule's first Panthers coaching staff in 2020 had a combined 72 years of NFL experience when they started. This staff had a combined 151 years of experience, with 10 coaches with 10 or more years in the league.
— On Feb. 10 in Los Angeles, we were finally allowed to share the news, and Sam Mills was announced as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to be enshrined in August.
— The team's coaches and scouts headed to Indianapolis for the scouting combine. While they wanted to do more work on all the quarterbacks, they were also doing deep dives on the top tackle prospects since they knew they needed one of those as badly as they needed a quarterback.
One of them was a kid from Charlotte who played at NC State, who charmed reporters with his megawatt smile and stories of how he grew up in musical theater. He also happened to be quite good at football.
"Steve Smith Sr. , I just loved the mindset he had to come into the game and wanted to dominate people," Ikem Ekwonu said on March 3. "There's a lot of different ways you can dominate people on the field. I feel like as a wide receiver, Steve Smith definitely put that on film."
Hmm. Write that down. Might come in handy later.
— The Panthers came back from the combine and did a bunch of paperwork, restructuring the contracts of most of the veterans on the roster, making room for what could either be one big move or a larger number of subtle ones. Stay tuned.
— The free agent market didn't officially open until two days later, but on Mar. 14, the negotiation period opened, and they were open for business. They were working on some big stuff, but were making moves in bulk too. They released a couple of guys (AJ Bouye and Morgan Fox), but also agreed to new deals with a couple of guys who would have significant roles here (right guard Austin Corbett and safety Xavier Woods). The next day, they'd agree to a deal with a solid backup running back in D'Onta Foreman, who seemed like a nice complement and backup to Christian McCaffrey, considering the way he stepped in for an injured Derrick Henry in Tennessee the year before.
— The Panthers didn't make a splash on the first day of free agency, but a couple of days into the process, they made some moves to stabilize things for the future. On March 18, they extended wide receiver DJ Moore's deal and did a lot of other stuff, and the next morning, signed free agent Donte Jackson after letting him test the market. Moore and Jackson arrived here in 2018 in the first and second round, and keeping them seemed like a step toward creating something bigger than just signing talented players.
— There was a reason it was such a busy day. Also on March 18, the Browns finalized their deal for quarterback Deshaun Watson, which meant the Panthers didn't. That's a short way to describe a months-long process. It would have been a big swing for a number of reasons (including a suspension that would eventually keep Watson out 11 games this year), but the Panthers weren't prepared to give him a precedent-breaking fully guaranteed deal. The Browns did. For the Panthers, the search continued, and there was more work to be done.
So the morning of the 18th, Fitterer and Rhule and assistant general manager Dan Morgan sat around a round table in the team's cafeteria at Bank of America Stadium, talking about what was next. They sketched out the basics of a plan, went upstairs to their offices, got Tepper and vice president of football administration Samir Suleiman on the phone, and quickly went to work moving on — in a big way.
"That morning, after Deshaun said no, Matt and Dan and I were sitting around the cafeteria, and it was an attitude of, 'OK, what do we want to do? Let's go get DJ done,'" Fitterer said. "It was like, 'Let's go do this today, let's go kick ass, let's turn the page.' And that kind of set the tone. So instead of it being a negative not getting Deshaun, the whole narrative changed.
"I thought it was important. The good thing was, we went upstairs and called Dave, and Dave very quickly went through the process with us and Samir — what do these guys make, what are their ages, what are their price points, what's the injury history, how many games have they missed? So when you go through that with DJ, he's 24 years old, one of the most consistent receivers in the league yards-wise, and he always plays, he's banged up, but he's always on the practice field and always shows up. That's what you want; that's the type of guy you want to reward."
It was a significant turning point because it also acknowledged that the big-fish quarterback might not come this year.
The longer they looked at the draft class, the less convinced they were there was a turn-key answer at the position. And they didn't make a move in free agency, while other teams rushed to sign the rest of an odd lot of guys.
So they waited. And waiting is hard. I mean, they knew they had the sixth pick in the draft, so they had a chance to do something big.
But on March 29, at the end of a long and hectic month and a month away from the draft, Fitterer sat out by the pool at a resort in Palm Beach, Fla., and was asked what he thought he'd do if he had the first pick in this year's draft, if the world of possibilities was opened to him. It wouldn't be revealed for more than a month, but Fitterer glanced out over the ocean, and he smiled.
"Who would I draft first?" Fitterer said with a relaxed grin. "Yeah. It would be the tackle. I would go Ickey, the local guy. Not only is he a good player, he brings the mentality that we want, that toughness, that edge. Probably him."
He mentions a few other players, noting that they'd be excellent choices that he wouldn't be ashamed of at all. But in a perfect world, he keeps coming back to one guy.
"Yeah," he said with another nod. "It would be Ickey."
The waves rolled by, carrying what seemed like a dream with them. No way that guy lasts until the sixth pick.
There are a lot of meetings in April. I mean, they're important meetings, when the scouting department takes over a huge space and devotes it to reducing a list of about 1,500 reports to a board of around 165 player they'd draft and ranking them accordingly.
And some guys start coming in to lift weights and work out, with an actual offseason program for a change, instead of a COVID-restricted smattering of dudes at a time.
"I'm anxious to have a true offseason," Rhule said. "I'm anxious to get that work done, and anxious to have the guys all be in the weight room together, not 10 guys at a time. I look forward to a true offseason, hoping our team can spend a lot of time together.
"I think that's a really important part of this that got lost the last few years, to be honest with you."
But mostly, they prepped for the draft, knowing it would be a pivotal weekend for the franchise as a whole, not just this year's team. So it's fair to fast forward to that last weekend of the month, because of what was at stake. Even when Rhule and Fitterer were joking around in the days leading up to the draft, they never honestly imagined a scenario in which Ekwonu would just fall into their laps. There were some concerns early that all three of the top tackle prospects could go ahead of them. But once the draft started, there was a run on pass-rushers with the first two picks. At 8:24 p.m., the Texans used the third on cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Minutes later, the Jets took cornerback Sauce Garnder, and the Panthers felt good about getting an offensive lineman, if not the offensive lineman of their dreams. The Giants picked on either side of them, fifth and seventh, and needed a pass-rusher and a tackle of their own. When they opted for defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux with the fifth pick, Fitterer's dream sequence of a month ago had come true.
Granted, Fitterer still called his old friends in Seattle to see if they wanted to trade, because that's who he is and probably what he'll always do. But the celebration in the draft room was already happening, and at 8:42 p.m., Rhule scribbled a name on a card and called offensive line coach James Campen to the front of the room. The name on the paper was not Ikem Ekwonu.
"We kind of had to mess with him a little," Rhule said at the end of the night.
When he realized this, Campen laughed along with the joke. But it was also an emotional moment for the veteran line coach, who also believed throughout the process that Ekwonu was the one.
"It hit me, no question," Campen admitted quietly after things settled a bit. "You just don't expect something like this to happen."
Now with that bit of business taken care of, there was the small matter of finding a quarterback. The world knew they wanted one, and also that they didn't have picks in the second, third, or fourth rounds after trading for Sam Darnold and CJ Henderson the year before. So Friday night was about the trade market.
The Browns did their best to throw Baker Mayfield and his full $19 million salary at the Panthers since they didn't need him. The Panthers were interested in the player, but not the contract since they already had Darnold's identical deal. Suffice it to say there were many conversations, at various degrees of intensity. Offers were made and rejected. It appeared close at times, but with the clock ticking throughout the night, the Panthers were willing to slow-play it.
That was happening to all the draftable quarterbacks too, after Pickett went in the first round, and it was the third before Ridder and Willis went off the board. The night was coming to a close, the Mayfield deal appeared to have dissipated, but the Panthers still wanted to get a guy in. So late on Friday night, they traded next year's third to New England to get to 94 to take Matt Corral. It was a moment of relief for both him and them, but it wasn't an end-point in the offseason, not by a mile.
In May, everybody exhaled for a second in advance of the long year ahead. The schedule came out, and things began to come into focus. If the Panthers were going to do anything this year, it looked like they were going to need to do it early since they played four of their first five at home. Re-establishing a home-field advantage would be vital.
They were going to open with the Browns, though the widely held assumption was that Watson would be suspended. But no one knew who'd be under center for either team, really. Mayfield wanted out of Cleveland, though. That, we knew.
But the Panthers waited.
June is a month when the NFL reliably (generally) begins to take a breath. Not a lot happens in June. Blessedly, because it had already been a year.
The Panthers still weren't sure they were settled at quarterback, but they were pushing ahead. They had been practicing with Darnold and PJ Walker and Matt Corral, and finishing up OTAs, and building some bonds with the Panthers Games.
If they seemed like a fairly close bunch, they were. Rhule had talked all offseason about the idea of getting the people together, about building relationships, the kind of stuff you couldn't do over Zoom. And when you watched McCaffrey walking around with his Ping Pong paddle, waiting to challenge anyone to a game, you could tell these guys were having fun and getting along.
But still, that quarterback question lingered.
The people who work in the NFL tend to schedule weddings and vacations in July.
But it was hard to relax around here because of that one unfinished piece of business.
When they finally got the Mayfield deal done on July 6, it was the culmination of months of negotiations, haggling over the compensation with the Browns, but ultimately getting him to take a pay cut. While there were opportunities to acquire him earlier in the year at his full salary, getting him at a reduced rate and for a 2024 fifth-round pick seemed like reasonable value.
The problem was, they didn't get him until July, so when he rolled into Spartanburg with Shaq Thompson as his driver, he was meeting people for the first time.
Mayfield blew in at the last minute, absorbed as much of a playbook as he could, and began a "competition" in camp that always seemed designed to go his way. And in camp, he looked good, with moments of inspiration, the kind of deep balls they hadn't seen as many of. He was coming in late, but it seemed reasonable at the time to think it was going to work.
Darnold played along nicely, and Corral was the shiny new thing, and over there on the side, PJ Walker got whatever reps were leftover. Everyone seemed to realize how this was going to go.
Little did they know.
Training camp was largely uneventful, which is the way you want training camp to be.
On Aug. 6, Sam Mills was enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with a who's who of Panthers history on hand to witness.
Over there's Dom Capers and Bill Polian. Hey look, it's Julius Peppers. And also the small handful of people who worked here in the 90s were there too. From those who knew him as a teammate to those he coached, it was a special weekend because Mills had the ability to make everyone feel like they were part of something larger. For the Panthers, it meant one of their own lived forever in Canton.
"If you were working hard at anything, Sam would let you know he appreciated your hard work," his wife Melanie Mills said during the enshrinement. "You could be a teammate, a coach, a ball boy, a security guard. He would make you feel seen.
"It's no wonder Sam inspired so many people or that the Panthers adopted his motto, Keep Pounding. Sam was always ready to show you what hard work looked like. He led by example, and people followed him."
Back in Spartanburg, his words were on the minds (and chests) of players and coaches alike as they continued their own work.
They'd finish up the South Carolina portion, play a first preseason game, and then head to New England to see what they were all about. After a week of joint practices (and the fights they included), the Panthers didn't play their starters much in the following game. That left Walker and Corral to alternate quarters, at least until Corral got stepped on late and couldn't finish. As it turns out, it was a Lisfranc injury, a sudden end to a rookie season, but not the kind of thing that was really going derail anything since they had their one and two seemingly locked in.
That became official when they got home, and Mayfield was announced as the winner of the competition. But the next week's game against the Bills threw another wrinkle into the mix, as Darnold went down with a high ankle sprain.
Suddenly, Walker went from a guy who was absolutely going to get cut at the end of the preseason to their backup to Mayfield. But they had high enough hopes for that project that they still felt pretty good about things.
As the cut deadline came, the Panthers traded away an offensive lineman (Dennis Daley) because they had too many (imagine that), and traded for an offensive playmaker (Laviska Shenault Jr.) because you can never have enough. Things like losing their trustworthy kicker (Zane Gonzalez) in the final preseason game didn't help, but that kind of got lost in the wave of quarterback news.
Yeah, September didn't really go like anyone imagined.
You'd figure that if Mayfield was going to be great in any one game, it would have been against the Browns. He never really leaned into the revenge narrative, but the point stands. He's always loved sticking it to the man. In the opener, none of them did. Even All-Pro return man Andre Roberts got hurt in the opener, and it would be months before they saw him again.
The next week went even worse, with Chuba Hubbard (replacing Roberts) fumbling the opening kickoff, and the offense never got started. In the first two games, the Panthers were 6-of-23 converting third downs, worst in the league.
The funny thing about avalanches, they very rarely stop and turn around and go back up the hill. So even beating the Saints in Week 3 didn't seem like much of a reprieve since they did it without scoring an offensive touchdown, something that happened a whole three other times since 2000.
But maybe it's OK because the Cardinals were up next, and the one team the Panthers could reliably beat was the Cardinals.
They did not beat the Cardinals. Mayfield threw two picks, they were 2-of-12 again on third down; it was getting rough, and the 49ers were rolling in the next week. It didn't get better. Mayfield threw another pick, and another 3-of-15 on third down. At this point, it's a trend. Making matters worse, the 49ers fans in the stands stood out in their high-contrast red jerseys, and the locals who were there were angry. And Mayfield was hurt late.
The next day, it was time for a change. Time had run out on the Matt Rhule experiment after an 11-27 record during his time. Wilks was named interim head coach.
"A lot of time has passed here," Tepper said on Oct. 10. "We have the record we have; there are different reasons that go into that. I think there has been progress of some sort, but we're just not getting over the hump. And we've got to get over the hump."
Tepper also referenced the use of resources (chasing quarterbacks had cost dollars and a lot of draft picks, and the Panthers only had nine of those the next two years at that moment) and the structure of the organization, saying he'd probably look for more "balance" between the coach and GM next time.
The next day, Wilks got his chance to talk about what was next, and there were a few common themes. One, there was no B-S; he was here to try to win some games and thought they had a chance to do so. Two, he made it clear he didn't accept the premise that things were never good here since he was part of a staff that won three straight division titles from 2013-15. The fact the 2014 team won the division at 7-8-1 also served as an object lesson, an unsubtle reminder that 1-4 wasn't necessarily insurmountable. But while Wilks didn't make a big deal out of his Charlotte roots or his background, he did bring another message with him that day.
"It means a lot to me; it means a lot to this organization," Wilks began. "It's just like anything; when you come to an organization, it has to be taught, it has to be understood. This is our mantra; this is what we're about.
"Yes, we do have a lot of young guys, but we're at the point in our season that it's about Keep Pounding. In order for us to turn this around, that's the mindset that we have to have."
They did not immediately begin.
The first game was in Los Angeles, against a Rams team that hadn't fulfilled its hard-luck mission of the year. They appeared to be still good. And the Panthers were without their starting quarterback.
Mayfield tried to work out the Friday before the trip, and Wilks stood and watched him and was impressed with his toughness. If he had 22 guys that tough, he'd love it. But Mayfield couldn't really move the way you need to (and he hadn't been so good that it seemed vital to rush him).
So Wilks embarked on his second game with a clear plan. They were going to run. A lot. He swapped out centers, putting the bigger Bradley Bozeman in the lineup. And they weren't going to let Walker make mistakes. The backup quarterback barely threw past the line of scrimmage, and they couldn't muster enough points to make a difference. But Wilks saw something. Even in late December, after they were clearly making a run, Wilks harkened back to that game as a turning point.
"I saw it quickly," he said. "You know, even though we didn't have the results that we wanted, coming off the Rams game, the physicality and effort up front, I saw was really established in that mentality, running the ball that way we did in the first half against those guys."
Other things happened that day. Wide receiver Robbie Anderson, who had a career year in 2020, got a raise, and then sort of disappeared, wasn't happy with his usage. So he pitched a fit, twice getting into with his position coach on the sideline. Wilks sent him to the locker room. He flew home with the team but would never put on the uniform again.
At 1 p.m. the next day, Wilks was going to have a team meeting. Anderson was going to be an example. So minutes before that meeting started, they traded him to the Cardinals, getting two late draft picks in 2024 and 2025. It wasn't much, but in this case, the principle mattered, and Anderson wasn't going to be here anyway.
That was followed by an uncomfortable week.
Trading a malcontent plus interim coach plus a 1-5 record usually equals fire sale. But the Panthers were determined not to have one. McCaffrey was different though. He's a star, but a star at a non-premium position with a premium contract. And there were contenders who wanted him. At that point, it became an auction.
The 49ers immediately wanted in and kept upping the offer, competing against their division rivals, the Rams. Eventually, the Panthers would get four picks, the equivalent in value to a late first-rounder, and the Panthers swallowed hard and sent their most marketable star packing. Suddenly, they had 14 picks in the next two drafts, and seven in the first five rounds next year.
There were calls about other players, young stars on rookie deals. But Fitterer held fast, and wasn't going to give those guys away because that would have meant throwing in the towel on an entire season.
Still, if you thought it was bleak before, try scoring points against the Bucs this week without your best offensive player and with a quarterback the coach didn't appear to trust at the helm. Oh, by the way, your best cornerback, Jaycee Horn, is hurt and can't play.
Oct. 23 — A thing just happened.
PJ Walker, the quarterback who wouldn't have made the roster before guys started getting hurt, went out and gave the Bucs a proper thrashing. D'Onta Foreman, who barely got used before McCaffrey was traded, ran 15 times for 118 yards. Brian Burns sacked Tom Brady, putting the GOAT in the web. A 21-3 win at Bank of America Stadium was a surprise, for sure. But it just turned them into a 2-5 team that had a nice moment. Or maybe it turned them into something else.
In Week 8, they go to Atlanta, and a liberated Walker made a play. The play, actually. A 62-yard touchdown to DJ Moore with 12 seconds left would have been a game-winner, but a missed extra point by Eddy Piñeiro sent it to overtime. Then, a CJ Henderson interception which could have provided another game-winner didn't matter, since Piñeiro missed a field goal (he would, however, promptly forget how to miss). They lost, but they fought for 68 minutes, and made some plays (Foreman ran for 118 and three touchdowns and appears to have become a bell cow). The next time they saw the Falcons, there would be hell to pay.
The problem was they saw the Bengals first and got thumped. They were never really in that game, trailing 35-0 at the half. Walker was picked off twice, and threw for 9 whole yards before being replaced by Mayfield at halftime. As good as he was in Atlanta, he was that bad in Cincinnati, making it reasonable to wonder if he'd ever play again.
The good news was it was a short week, and they had something to look forward to. When the idea was hatched to wear alternate black helmets with an all-black uniform, the prime-time appearance against the Falcons on Thursday Night Football seemed natural. But still, they're 2-7, so what kind of party was it going to be really?
One in which a personality came out again, that's what kind. They hammered the Falcons in a driving rain, creating stunning visuals and a stunning result. They almost looked, ... good.
Winning a couple of home games was nice, but eventually, they'd need to win on the road, against a good team. So a trip to Baltimore looked daunting, especially when they realized Walker got hurt late against the Falcons and couldn't play. So they were back to Mayfield, perhaps the last chance for him.
On Nov. 20, they did everything you have to do to beat the Ravens on the road. Except for moving the ball. The Ravens' only touchdown came off a turnover on their side of the field, with the Panthers offense making it easy for them. Two more picks. Another 3-of-12 third down. If Mayfield was a risk worth taking (in April, May, June, or July), he had provided sufficient evidence now. He was a good teammate, a tough guy, but he wasn't making any plays.
So with Sam Darnold healthy again (it took longer than initially thought), Wilks made another change. Darnold would start against the Broncos, Mayfield would back up.
Like Walker in LA, Darnold wasn't asked to do too much, but he did it capably, and they ran for 185 yards and took a convincing win. Again, it might not matter since it made them 4-8, but three straight home wins was something, at least. And if you tilted your head in just the right way, you could almost see the playoffs since the Bucs were struggling too. Somebody had to win this division. It's a rule.
The late bye was good for Walker. He got his feet back underneath him. So now he was Darnold's backup. Mayfield didn't throw a fit like Anderson had, but he realized what was up, so he asked to be released. They obliged him. He started six games here, won one of them, completed just 57.8 percent of his passes, and his 74.4 rating was effectively the bottom of the league. Worth a shot. It didn't work.
And in the scope of the year, cutting a former No. 1 overall pick on Dec. 5 because you preferred a healthy PJ Walker as Sam Darnold's backup was only about the fourth-most strange thing to happen.
They'd then go to Seattle, and when the Seahawks made a run, they'd punch back with long grinding drives, running their way to get to 5-8. The Steelers punched them in the mouth the following week, but they bounced back against the Lions. The league's shiny new offense was putting up points at an alarming rate, and even when they made a run and got into the end zone, their clever two-point play (with a weird set of personnel in a hurry) was blown up by linebacker Frankie Luvu. Blunt-force defense prevailed. Oh, by the way, they ran for a franchise-record 320 yards, and Darnold threw well enough to get the total to 570 (also a franchise record.)
So 365 days into this year, the Panthers get on a plane bound for Florida today.
They changed coaches, traded their best offensive player and also a malcontent, didn't trade some of the guys they could have, lost some (but not many) to injuries, got some back, lost some more, and cut a former Heisman-winning quarterback.
And when they got on that plane today, they had something else stuffed into their carry-ons.
They had a personality. And hope.
And it's been years since they've packed either of those in their travel bags this late in a season.
But this season has been unlike any other already.
So they'll take personality and hope, and take their best shot.