Winning the permanent head-coaching job in Carolina was always going to be a difficult climb for interim coach Steve Wilks, but sources in Charlotte say Panthers owner David Tepper has liked the competitive turnaround he's seen from the team since Wilks took over.
Wilks, the former Arizona Cardinals head coach, took the reins after Tepper fired Matt Rhule five games into this season. The Panthers have gone 2-4 under Wilks, and among those four losses was a missed extra point against the Falcons from being 3-3 and a showdown last week in Baltimore that saw a 3-3 tie midway through the fourth quarter.
All of this happening while the Panthers are now on their third starting quarterback of the season. Only the Miami Dolphins have had three different starters this year, and that was due solely to injuries to both Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater.
Mayfield, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick that Carolina traded for this offseason after a heavy push from Rhule, has now been benched for a second time this season. The first time happened when third-string QB P.J. Walker held on to his starting role after Mayfield returned to health from a high ankle sprain. After a performance against the Ravens that netted a season-low 54.6 passer rating last week, Mayfield found his way to the bench again.
Sam Darnold gets the start Sunday against the Broncos in his first action of the season after suffering a severe ankle injury in the preseason. Darnold offers more athleticism to the position than Mayfield, and he'll help Carolina move the pocket while making plays after things break down much better than Mayfield.
"Sam has a better arm and will take a shot," said one Panthers source. Indeed, Mayfield had just 7.3% of his pass attempts go 20 or more yards downfield, third worst among all qualified quarterbacks. And 30.1% of his throws are at or behind the line of scrimmage, second most in the league.
Wilks' final record would certainly factor into Tepper's decision on whether to make the interim head coach his permanent coach, but that won't be all. Tepper realizes Carolina has one of the league's worst quarterback situations, having struck out on two top-three draft picks and getting their best play -- if sometimes inconsistent -- from Walker, who was leading the XFL Houston Roughnecks two years ago.
But Carolina is also clearly a more competitive football team with Wilks in command, and that was noted by a fellow (permanent) NFL head coach earlier this week to CBS Sports. In the absence of quality play at the most important position in sports, Wilks has instituted a greater attitude toward running the football and being more aggressive up front.
That's evidenced by a running game that somehow has gotten better even after trading away their best player, Christian McCaffrey.
Through Week 5 with Rhule as the head coach, the Panthers ranked 15th in the league in yards per rush (4.36) and ranked 25th in the league in yards before contact per rush (1.13).
Since Wilks took over in Week 6, the Panthers rank 11th in the league in yards per rush (4.62) and rank 14th in the league in yards before contact per rush (1.68).
Sources have previously indicated to CBS Sports that Tepper would want an up-and-coming offensive mind as his next head coach, pulling from the professional ranks rather than college again. But Wilks is making a strong push, and what he and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo are able to accomplish to close this season before Carolina can land a franchise quarterback in the 2023 draft could make Wilks a hard candidate to turn down -- especially with the locker room on his side.