Five major questions for the Panthers after the bye week

Carolina Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks motions from the sideline during second half action against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, November 27, 2022 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. The Panthers defeated the Broncos 23-10.

Carolina Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks motions from the sideline during second half action against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, November 27, 2022 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. The Panthers defeated the Broncos 23-10.

The Carolina Panthers will enter the home stretch of their season on Monday following a Week 13 bye.

At 4-8, the Panthers still have a sliver of hope in the NFC South race, but really, this campaign has largely become a proving ground for interim head coach Steve Wilks and some of the notable names on the roster.

With five games remaining on the schedule, Wilks and company still face more questions than answers. That’s why The Charlotte Observer decided to break down five of the major questions remaining in this unusual campaign.

Will Steve Wilks do enough to get the interim tag removed?

Following the firing of Matt Rhule in October, Panthers owner David Tepper repeatedly said his goal for the future was “getting over the hump.” Tepper essentially defined that outlook as winning more than the previous campaign and showing tangible growth by doing so. Tepper fired Rhule after the head coach went 5-11, 5-12 and 1-4 during his three campaigns at the helm.

So far, through seven games, Wilks has already climbed some mountains that Rhule was unable to scale during his more than two years in charge.

During Rhule’s first two seasons on the job, his teams went 2-6 at home in both campaigns. Wilks has started off 3-0 at home, already attaining more single-season home victories than Rhule produced, even in a fraction of the attempts.

Wilks is 3-4 to start his interim tenure, already matching his win total from his one-year stint with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 (3-13). The Panthers were largely seen as inept and talent deficient under Rhule, but Wilks has taken a worse roster — without offensive standouts Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson — and made the group look competent.

If Wilks can remain unbeaten at home — with matchups against the up-and-down Detroit Lions and lowly Pittsburgh Steelers remaining on the slate — he will finish no worse than 5-7 during his interim tenure. That win total would tie both of Rhule’s full-time campaigns with four and five less games, respectively. A 41.7% winning percentage is significantly better than the 28.9% mark that Rhule had in 38 tries.

Wilks is putting forth a respectable effort with a roster that he didn’t help construct and a coaching staff he didn’t hire. With matchups against the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers still remaining on the schedule, Wilks could realistically produce six wins this season, which could check off a major box in the “get over the hump” department.

As The Observer has previously reported, there is growing internal support for Wilks to keep the job beyond this season. Wilks was given little shot to stick around when he was handed the interim role in October, and now, he’s already begun to will himself into much better standing.

It’s hard to guarantee anything with Tepper, but Wilks is having an interim tenure that should make the owner ask himself, “What if he actually got to pick the ingredients instead of following someone else’s recipe?”

Will Sam Darnold keep the starting QB job for the remainder of the season?

Darnold will receive a second consecutive start against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13. Wilks — who had previously taken a week-to-week approach at the quarterback spot — emphatically named Darnold his starting QB after the bye week following the win against the Denver Broncos.

It’s easy to understand why Darnold was given that immediate second shot. The former first-round pick had his ninth career passer rating of 100 or more, and he went without a sack for only the third NFL start of his career. Darnold was efficient, made smart decisions and protected the ball against the Broncos. While he only completed 11 of his 19 passes, he moved the offense to five scoring drives.

Darnold also made wideout DJ Moore look like a star again. The pair connected on four passes for 103 yards against the Broncos, who have one of the better defenses in the league.

Darnold is set to become a free agent for the first time in March. After missing the first 11 games of the season with a high ankle sprain, Darnold needs to prove himself over the next five weeks to land a new deal.

While some have written him off as a starter, Darnold could garner interest as a training camp competition quarterback or a stop-gap signal-caller with an impressive run down the stretch.

Darnold is playing with a better offensive line than he’s ever had. He’s also been able to sit and learn this offense, which clearly fits his skill set, for the better part of three months. If he can continue to protect the ball and manage the offense, he should be able to hold off Baker Mayfield and PJ Walker for the remainder of the season.

Can the Panthers finally win a game on the road?

The Panthers are winless on the road through five attempts. During their final five games, the Panthers will be on the road for three matchups.

In Week 13, they’ll face a feisty Seahawks squad before finishing out the season with back-to-back NFC South battles in Tampa Bay and New Orleans. If the Panthers can upset the Seahawks on the road, they’ll produce their first winning streak of the season. Wilks stressed that outlook to his locker room following the win over the Broncos.

The Panthers have already defeated the Saints and Buccaneers at home. Carolina’s 21-3 win against the Buccaneers was one of the more impressing outings of the Tepper era.

The Saints and Buccaneers are both still reeling, and with the Panthers splitting the season series against the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina still has an outside shot at the NFC South crown. If the Panthers can go 2-1 on the road during their final three matchups, Wilks and the Panthers could surprise folks with a last-minute moonwalk into the postseason.

The odds are stacked against Carolina, but it has been that way throughout the Wilks era. So far, the interim head coach and his band have put up a solid fight.

Can D’Onta Foreman reach 1,000 rushing yards?

Following the win against the Broncos, Wilks said that he’d like to get running back D’Onta Foreman around 20 carries per game.

Foreman has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in four of the past six games and averaged 87.7 rushing yards per game during that span. With 563 rushing yards on the season, he needs 437 more yards to reach 1,000.

Signed to a one-year, $2 million deal, Foreman needs to continue his momentum through the final stretch of the campaign. If he can get past the magical 1,000-yard mark, he should receive heavy interest in free agency.

The Panthers’ offensive line has done a relatively strong job in opening up holes for Foreman to blaze through. With Wilks committed to giving him a bunch of carries, Foreman could come out of the bye week on a mission to eclipse 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

Despite barely being used through the first six games of the season, Foreman has already tied the highest single-season rushing total of his NFL career.

If he can average 87.4 rushing yards per game during the rest of the slate, he could find himself in rare company at the top of the rushing leaders list.

Which young players will emerge down the stretch?

As with Foreman, there have been several role players who have emerged during the Wilks interim era.

Rookies like Cade Mays, Brandon Smith and Amare Barno have received the occasional opportunities to shine. After the bye week, those three players could receive more chances to make their respective marks.

Rhule’s role players — such as Sam Franklin, Tommy Tremble and C.J. Henderson — should also be given the playing time to make a difference. Wilks is worried about winning right now, but developing young talent on the fly could also further his case for sticking around as head coach.

If a handful of young players can emerge down the stretch, the Panthers could push for more wins and further back Wilks’ cause to keep his gig.

Mike Kaye covers the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer. Kaye previously covered the entire NFL for Pro Football Network, the Philadelphia Eagles for NJ Advance Media and the Jacksonville Jaguars for First Coast News. He is a graduate of the University of North Florida.

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