Panthers' failure to reach playoffs hurts Wilks' job hopes

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Steve Wilks’ bid to become Carolina’s next full-time head coach took a huge hit Sunday after the Panthers blew an 11-point fourth quarter lead and lost 30-24 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, eliminating them from playoff contention.

Wilks is 5-6 since taking over as interim coach for Matt Rhule, who was fired after Week 5.

And while Wilks has the support of the players in the locker room, it seems unlikely it will be enough to save his job as owner David Tepper heads into decision-making mode. Tepper has endured five straight losing seasons since purchasing the team in 2018 for a then-record $2.3 billion and his patience has to be growing thin.

So while Wilks finally gave the Panthers (6-10) an identity they so sorely needed by developing a physical style and smash-mouth running game, the reality is most owners prefer to start fresh rather than promote an interim coach.

Since 2000, 40 NFL coaches have held the interim tag after the head coach was fired or left the team midseason. Of those, only 10 have gone on to earn a full-time head coaching job the following season. The most recent to do it was Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone in 2016.

Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore would love to see Wilks return, saying he has brought accountability to the locker room.

“There are a lot of people being up front and honest,” Moore said. “When you mess up, they are going to let you know. It’s not going to be sugarcoated, and everyone on the team is going to know that you messed up. So you ain’t gonna want to get embarrassed on film in front of the team.”

Wilks, a Charlotte native, knew it was an uphill battle at the time but said he didn't blink whatsoever when accepting the position.

Wilks certainly had his chances to make Tepper's decision more difficult.

The Panthers controlled their own playoff destiny three different weeks down the stretch, but the key all along to winning the NFC South was beating Tampa Bay in Week 17.

Carolina shut down Brady 21-3 in a Week 7 win — Wilks' first victory — and led 14-0 on Sunday, but the seven-time Super Bowl champion came back to tear up a depleted secondary and gave the Bucs the division title by scoring 20 points in the final 14 minutes.

WHAT’S WORKING

QB Sam Darnold. The 2018 No. 3 overall pick of the Jets has given the Panthers' front office something to think about as he enters free agency this offseason. Darnold threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns against the Buccaneers, who dared him to beat them by stacking the box to stop the run game.

However, Darnold also threw an interception and fumbled twice leading to 10 Tampa Bay points, ending a streak of four games without a turnover.

Overall, his body of work has been solid. He has completed 61.6% of his passes for 1,100 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception while going 3-2 as a starter. It likely won't preclude the Panthers from using their first-round draft pick on a QB, but Darnold has to at least have the team thinking about bringing him back as an insurance policy or temporary starter while they develop a young QB.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Pass defense. With starters Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn out with injuries, Brady shredded Carolina's secondary completing 34 of 45 passes for 432 yards and three long touchdown passes to Mike Evans of 63, 57 and 30 yards. Brady even ran for a score.

STOCK UP

Moore. He has excelled since Darnold took over for Baker Mayfield, with TD receptions in four of the last five games along with two 100-yard receiving games. When asked if he'd like to see Carolina re-sign Darnold, Moore smiled and said, “That's my guy.”

Moore needs 122 yards receiving Sunday against New Orleans for his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season.

STOCK DOWN

CB C.J. Henderson. The Panthers traded a third-round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Henderson, figuring they could jumpstart for the former top 10 overall pick's NFL career.

But Henderson was torched by Brady in the biggest game of the season. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, as the nearest defender, Henderson allowed nine receptions on 11 targets for 142 yards and two TDs.

Henderson, who has struggled at times this season with costly pass interference penalties, is under contact for $3.4 million in 2023.

INJURIES

With their playoff hopes dashed, the Panthers have put CB Jaycee Horn (wrist) on injured reserve. The Panthers held out hope Horn might play against New Orleans if they were still in playoff contention.

KEY NUMBER

13 — The number of tackles by LB Frankie Luvu against the Bucs, including three for a loss.

NEXT STEPS

The reality is the Panthers would be better off losing in Week 18 against the Saints as it would assure them a top 10 draft pick in April.

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