CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Even though quarterback Baker Mayfield is expected to miss two to six weeks with a high ankle sprain, Carolina Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks believes he has the talent to turn around a 1-4 team that just fired its head coach.
Tests on Mayfield’s high ankle sprain revealed no other structural damage, but the injury has an expected two- to six-week timeline to heal, a source close to the quarterback told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler on Tuesday. Mayfield wants to try to play on the injury as early as possible, but that will be an uphill battle, the source said.
“We have the men that want to get it done,” Wilks said Tuesday at his introductory news conference in which owner David Tepper was in the audience. “Our work ethic has been consistent from the standpoint of how we go about each and every day practicing.
“We just have to go out in games and execute and finish. So I feel very confident in the men that we have in knowing we’re going to turn the corner.”
Tepper named Wilks his interim coach on Monday after firing Matt Rhule five games into Rhule’s third season of a seven-year, $62 million contract.
Tepper said Wilks, 57, would be considered for the full-time job in 2023 if he “does an incredible job.”
To do that, Wilks will have to begin his second stint as a head coach with former XFL star PJ Walker as his quarterback. The Panthers will have to go into Sunday’s road game against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams (2-3) with Walker.
“PJ is up and ready,” Wilks said. “He does a great job in being prepared each and every day. I have total confidence if he has to step in.”
Walker is the only healthy quarterback on the active roster. Sam Darnold, the 2021 starter, remains on injured reserve with an ankle injury suffered in August and is weeks away from being available.
Meanwhile, Wilks is focused on the Rams and turning around a team that has lost 11 of its last 12 games.
“We’ve played well enough to win games,” Wilks said. “We’ve got to find a way to finish, and that starts with me as well as the coaches.”
Wilks was named the head coach at Arizona in 2018 after coaching at Carolina under Ron Rivera from 2012 to 2017, the last year as defensive coordinator. He was fired after going 3-13.
He was the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns in 2019 while Mayfield was the quarterback. He returned to the Panthers this past offseason to serve as the defensive pass game coordinator and secondary coach.
One of his first moves as interim coach was to fire defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who worked with Rhule at Temple and Baylor, even though the defense played well enough the first five games to win.
Wilks named defensive run game coordinator Al Holcomb his defensive coordinator and said Holcomb will call plays on Sunday. Holcomb was Wilks’ defensive coordinator in Arizona as well.
“The scheme is not going to change much, but you have to be creative in the process of what you’re doing,” Wilks said. “Everything’s predicated on who we’re playing.
“The No. 1 process on defense, we’ve got to stop the run and try to make teams one-dimensional.”
Offensively, Wilks said the Panthers have to “create some momentum and some consistency, and that starts with trying to run the football.”
The Panthers rank last in total offense and 27th in rushing with 89.8 yards a game despite having Christian McCaffrey healthy for all five games.
Wilks knows how the team performs under him will determine his future with the organization, and he knows the history of interim coaches being hired full time isn’t good.
But that’s not his focus.
“Our approach is going to be winning the day,” he said. “The first thing we need to be concerned with is trying to win a football game, which starts with the Los Angeles Rams.
“Whatever is going to happen at the end of the year is going to take care of itself.”
Black coaches have been named interim coach 14 times in the NFL since 1990 but only three times were they hired for the permanent job, according to research by The Washington Post. The three coaches — Romeo Crennel (Kansas City Chiefs), Leslie Frazier (Minnesota Vikings) and Mike Singletary (San Francisco 49ers) — had at least a .500 record after taking over before being named fulltime coach. The Post reported that there was no correlation to record when white interim coaches were offered the fulltime job.