Steve Wilks inherited a disaster when he took over for fired head coach Matt Rhule in Carolina.
Four weeks into his tenure as interim head coach, it's still unclear who the Panthers' starting quarterback is.
Baker Mayfield lost his starting job to P.J. Walker after a disastrous five-game stint ended with a high-ankle sprain. On Sunday, he got it back. For the moment, at least.
Mayfield replaced an ineffective Walker for the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals. He played the best football of his Panthers tenure while completing 14 of 20 passes for 155 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. It didn't much matter for the game's outcome after Carolina dug a 35-0 halftime hole. It allowed for a more respectable final score as the Bengals secured a 42-21 win behind a five-touchdown day from running back Joe Mixon.
After the game, Wilks wasn't ready to identify Mayfield — or anybody — as Carolina's starting quarterback with a Thursday night tilt against the Atlanta Falcons on the horizon.
"I couldn’t tell you now," Wilks told reporters postgame.
"We'll be able to sit here and look at a few things, talk to the staff. I'll have that answer here soon."
It's not uncommon for a coach in Wilks' position to take time from the immediate aftermath of a game to make a quarterback decision like this. Taking a break from the emotional aftermath of a game to watch film and analyze play makes sense.
But that Wilks doesn't know who his quarterback is with Week 10 approaching speaks to the dire state of Carolina's roster.
It seems unlikely that Walker will get the call. He earned a shot to secure the job with a two-touchdown effort in a 21-3 Week 7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sunday's result appeared to slam that door shut. Walker completed 3 of 10 passes for 9 yards and two interceptions in the first half against Cincinnati before getting benched. It added up to a 0.0 quarterback rating on a scale that awards a 39.6 for simply not throwing an interception.
Sam Darnold's status remains unclear. Darnold struggled as a started for Carolina last season and entered training camp in a battle with the newly acquired Mayfield for the 2022 gig. He then suffered a high-ankle sprain in the preseason that cemented Mayfield's status as starter. The job was in all likelihood Mayfield's regardless after Carolina traded assets to acquire him and he outplayed Darnold in the preseason.
Could Wilks turn back to Darnold? He was vague last week when discussing Darnold and his injury recovery.
“I think Sam has been doing well in practice — in the things that he has progressed with, as far as really throwing the football,” Wilks said, per the Charlotte Observer's Mike Kaye. “He hasn’t really taken any live action since last year. Preseason was sparingly there, so it’s still a process. I can’t really say.”
Prior to Sunday's game, Mayfield digressed to the worst football of his NFL career with the Panthers while completing 54.9% of his passes with four touchdowns and four interceptions in four-plus games to start the season. Sunday's second-half effort showed the upside Carolina hoped for when it acquired him. It also came in a game that was lost before he took a snap.
None of the options are great but Wilks has to send somebody to lead the offense for Thursday's prime-time game against the Falcons.