CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Quarterback PJ Walker, in line to make his third NFL start Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, summed up how Carolina Panthers players felt about the decision to fire head coach Matt Rhule and replace him with Steve Wilks.
“Everybody was a little shocked,” Walker said Wednesday, the first time players spoke to media since the coaching change was made Monday. “Everybody had a feeling. You just don’t know. I think over the past couple of weeks we came into each week not knowing. That’s a burden on a lot of players.
“A lot of us loved Coach Rhule. Now Coach Wilks is in charge. We think a lot of Coach Wilks, and we’ll take it from there.”
Running back Christian McCaffrey agreed.
“Anytime somebody you like loses their job it’s tough,” he said. “This is a tough business. It’s a result-oriented business. For us, as much as we love Coach, we’ve got to continue and move on. That’s what he’d want us to do.”
Wilks didn’t waste any time making changes to Rhule’s practice routine, turning Wednesday into a padded workout instead of Thursday with the hope of creating tempo for a team that has started slowly in each game during a 1-4 start.
Walker called the energy “elite.”
“We know at the end of the day we still have a job to do,” said Walker, who played for Rhule at Temple. “If we don’t our job, we’ll be gone, too.”
Walker took all of the first-team snaps on Wednesday, but Wilks left the door cracked that Baker Mayfield could return this week from the high ankle sprain he suffered in last Sunday’s 37-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
“He’s making progress,” Wilks said. “After talking to him this morning he feels he may have a chance this weekend. We’ll see how it goes.”
Sources close to Mayfield said Tuesday that the first pick of the 2018 draft is expected to miss two to six weeks, adding that Mayfield was doing everything he could to get back on the field sooner.
Mayfield still was wearing a walking boot on his left foot Wednesday, but Wilks didn’t rule him out for Sunday.
“I have a history with Baker,” said Wilks, who was with Mayfield in Cleveland in 2019. “He’s very physical, a very tough guy, mentally tough as well. So I trust his judgment.
“I definitely wouldn’t put him in harm’s way. … It’s important that he has the reps and the timing so we can go out there and execute. It would be hard for me to put him out there if he doesn’t practice.”
Players learned of the coaching change at around 11 p.m. on Monday when Rhule addressed them.
“The love that he had for that group, it was sincere,” Walker said of Rhule’s message. “There are a lot of guys in that room that felt the same way about him that he felt about the players. It hurt to see him go, but we’ve just got to go out there and overcome it. The season ain’t over. We’ve got to take care of business.”
This is the second in-season coaching change for Carolina since 2019. Perry Fewell replaced Ron Rivera with four games remaining that season and went 0-4.
Seeing the change come this early, linebacker Shaq Thompson said, “is a rude awakening” for many players.
“You understand it’s a business, especially the young guys,” Thompson said. “At the end of the day, it’s on us as the player. We’ve got to go out there and execute.”
Wilks said the goal this week was to simplify in all phases so players could play fast and aggressive, which was his mantra as a defensive coordinator at Carolina in 2018 and with Cleveland in 2019.
“We talked about that this morning in the team meeting,” Wilks said. “I’m going to take that same approach on the offensive side. We’re not going to sit back and react to the defense. We want to put pressure on them and have them react to us.”
It was clear by the energy in the locker room the Panthers, 11-27 under Rhule, haven’t given up on the season despite 11 losses in their last 12 games dating back to last season.
“Sometimes, bad stuff happens, but the earth keeps spinning,” McCaffrey said. “You’ve got to keep rolling. We’ve got to win a lot of ballgames here.”