Five weeks into the NFL season, the Carolina Panthers threw in the towel on the Matt Rhule era, firing the third-year coach after an uninspired 1-4 start to the season.
National outlets were (understandably) quick to write off the Panthers' immediate chances in the NFC South, and even most local coverage began to focus on the team's draft capital and potential quarterbacks to target in the offseason.
One week after the Rhule firing, the team traded star running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers, a move that should have been the final nail in the 2022 Panthers coffin.
The catch? No one told Steve Wilks, who as the interim coach has the Panthers contending for the division title with two weeks to go in the regular season.
Changing Of The Guard
While his 5-5 record since taking over might not exactly jump off the page, the context of the job Wilks inherited matters most.
An uninspired offense, playing musical chairs at quarterback, doomed Rhule and his slow rebuild. But under Wilks (and without McCaffrey), the Panthers have managed to carve out an identity that gives them a chance to compete week in, week out.
A steady defense, led by linebacker Brian Burns, has kept the team in almost every game, while the offense has done just enough behind running back D'Onta Foreman, whether it has been P.J. Walker or Sam Darnold under center.
North Carolina sports betting is not legal, but BetMGM gives the Panthers the second best odds to win the division (+310) behind the Bucs (-350). The teams face off this Sunday in Tampa (FOX, 1pm) in what could be the crowning moment of the Wilks-led turnaround.
NFL Interim Coaches Since 2013
Wilks Already Among Best Interim Head Coaches
BetCarolina crunched the numbers of every NFL interim head coach since 2013, and Wilks is closing in on some good company ... with a catch.
With five wins already under his belt, Wilks is tied with the Browns' Gregg Williams and the Dolphins' Dan Campbell for the second-most wins as an interim HC since 2013. The Raiders' Rich Bisaccia has the most wins as an interim HC (7), though Wilks can catch that mark if the Panthers win out.
The elephant in the room for Wilks? None of those 3 previously mentioned coaches landed the permanent job, a surprising history mark that illustrates what an uphill battle each interim HC faces.
Bisaccia had the best case just last season for the Raiders, as he went 7-5 after Jon Gruden's firing and even took the Silver and Black to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Alas, owner Mark Davis didn't envision Bisaccia as a long-term solution, and let the interim coach walk so he could poach Josh McDaniels from the Patriots. (McDaniels is now 6-9 in his first season).
Williams and Campbell were also passed over when it came time for ownership to make a commitment, as the Browns instead promoted Williams' offensive coordinator, Freddie Kitchens (who was then fired after a 6-10 season) and the Dolphins went with Adam Gase (who went 23-25 over three seasons).
Is Wilks The Man For The Job?
Can Wilks buck the trend of interim head coaches getting passed over? Should the Panthers complete their improbable run to the playoffs, it's hard to envision owner David Tepper going in a different direction.
Look no further than the current situation in Las Vegas.
While Raiders fans have suffered numerous last-second, heart breaking losses this season, it's been difficult for Davis to spin McDaniels as an upgrade over the well-liked Bisaccia, who, like Wilks. took over a team in disarray and more than kept the season afloat.
Tepper has made several missteps as an NFL owner, and the Rhule contract is chief among them.
Will he really let Wilks leave town and risk whiffing on another coaching hire? BetCarolina took a look at Tepper's local approval rating earlier this season.
Should Wilks be let go and a new coach struggles, Tepper's standing in the Carolinas will suffer even more.
Unless a proven NFL winner such as Sean Payton or Jim Harbaugh is willing to come work for Tepper, odds are Wilks is back on the Panthers' sideline next season after a job well done in 2022.
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