Besides the coaching situation in Carolina, the main question for everyone has been when the Panthers will find their franchise quarterback and who it will be.
The Panthers' quarterback room has been hit with bleak news all season. Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold fought for the starting role at the QB position while P.J. Walker and rookie Matt Corral followed suit.
Carolina's first three quarterbacks were put on the injury reserve with various injuries by week five. This paved the way for Walker, an afterthought to the coaching staff in preseason training camp, to emerge as the starter in week six.
While Carolina was big underdogs, Walker led the Panthers to a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Oct. 23. The 21-3 victory shook up the betting books, with Tampa being 11.5 point favorites prior to the game. Walker felt his performance was a statement.
Sunday dub 🙌 pic.twitter.com/JkyKO5gEkA— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 23, 2022
"[This] just [proves] that I can be trusted with the football in my hand, make the right decisions at the right time," said Walker. "You know, even late in the game, we had an opportunity to throw the ball, and I made the right decision. For me, it is to just go out there and execute what we call, whether it is bubble screens or down the field."
Becoming the starter
In the preseason, Corral suffered a season-ending foot injury to give Tucker the third QB spot. Then, just a few weeks later, prior to the Panther's regular season debut, Darnold got hit with a high ankle sprain after losing the starting role battle with Mayfield.
In the Panther's 37-15 loss against the 49ers on Oct. 9, Mayfield went down with a high ankle sprain, and while he avoided significant damage and surgery, he was placed on the IR.
The injury to Mayfield opened the way for P.J. Tucker to see action where he finished the game five for six, threw for 60 yards and had a QB Rating of 108.3. From there, Tucker became the starter for the time being.
His performance against the Bucs
Walker's start against the Tampa Bay defense was just his second thus far this season. His stellar performance led the 1-5 Panthers, who were ranked dead last in the NFL, to a 21-3 victory over Tom Brady and the Bucs that shocked the league.
Walker didn't get a lot of passing opportunities throughout the game, only having 22 attempts through the air, but he was very efficient on those plays.
He completed 16 of his passes for 177 yards, a 2/0 touchdown to interception ratio and a passer rating of 126.5, the third-highest passer rating of all QBs in week seven.
PFF rating dominance
The term PFF stands for Pro Football Focus; the grade is a rating calculated by Profootballfocus.com, a sports analysis company, which grades players' efficiency.
Despite his low usage in the Panthers' week seven win, Walker earned the highest PFF grade among all QBs. The PFF grade doesn't take into account his low pass attempt number because PFF grades by efficiency, not volume.
Walker's PFF grade of 94.9 was followed by Joe Burrow's 91.8 and Patrick Mahomes' 83.3. Burrow and Mahomes both finished with 400+ passing yards and three TDs but trailed behind Walker in the grading because volume doesn't make efficiency; performance does.
P.J. Walker QB1 pic.twitter.com/QHQBhg03SG— PFF (@PFF) October 24, 2022
The most significant factor in Walker's PFF grade dominance was his big-time throws. The term "big-time throws" is another PFF stat defined by PFF's Sam Monson and Steve Palazzolo as "a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window."
In week seven, Walker had six big-time throws, the same amount as Burrow and Mahomes combined; each had three.
What this means for the future
While Walker was an afterthought in the preseason, not being given many reps compared to the other Panthers' QBs, he came to earn the starting role due to injuries. This has the potential to be a lasting change.
It is too soon to say Walker will for sure remain the starter for the rest of the season or even the next few weeks to come, but his performance in week seven earned him the starting role in week eight against the Falcons, even if Mayfield or Darnold are cleared to play.
"As of right now, I don't see any reason to [start him], said Interim coach Steve Wilks on Monday. "I still want to evaluate things through the week, but I thought his performance yesterday was really impressive, just the things he did, from commanding the offense, pushing the ball downfield.
While his role as the starter may be hanging by a thread at the moment, a bad performance, or maybe even just a solid performance, could land him back on the bench. Walker is getting something he has not gotten the entire season, a chance.
"I am not going to sit here and dwell on this and be happy about this one win," said Walker. "I just want to continue to grow as a player, continue to get better and help this team get better. We've got a really good group that can do a lot of things out there."
Walker will lead the Panthers in a division matchup against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Oct. 30. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. down in Atlanta. The Falcons are coming off a substantial 35-17 loss to the Bengals.