CHARLOTTE, N.C. – PJ Walker stood alone in front of his locker on Sunday, the game ball in one hand and a cell phone in the other, while a crowd of reporters gathered around Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson a few feet away.
None of the countless messages at that point were from recently fired coach Matt Rhule, who in 2020 brought to Carolina the former XFL star who helped him turn around the program at Temple University. Had there been, Walker imagined it would have been short and sweet, like: “You did what I knew you could do."
Rhule always believed in Walker, 27. One of Rhule's biggest mistakes in two-plus seasons at Carolina was not sticking with the quarterback last season after he completed 22 of 29 pass attempts for 167 yards in a 34-10 victory against the Arizona Cardinals that improved the team to 5-5.
Instead, he made the popular choice and turned to Cam Newton, who scored on his first two plays against the Cardinals after returning to the team he led to the Super Bowl in 2015. Rhule did that, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the situation, because owner David Tepper wanted the former league MVP to start with home attendance dwindling.
Newton went on to go 0-5 before being replaced by Sam Darnold, setting the stage for Rhule’s dismissal this season, following a 1-4 start, after finishing 2021 with seven straight losses.
Interim coach Steve Wilks won’t make the same mistake. He’s sticking with Walker for Sunday's NFC South game against the Atlanta Falcons (3-4) with Carolina (2-5) still in contention to win the division. He's doing this for a third straight week, even though Baker Mayfield and Darnold, the first and third picks of the 2018 draft, respectively, have recovered enough from high ankle sprains to possibly play.
Former Atlanta quarterback and head coach June Jones, 5-0 with Walker quarterbacking the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, applauds the decision.
“PJ is a winner," said Jones, now offensive coordinator of the XFL’s Seattle Sea Dragons. “Players know that, too. They watch him. They rally behind him because he is a leader. I committed to him, and that is what the Panthers need to do. He can play and win."
Jones saw what coaches call the “it" factor in Walker when the former SMU head coached faced him in 2015. Walker passed for 288 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown in a 60-40 victory over the Mustangs as a junior.
‘“He was spectacular," Jones recalled. “As soon as the game was over, I walked across the field and found him and told him so. I know PJ is [at Carolina] because of Matt, so the politics unfortunately will play in the decision to keep him at the end of the season. But he just wins."
Walker’s agent, Marty Magid, said the perception his client is in Carolina simply because of Rhule is wrong. He reminded that Walker’s fiancé already worked in Charlotte as a teacher and five teams wanted to sign Walker coming out of the XFL, where he had 15 touchdowns and four interceptions in five games.
“We thought at the time Carolina was not only a good opportunity, but one of the better offers as well," Magid said of Walker, who was given a two-year, $1,565,000 deal in 2020 and another one-year $895,000 this past offseason.
Rhule actually inherited Walker at Temple. The Elizabeth (N.J.) High School star committed to the previous coaching staff, who offered him the chance to play quarterback, versus other schools that wanted him to play defense.
But Rhule and Walker hit it off immediately, and the bond played a big role in turning Temple from a two-win team in 2013 to a 10-win team in 2015 and 2016.
“To me, when he was in college, he was a pro already," said Carolina safety Sam Franklin Jr., Walker’s college teammate in 2016. “He just has the ability to win and the preparation to wanting to win."
Despite Rhule’s presence, the Panthers planned to go into this season with Mayfield as the starter, Darnold as the backup and third-round pick Matt Corral as the developmental quarterback.
At best, Walker’s future was on the practice squad, until Corral suffered a season-ending foot injury during the second preseason game and Darnold a high ankle sprain in the third preseason game.
Rhule wanted to turn to Walker as Mayfield struggled to a league-low 15.3 Total Quarterback Rating in five games, but he was afraid to make the switch for fear that would signal the end to Mayfield.
It wasn’t until Mayfield suffered a high ankle sprain in the 37-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers the day before Rhule was fired on Oct. 10 that Walker became the only option.
“He has tremendous respect in that building with or without Matt Rhule," Magid insisted.
That includes Mayfield.
“PJ’s a great leader," Mayfield said. “He’s a great quarterback. He’s a guy that’s continuously stepped up in this place."
Teammates laugh when asked if Walker has an ego like many quarterbacks.
“He’s probably the most normal quarterback that I’ve had," wide receiver DJ Moore said.
Moore took it one step further when asked why players rally around Walker.
“PJ is just a loveable guy," he said.
John Quinn, Walker's high school coach, understands. He recalled the time Walker volunteered to play defense during an 0-3 start to his sophomore high school season and when Walker played the middle man on the front line of the kickoff return in a playoff game as a senior because the opponent kept doing onside kicks.
“He’s a great example for young kids and perseverance," said Quinn, whose team won the state title Walker’s senior season after losing in the finals the year before. “You take the situation presented to you and make the best of it."
As frustrated as Walker was being the odd-quarterback out in camp, he never showed it or complained. He just worked harder, and teammates saw that. That’s one reason he gets as much support from defensive players as he does on offense.
“We have an old saying, good things happen to people that wait, as long as they work their butt off while they wait," Quinn said. “Nobody works harder than PJ."
It was the highest Total QBR for the Panthers since Darnold had an 83.5 in last season's second game, a 26-7 win against the New Orleans Saints. It was the second-highest mark for Walker, who had a 77.8 rating in a 2020 20-0 win against the Detroit Lions.
Unlike the Lions game, when Walker had two red zone turnovers, he made no mistakes against Tampa Bay. That was the biggest knock on him the past two seasons when he had eight interceptions to two touchdowns.
That’s where Walker has grown the most, helping him earn trust from coaches and teammates on the field the way he always has off the field.
“I can make every throw, but every [throw] doesn’t need to get made," Walker explained. “Live to fight another down, that is how I approach the game now."
That’s helping Walker live to play another game, and as long as he’s successful, he could remain the starter. Carolina also has incentive to not play Mayfield. If he plays 70% of the snaps this season, the conditional draft pick the Panthers agreed to send the Cleveland Browns in the July trade to acquire Mayfield would go from a fifth- to a fourth-rounder.
None of this means Walker is the long-term future for an organization thirsting for a franchise quarterback. It just means he’s a feel-good story on a team that’s had little to feel good about. And he’s brought hope the Panthers can do what Walker saw the Indianapolis Colts do when he was an undrafted player in 2018 while backing up Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett.
That team started 1-5, then won nine of its last 10 games to make the playoffs. While Walker sees similar characteristics in Carolina, he’s not looking that far ahead for his team or his career.
“You can’t," Walker said. “I can’t see the future. I can see tomorrow and today, and today is all that matters to me."