'Go be stars' -- Panthers' top picks respond to Steve Wilks' callout with a win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The big screen in the Carolina Panthers' team meeting room was filled with the faces and names of all the team’s high draft picks when everyone gathered last week for interim coach Steve Wilks’ evaluation of a loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

It wasn’t just one or two players. It was everyone selected in the first two rounds.

And their faces weren’t there so Wilks could point them out as examples of those who played well in defeat.

This was Wilks’ way of saying enough was enough to those who were drafted to help turn around an organization. This was as close to a tongue-lashing as a coach could get with no regard for egos or hurt feelings in a league where stars often don’t like their egos challenged.

Wilks' message, 2019 first-round defensive end Brian Burns said, was simple: “These are the stars. Go be stars.’’

And in Sunday’s 23-10 victory over the Denver Broncos at Bank of America Stadium, they did exactly that.

Wide receiver DJ Moore, a 2018 first-round pick, had four catches for 103 yards and a touchdown a week after having only three catches for 24 yards in the 13-3 loss to Baltimore. Running back D’Onta Foreman, a 2017 third-round pick, had 113 yards rushing on 24 carries a week after having 24 yards on 11 carries, as the offensive line paved the way for a total of 185 yards rushing. Burns had two sacks and three quarterback hits.

Quarterback Sam Darnold, the 2018 No. 3 overall pick who was making his first start since the end of the 2021 season, completed 11 of 19 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score. Just as important, he didn’t have a turnover, earning him the starting job against the Seattle Seahawks in two weeks after the team returns from a bye.

They put together the winning formula that coach Matt Rhule couldn’t accomplish in such complete fashion during the Panthers' 1-4 start before he was fired -- the winning formula Wilks has been trying to achieve since replacing him.

It’s a formula Wilks hopes is sustainable over the final five games against the Seahawks (6-5), Pittsburgh Steelers (3-7), Detroit Lions (4-7), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6) and New Orleans Saints (4-8) to make a late playoff run as the 2014 Panthers did.

That team was 3-8-1 and won their final four games to win the NFC South and a first-round playoff game the season before going 15-1 and reaching the Super Bowl.

But to achieve that formula, Wilks, then the secondary coach at Carolina, understands his star players will need to consistently play well, something that hasn’t happened all season.

“You want those guys to be able to step up when their numbers are called,’’ Darnold said. “I feel like as a whole team we did that.’’

Burns noted Wilks’ PowerPoint presentation wasn’t made in a disrespectful way. He also said calling out the stars earned the interim coach, hoping to become the full-time coach, even more respect than he already has.

“It lets you know how highly he thinks of the star players on this team, and he wants us to play to our potential,’’ Burns said. “Guys took that into consideration and went out there and balled. Whatever he did worked.’’

Wilks wasn’t surprised, and he has already challenged the team to do something else it hasn’t all season when it travels to Seattle in Week 14: win two games in a row and win a road game.

“It just confirms the kind of character that we have in that locker room,’’ Wilks said. “Guys that care about one and another. Guys that care about their craft and try to perfect and do their job to the fullest. Very impressed, but not surprised.’’