The Week 11 meeting between the Carolina Panthers and the Detroit Lions has the potential to be the battle of the backup quarterbacks.
As of Thursday morning, Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s (right knee) status for that game is undetermined. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s (thumb) availability is also unknown with Detroit taking things on a day-to-day basis. Stafford did not practice Wednesday, while Bridgewater was limited.
In a conference call with Lions reporters, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said, “I love watching Stafford play. He’s dynamic, he’s a competitor, and I feel the same way about Teddy. So I think it’ll be awesome to see both those guys out there.”
While Rhule’s optimism about seeing both players out there is a good sign, the Panthers have been cautious regarding injuries and Stafford has dealt with his fair share of injuries in in his career. The Lions quarterback has dealt with various hand and finger injuries over the years, while Bridgewater suffered a devastating left knee injury in 2016 that caused him to largely miss two seasons.
Going into Sunday, the Lions have an established backup and NFL veteran in Chase Daniel. For the Panthers, things are less decided. They haven’t had to choose an official No. 2 quarterback this year, instead alternating between Will Grier and P.J. Walker for who’s active on game days.
Each backup has been active for five games this year with Walker getting more opportunities as of late, partly due to injuries at the offensive skill positions. The Panthers have said that he can be a backup in that area as well.
The players are splitting snaps in this week’s practice, but even if Bridgewater plays, this week will provide some clarity.
“If Teddy can go, I think this will give us real clarity as to who the No. 2 should be and if he can’t go, then hey, it’s pretty clear who the starter is,” Rhule said.
So, who are the Panthers choosing between?
Grier was drafted by the Panthers in the third round (100th overall pick) of the 2019 NFL draft out of West Virginia. The Davidson native attended Davidson Day School and grew up a Panthers fan. His dad, Chad Grier, is the head football coach at Providence Day.
In his first NFL season, Grier, 25, lost the backup job to Kyle Allen, who went on to start 12 games for the Panthers in 2019. After watching from the bench most of the season for the first time in his life, the rookie was given the opportunity to start the final two games of the year with the playoffs well out of reach and head coach Ron Rivera already fired.
He exited the second game early with a foot injury and in those games completed 28-of-52 passes (53.8%) for 228 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions. Grier was sacked six times behind a banged up offensive line.
In the offseason, Grier worked with his father on getting back to the fundamentals.
“Quite frankly, I had to work on everything,” Grier said in August. “Had to press the reset button, get back to the basics, get back to fundamentals. I worked with my dad on just accuracy, just really taking it back to the fundamentals of playing football and building from there. … I wasn’t happy with the way I performed last year when I got my opportunity and it really kind of set things off in my brain.”
Grier said that in 2019 he didn’t have a full understanding of what went into being a backup. It made him more prepared going into this year behind Bridgewater and with Walker.
“That was the biggest adjustment for me last year, just learning how to handle day in day out (of being a backup), me against me. That was something that I failed miserably at last year,” Grier said. “But I think that’s where you make the biggest jumps, is learning from your failures and I failed last year that. I mean, straight up was bad at being a backup. And, like I said, I learned a lot from it and feel more ready to go this year.”
While he believes that not having a preseason hurt because of the lack of game reps, he also had the opportunity to learn from Bridgewater’s calm demeanor and from offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
This season, both backups have had to be prepared to be active every week, which Grier said was a challenge, but something that is just part of the process that Rhule preaches. Staying ready every week is important.
On the surface, going with Grier seems like the obvious choice based on what the Panthers have invested in him, but Rhule said nothing will be decided based on that.
“To me, where people were drafted or selected, that affecting your decision making is what ruins organizations,” Rhule said. “You owe it to the team and the players to play the guys who practice the best and play the best and if you’ve drafted right, then they’ll be out there. Will has deserved to have a chance to play, (it) just hasn’t timed out right for him. He’s practiced really well and prepared really well. We could go the whole year with Will not not getting in the game and I would know exactly what we have with him, because I see it day in and day out.”
Walker has seen the field twice this season, being the team’s only active backup quarterback in both of the games that Bridgewater has been injured in.
Against Atlanta in Week 8, Brady called up a throw downfield for Walker, but the pass intended for Robby Anderson running a go route fell incomplete. He finished the game 1 of 4 for 3 yards. Bridgewater (neck) re-entered the game on the drive following his injury.
Walker, 25, finished the game against the Buccaneers on Sunday after Bridgewater went out with his knee injury. He completed 2 of 4 passes (50%) for 12 yards and was sacked once. Both game appearances have come with scores largely out of hand or in difficult situations.
“When (P.J.’s) gotten up, he’s been in some pretty dire circumstances, tough circumstances, in terms of having to bring the team back,” Rhule said.
The quarterback chose to sign with the Panthers despite other options following a prolific stint in the XFL this past spring. Walker was on pace to become the league’s MVP, finishing five games with 267.6 passing yards per game, a 65% completion percentage, 15 touchdowns to four interceptions and 99 rushing yards.
He is known for his ability to be more mobile and run with the football if needed, while Grier is more of a traditional quarterback. But Walker also said he has learned from Bridgewater, including how poised he is in the pocket.
“I tend to, at times, hold on to the ball a little bit longer than most guys, just because I feel like I need to get the throw in there or just trying to try to do a little too much with the football, but I see Teddy got out there. He looks here, he looks there. His eyes are always working. His feet are always working as well,” Walker said. “For me, it’s just going to be able to just emulate that into my game, just trying to move the ball quicker, get it out my hands a lot faster.”
There was plenty of familiarity in Walker deciding to come to Carolina. He spent four seasons with Rhule at Temple, going from a 2-10 season in his and Rhule’s first year in 2013, to an American Athletic conference championship in their final year with the Owls in 2016. His college teammates, wide receivers Robby Anderson and Keith Kirkwood and tight end Colin Thompson, also signed with the Panthers in the offseason.
Prior to the XFL, he spent two seasons on and off the Colts practice squad and one on his couch, waiting for the right opportunity.
And this week could be it for one of these quarterbacks.