PJ Walker made his first-ever NFL start today for the Carolina Panthers against the Detroit Lions.
Week 11 in the NFL had the feel of the XFL on Fox from earlier this year. Same channel, Same star quarterback but an entirely different world than the one that existed when Walker was lighting up scoreboards in Houston for the Roughnecks.
For supporters of the XFL and PJ Walker, His ascent back into the NFL, and now starting is a validation of the value of leagues like the XFL.
Getting his first start was no easy task for Walker. It was not only because of the improbable journey he took to get here (cut 12 times) but also evidenced by the uncertainty during the week and even up to an hour before gameday.
P.J. Walker split first-team reps all week with Will Grier, while Panthers starter Teddy Bridgewater tried to make a late push to return from a right knee injury.
On Sunday, Bridgewater tried to give it a go in warmups, with Carolina’s top brass all watching. Initially, reports had Teddy as being active before the Panthers officially deactivated him.
“We will see if the XFL translates to the NFL.”
Fox play by play announcer Kevin Kugler opened Sunday’s game with this line.
It’s that kind of statement that adds a little extra pressure to PJ Walker’s performance today. In some respects, Walker is carrying an entire league’s reputation and value on his shoulders.
As if finding out that you are starting your first NFL game on the morning of wasn’t hard enough. Carolina was also missing two starting offensive linemen and their best player in Christian McCaffrey.
So how did Walker fare today in his first-ever start? Let’s take an in-depth look.
Panthers Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady did a great job getting Walker comfortable early on. On the team’s first play, PJ connected on a quick screen to fellow Temple teammate Robby Anderson.
On their first crucial third-down, Brady reached into the June Jones Roughneck playbook. Going five wide as Walker found Curtis Samuel for a first-down.
The Panthers’ series stalled when a delay of game pushed the team back and Carolina was forced to punt when they came up short on third down.
WALKER HEATS UP
PJ Walker led the Panthers on a 94-yard scoring drive in the first quarter. He did so with a perfectly thrown first down conversion to DJ Moore. The pass was made with Carolina backed up on their own end. Walker showing the zip and arm strength on this throw that many of his doubters questioned.
Walker would then show off his arm strength and timing with a beautiful 52-yard bomb down the sidelines to DJ Moore. A few plays later, PJ nearly scored his first NFL touchdown on a run down to the one-yard line. Carolina cashed in with a Mike Davis TD run.
P.J. Walker at this point, was 6-8 for 105 yards passing.
WALKER SHOWS INEXPERIENCE
Just when P.J. Walker was starting to look like he was revisiting his MVP form in the XFL. His inexperience finally showed up. On a potential scoring drive deep into Lions territory. Walker was picked off in the end zone by Amani Oruwariaye.
An ill-advised pass by Walker that cost his team sure points. The type of mistake that rookie or first-time starting quarterbacks make.
It’s worth noting that long time veteran QB Matthew Stafford, who was nursing a thumb injury, started this game 5 of 11 for 54 yards. That’s with 154 starts under his belt. Stafford finished the day 18/33 for 178 yards.
For the 25-year old PJ Walker, this was his first start in the NFL.
PJ Walker eventually settled down after his big red zone mistake, but the opportunity for big plays in the first half didn’t materialize. One of the knocks against Walker by scouts has been his size (5’11), and some of that came to pass as Walker had three of his passes deflected on the line in this game.
Late in the first half, Walker narrowly missed on what would have been another huge gain down the field to DJ Moore. A pass that Walker overthrew and would’ve been an easy walk-in touchdown.
PJ Walker would finish the first-half, 14/22 for 157 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. He also rushed for two yards. A first down run by Walker late in the first half was negated by penalty.
ALMOST PERFECT SECOND HALF, ALMOST
Although, P.J. Walker has the benefit of two former college teammates on the Panthers’ offense in TE Colin Thompson and WR Robby Anderson.
On this day, Walker built up formidable connections to wide receivers D.J Moore and Curtis Samuel.
While, Walker did connect with Anderson for seven receptions. It was DJ Moore, that led the way with seven catches and 127 yards. Curtis Samuel went for eight receptions, seventy yards and a score.
Leading only 7-0 at the break. Walker would get red-hot in the second half. He connected on his first ten passes for 121 yards through the air. Carolina’s first possession of the second half was capped off with an easy pitch and catch 17-yard touchdown from Walker to Curtis Samuel. Walker’s first as an NFL quarterback.
The play stretched the Panthers’ lead to 14-0, and Walker would guide Carolina to a field goal on the next drive to up the score to 17-0.
Unfortunately, Walker’s hot streak in the second half would end on his twelfth straight completion. For the second time in the end zone, Walker threw an ill-advised pass and was intercepted by Lions cornerback Desmond Trufant.
It was an interesting and very telling sequence. Up 17, midway through the fourth quarter, facing a third down. Instead of running the ball, chewing up the clock, and kicking a short field goal to extend the lead to 20.
The Panthers gave Walker the freedom to throw on third down. Something that more conservative coaches would’ve avoided in that type of situation. Especially considering that PJ was making his first start.
The Panthers’ defense won this game for Carolina. They completely held the Lions in check and shut them out. A surprising performance from a beleaguered unit. The Carolina defense deserves the credit for this 20-0 victory.
However, while there were some ups and downs for PJ Walker, the fact is that he is now 6-0 in 2020 as a starter in the pros. Walker hasn’t lost a game he’s started since 2016 when Temple lost to Memphis 34-27.
Walker’s final numbers were: 24/34 258 yards passing, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions.
In all likelihood, Teddy Bridgewater will be back as the Panthers starter next week. However, as he did at Temple and in the XFL, PJ Walker proved that he has the skills to make plays.
The two glaring mistakes aside, Walker wasn’t overwhelmed, and he showed a lot of the positive traits that he displayed as an Owl in college and as a Roughneck in the XFL. It’s no secret to anyone who has observed Walker closely since college. P.J. can play. The fact that Walker got the opportunity to do that today is a testament to him and the value of the XFL’s existence.
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