CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Team doctors cleared quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to play on Sunday, but Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule went with his "gut" and gave former XFL star P.J. Walker his first NFL start.
Walker rewarded him with a 20-0 victory over the Detroit Lions that ended a five-game losing streak.
"Everyone agreed he could play," Rhule said of Bridgewater. "He wanted to go. I just felt as I watched him move he moved at like 80, 85 percent. I didn't feel like at that position, especially with his history on the left knee, that was the right thing to do."
Bridgewater suffered a horrific, career-threatening left knee injury during his 2016 training camp with the Minnesota Vikings. With two starters missing on the offensive line due to injuries, including left tackle Russell Okung, Rhule was worried Bridgewater, who currently has an injury to his right knee, might put too much pressure on the left knee to protect himself under duress.
Watching Walker scramble on a few plays reaffirmed he made the right call.
"I want to win games," Rhule said. "If a player does everything he can to try to be helpful, then I feel it's my responsibility to protect them from themselves sometimes.
"At the end of the day I couldn't make that call and put him out there."
Rhule, owner David Tepper, general manager Marty Hurney and offensive coordinator Joe Brady discussed at length how to handle the quarterback situation. Bridgewater came onto the field twice before the team began warming up to go through rigorous drills with the trainers and coaches.
There was a point when the Panthers (4-7) considered activating Bridgewater, Walker and Will Grier, and saving Bridgewater for an emergency situation.
"Teddy told me he wanted to play," Rhule said. "He prepared like a monster this week."
In the end, Rhule made the decision to go with Walker -- who helped him turn around the program at Temple as the starter from 2013 to 2017 -- and save Bridgewater's return for next week against Minnesota.
Afterward, he rewarded Walker with a game ball.
"My mindset was already that I would be playing," said Walker, who wasn't told he would start until just prior to kickoff.
Walker completed 24 of 34 pass attempts for 258 yards and a touchdown, a 17-yarder to Curtis Samuel that gave Carolina a 14-0 lead. He also threw two interceptions in the red zone that Rhule acknowledged might have been costly had the defense not played so well.
Carolina registered its first shutout since 2015 and handed the Lions their first shutout loss since 2009.
Bridgewater was there all the way for Walker, who helped the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL to a 5-0 record before the pandemic shut down the season.
"Every time I came back to the sideline he told me everything he saw and what he was thinking," Walker said. "That helped to have that extra set of eyes out there."
Walker said that Sunday's win fulfilled a dream that his mother, Tamicha Drake, had when he was trying to earn a spot with the Indianapolis Colts.
"It's crazy," Walker said. "About a year and a half, two years ago, she called me and said I had a dream you were playing for the Panthers. I'm like, 'That's weird, me being in Indianapolis at the moment.'
"Life has come full circle. That dream came true. Mine did, too."