“This is for you, brother”
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper tossed the game ball to his newly named interim head coach Steve Wilks after leading the squad to a 21-3 beatdown of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You wouldn’t have known that this was only the Panthers’ second win of the season by the way the team swarmed their new coach to hype him up and how their celebratory yells smashed through the locker room ceiling.
In a season where good times have never seemed so few, the Panthers had every right to celebrate this victory and the man that helped make it possible. Wilks receiving a game ball, after passing one of his own to Quarterback PJ Walker, symbolized the respect he’s earned from every man in that locker room…and in that moment, Tepper’s confidence and trust in his leadership. At that moment, the no-nonsense, defensive coordinator turned head coach gave this team a reason to believe and made his boss a believer.
“Steve is a leader of men,” Tepper said in October. ”He has experience as a head coach, and I thought he’s the best candidate in the building for that role.”
At season’s end, the Panthers went from a 1-5 start to a .500 record in the 12 remaining games-finishing 7-10 on the year. They were on also the verge of winning the NFC South and sneaking into the playoffs. Tepper wanted an ‘incredible’ job out of Wilks and given the circumstances, he delivered. Wilks proved consistently during the season that he is the head coach that the Panthers need.
The Carry Job
If we’re keeping it a buck, Wilks and the Panthers weren’t supposed to finish where they did. They were not supposed to win. After firing Matt Rhule in Week 5 and trading their best player, Christian McCaffrey on Oct. 20, the intentions were for the Panthers to tank. Wilks was not having it. Carolina won games they weren’t supposed to; most notably in Seattle against the Seahawks, by maximizing the skill set of the offensive players he had available to help out the defense. He relied on a seven-man set on the O-line to open up gaps for Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman to run through and provide a clean pocket for Sam Darnold to operate from. For the season, Wilks leaned into a rush-heavy offense and physical defense-putting Carolina on the verge of winning the NFC South.
If Wilks won six games with a less talented roster and an inept offensive coordinator, just think of what he could do with upgrades at quarterback, offensive coordinator, and an additional edge rusher to compliment Brian Burns.
Identity and Structure
Before Wilks, the Panthers were perceived as an easy win for opponents, and the perception wasn’t wrong. In Week 5, the San Francisco 49ers flew the 6,000-plus mile flight and thrashed the Panthers 37-15 with jet lag and all. In the season’s first five weeks, the Panthers had nothing to build on. They had no fight, no heart, and no direction. Under Wilks, the Panthers turned into a competitive, scrappy team that will hit you in the mouth on both sides of the ball.
In their first meeting, the Bucs learned quickly that Wilks’ Panthers were different. Burns and those swarming 3-4 blitz packages tormented Brady all afternoon-pressuring him into hurries and sacks. Tampa’s defense couldn’t contain the run and ended up getting dominated.
If the Bucs game in Week 7 wasn’t enough of an example of the Panthers’ renewed mentality, their nasty Christmas Eve win against the Lions is another example and an even better one. Carolina ran ‘Arby’s’ – an eight-man set on the offensive line designed to bully front sevens in the trenches and provide adequate running room. The result? Hubbard and Foreman rushed for a combined 320 yards and the offense as a collective lit up Detroit’s defense for 570 total yards.
In a quarterback and receiver-driven league, Wilks relied on a conservative ground-and-pound and rugged defense to get the results he needed to keep a team that was once in the cellar in the standings competitive, thriving, and in the last quarter of the season, relevant.
Embodies The Culture
When Tepper named Wilks the interim head coach in October, the Panthers’ social media team made it a point to roll out a hype video of the Charlotte native talking about his history with the organization consisting of a time when they won three consecutive NFC South crowns and an NFC Championship. Wilks was the secondary coach in 2015 when the Panthers finished 15-1 and reached Super Bowl 50, and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016. He’s seen the accession of a young Panthers team and knows what it takes to return to the status of being a serious contender. Granted, the Panthers have younger players and some serious strides to make before returning to the level of a serious contender in the NFC. However, Wilks provided in his 13 games at the helm, not only the foundation, but restoration of what “Keep Pounding” really means.
The Buy In
The only thing that is tougher than winning games in the NFL is winning over a locker room. Being able to have 53 ‘Jimmy’s and Joe’s” trust a man and his X’s and O’s isn’t the easiest task but the most rewarding.
Players know a leader when they see one. They see it moves made, words said and how they align. For the Panthers, they know Wilks is that guy. For defensive tackle Derrick Brown, that’s what he respects the most about Wilks and why he and the rest of the players want him as a coach permanently.
“I’ll speak for everybody in that locker room and say that we all want Coach Wilks to be our next head coach, “ Brown told Good Morning Football host Peter Stranger two weeks ago. “That’s for sure. I think every single week the we come in, he’s gonna tell you exactly how it is. He doesn’t sugar coat nothin’. He keeps it plain Jane, per se. He lets you know exactly what’s going on.”
“You can be one of the best players, but you walk into that building on Monday and he’ll tell you exactly how he felt about how you played. And that level of clarity—that’s exactly what we want.”
What these players also respect in Wilks is his ability to make adjustments and bounce back from adversity. After getting bullied in Week 15 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Wilks issued a challenge to the team and they responded forcefully against the Lions days later.
“He just made the emphasis that basically our true character is going to shine by the way we respond from last week,” Pro Bowl Linebacker Brian Burns said after the Panthers’ win against Detroit. “I think Wilks is a dog, (defensive coordinator) Al (Holcomb) is a dog. I feel like that dog is shining through all of us.”
“This is for you, bruh!”
After expressing his desire to have everyone return and do some damage next year, linebacker Shaq Thompson and defensive tackle Bravvion Roy presented Wilks with a game ball after beating the New Orleans Saints in the season finale.
Carolina just won their seventh game of the season and swept the season series from the rival Saints, but the vibe was much more subdued than the vociferous cheers from their win against the Bucs in October. Even in a toned-down vibe, the Panthers were turnt up. They were hyped for the win and the sweep. They were also excited about possibilities for picking up where they left off next season and expressing their pride and admiration for a man that’s revived them and restored hope in the trajectory of the franchise.
When Wilks received that ball from Tepper, it was an award for a successful and dominating debut of his interim stint. When he received that ball from two of his players in the season finale, it was an award for making a team that should have been in the league cellar, competitive and even on the fringe of a wild card berth.
It should be a reward for uniting a locker room and inspiring a community and fan base to care again. It should be an opportunity to run it back. Most importantly, it should be the start of Wilks’ own era.