Despite their woeful performance last week against the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers — ranked in the top ten in both yards and points allowed per game — have one of the top-tier defenses in the NFL this season.
The man in charge of the Panthers defense is defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. He has been with the Panthers since 2012 and served as the defensive backs coach before taking over as defensive coordinator in 2017 for Sean McDermott, who left Carolina to become the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. He was also Ron Rivera’s assistant head coach from 2015-2016 before taking over as defensive coordinator.
Since Wilks has been a part of Carolina’s coaching staff, the Panthers have only finished outside the top ten in total defense one time (2016). To be fair to Wilks, in 2016 he was working with a completely re-built secondary consisting of two rookie cornerbacks who were thrown into the fire after the departure of free agent Josh Norman.
His impressive defenses aren’t just limited to Carolina, either. Here’s a sample of what he accomplished before arriving in Charlotte:
Wilks, a Charlotte native, returned home from the San Diego Chargers, where he oversaw the secondary from 2009-11. He added the assistant head coach title in 2011. Prior to Wilks' arrival, San Diego ranked 31st in the NFL against the pass but stood 11th in 2009, first in 2010 and 13th in 2011. In 2010, Wilks and then San Diego defensive coordinator [Ron] Rivera formed a formidable duo when the Chargers led the NFL in total defense and pass defense. San Diego limited opponents to a 76.2 passer rating, fourth lowest in the league, and surrendered 18 touchdown passes, fifth fewest in the NFL.
Wilks came to San Diego after three seasons as defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears. From 2006-08, cornerbacks and safeties accounted for 42 of the team's 62 interceptions, including 16 in 2006 when Chicago - with Rivera as defensive coordinator - led the NFL with 44 takeaways and advanced to Super Bowl XLI. The Bears' defensive backs also forced 20 fumbles during Wilks' tenure, the most in the NFL in that span.
With the Panthers’ return to the top third of the league in defense again in 2017, Wilks has an impressive resume that will most likely land him on several lists for a head coaching job this offseason. We’ve already seen one coach lose his job (Ben McAdoo, New York Giants) and there will certainly be more once the season ends.
Wilks was interviewed for the Rams’ head coaching job last offseason before they hired Sean McVay from Washington, so he has experience in interviewing for the position and also has his name on the radar of teams who are looking for a new head coach for 2018.
If another team offers Wilks a head coaching job, the Panthers won’t be able to keep him on staff without giving him a promotion. Considering he’s already the defensive coordinator, they’ll have no other choice but to let him leave for greener pastures if another team decides they want to hire him. The only way the Panthers can retain Wilks is to fire Ron Rivera and make Wilks the head coach, but with Carolina currently 8-4 and in decent shape to earn a wild card spot in the NFC, that seems unlikely.
I don’t want to see the Panthers lose Wilks because he’s an excellent defensive coach, but at the same time I want him to take advantage of the opportunities he’s earned to move up the coaching ladder. At this point, we can only hope that a fellow NFC South team doesn’t hire him, because having to face him twice a year would double the pain of losing his influence on the Panthers’ defense.