Ever since October 10, 2022, the Carolina Panthers have had a different air around them, almost as if they've regained the pride that once came with wearing the black and blue. In fact, I'd say that under the leadership of Steve Wilks, this franchise has done just that in just a few months' time.
Sitting at 1-4 when Rhule got fired left Wilks in a pretty dire situation considering the former West Meck graduate had already been afforded the opportunity to be HC in Arizona during the 2018 season, ending in a 3-13 record. However, Wilks has turned the team around quickly, already doubling their win total, and currently has the Panthers at 4-8 (3-4 individual coaching record) with five games left to play.
So how exactly has he gotten the Panthers only 1.5 games back from first place in the division? Why should fans be hoping for owner David Tepper to lift the interim tag come January?
He Commands Excellence Out Of His Players
Following a lackluster offensive performance against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11, Wilks didn't hold back, especially speaking of the stars of the team. The head coach echoed his thoughts from the locker room, saying that "our star players gotta play like stars. They need to step up. So across the board, on both sides of the ball. They need to play. And if you’re a first or second-round draft pick, you’re that for a reason. If we brought you in as a free agent, you’re a star player. Go play."
The accountability that Wilks commands from his team is something that even the players appreciate. "You like that," defensive tackle Derrick Brown said. "Not playing mind games, he tells you straight-up, this is what I expect out of you, and this is what needs to be done. As a man, you've got to respect that. He's the coach, he's our boss. At the same time, he cares about what's happening with us. That plays a big part of it too (Gantt)."
The Team Has a Clear Identity
During the offseason, many Panthers fans were excited about the potential of a backfield that consisted of CMC and D'Onta Foreman, the latter of whom stepped in for Derrick Henry last season and performed admirably down the stretch. Alas, Foreman was nowhere to be found until the blockbuster trade of McCaffrey midseason. The former Tennessee Titan burst onto the scene against the Atlanta Falcons, recording 26 rushes for 118 yards, 3 TDs, and a two-point conversion. He's proceeded to record 290 rushing yards on 73 carries and 1 TD, establishing the run game in Carolina (stats as of Week 13).
With such a strong running game, the quarterbacks aren't pressured to throw the ball as much which leads to significantly fewer turnovers. QB Sam Darnold had this to say about the offense: “We have found our identity." Identity as an offense is something that it seemed Carolina never found under Matt Rhule. Just saying...
He's Capitalizing On the Talent He Was Given
As mentioned earlier, the Matt Rhule-led Panthers trotted out to a 1-4 start before he got fired. Right before the trade deadline, Wilks & Fitterer shipped out superstar RB Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver Robbie Anderson, and the recently released Baker Mayfield. It seemed inevitable to the outside world that Carolina would be tanking but the former Cardinals head coach was having none of it: "There’s no such thing as tanking when it comes to myself and the guys in that locker room."
Wilks is a man of his word, having led the Panthers to a 4-4 record (5-8) over the past eight weeks. The Panthers have been undefeated at home since then, and most recently dominated an ascending Seattle Seahawks roster for his first road win on the season. If you need even more convincing, just check out this graphic provided by the 4 Man Rush:
He Makes No Excuses
Wilks is a no-nonsense kind of guy and watching his press conferences is refreshing, to say the least. "that's our job as coaches; that's our job as teachers. And again, it's just always been honest and upfront; I praise them when they do well and really try to correct them when they need to be corrected."
This response is a far cry from the former regime with a head coach that was constantly throwing his players under the bus in press conferences.
He's the Hometown Guy
The West Meck graduate has spent most of his life in the Charlotte area save for a few short coaching stints with Chicago, San Diego, Arizona, and Cleveland. Wilks knows what it takes for the Panthers to win, serving as a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator in Carolina from 2012-2017. His tenure with the team saw them achieve the height of their history as a franchise on their Superbowl 50 run.
Don't get it wrong; Wilks is more than qualified for this position and deserves a second chance even after the disaster in Arizona (which was NOT his fault). This is not just a nostalgia hiring. We've seen another Panthers defensive coordinator in Sean McDermott lead a successful Bills team through a rebuild alongside former Panthers assistant GM Brandon Beane.
One Last Thing
It is important to consider that in order to fulfill the Rooney Rule, the front office will be required to interview at least two other minority candidates aside from Wilks. So, don't be too alarmed when there are others in contention!
Over the past few weeks, I've seen much of Panthers' Twitter rallying behind Wilks and I'm so excited for the possibility of him taking the reigns in Carolina for years to come! Let me know what your thoughts or concerns are about hiring Wilks as the permanent head coach in the comments below :)