The Carolina Panthers season has come to an end, and questions remain on who will be the permanent hire at head coach.
Interim head coach Steve Wilks took over after the firing of Matt Rhule on Oct.10, after the team’s disappointing 1-4 start.
Many thought the team would tank after trading away franchise running back Christian McCaffery and star receiver Robby Andersen, but Wilks kept the team competitive, earning a 6-6 record and in playoff contention for the majority of his run.
Carolina’s playoff hopes ended after a Jan.1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Charlotte native has remained the popular choice among fans and players for the job, but there are multiple factors that could work for and against Wilks getting the permanent job.
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Why he should be hired
He provided a much-needed identity.
The success of a head coach is dependent on his leadership and ability to get players to buy into his system. Wilks has shown both in a short period of time.
The Panthers’ offense struggled greatly under Rhule, even before the team traded Christian McCaffrey.
When Wilks took over, he adopted a run-first style behind a backfield committee of D’Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear.
That formula — paired with the stout defense and game manager-like quarterback play — helped the team secure some hard-earned victories.
The season turnaround has also been predicated on Wilks’ leadership and ability to galvanize the entire roster.
“We ride behind Wilks,” Shaq Thompson told Panthers.com. “He came in here, he’s a true alpha, he’s a true leader, and guys follow behind him. He’s done amazing. Look what we’ve been going through.”
“You could be one of the best players, but you walk into that building on Monday, he’s gonna tell you exactly how he felt about how you played,” Derrick Brown told Good Morning Football. “That level of clarity, that’s exactly what we want.”
Team owner David Tepper reportedly respects Wilks’ leadership traits too.
He understands a winning culture.
Wilks was an integral part of Ron Rivera’s Panthers teams that made four playoff appearances in five years with three NFC South titles and a trip to Super Bowl 50 in 2015.
During that period, Wilks rose through the coaching ranks, first serving as defensive backs coach before becoming assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
That success earned Wilks an Arizona Cardinals head coaching gig. Many believe he was scapegoated after being fired following his lone season (3-13) with the team and replaced for a younger hire in Kliff Kingsbury.
Wilks has spent time with the Cleveland Browns and University of Missouri. Rhule brought him back to Charlotte to serve as a defensive assistant. Wilks has made the most out of his interim role with the Panthers.
Wilks brought back the “Keep Pounding” spirit that helped make the Panthers a success in years prior.
Wilks didn’t draft or sign any of the players on the current roster. He inherited a team constructed by Rhule.
Rhule struggled to produce wins with his own pieces, but Wilks came in and made those pieces work.
Last week, the Panthers signed Josh Norman, a cornerback Wilks personally developed into a star. Wilks could have similar success with Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson if given the opportunity to lead this young group into the future.
He’d be the team’s first Black head-coaching hire.
Prior to purchasing the team in 2018, David Tepper had an ownership stake with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Rooney family are the majority owners of the team and the late Dan Rooney, former team president and former chairman of the league’s diversity committee, was an advocate for hiring minority head coaches.
In 2003, the Rooney Rule was created to require every team with a head- coaching vacancy to interview one or more diverse candidates before making a new hire.
The Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007, and he remains in his position, but many teams have yet to hire a Black head coach.
Despite having about 60 percent African American players in the NFL, only three of the current 32 head coaches (9 percent) are Black in 2023.
The Panthers have hired five full-time head coaches since becoming a franchise in 1995. None have been Black.
Perry Fewell was named the interim head coach after Ron Rivera was fired during the 2019 season, but was never made the permanent hire.
Tepper could follow the lead of Rooney, his former colleague, and hire Wilks this offseason.
Why he might not be hired
Tepper wants an offensive-minded hire.
Wilks, a defensive-minded coach, may not be Tepper’s ideal choice this offseason. The team owner has been searching for an offensive-minded coach since firing Ron Rivera in 2019.
Four out of the last five Super Bowl winning teams have been coached by head coaches with offense backgrounds.
“In the modern NFL, I think there is a preference for offensive coordinators (and) I think there are reasons for that,” Tepper said after firing Rivera in 2019.
Tepper thought he made the right choice in Rhule, but now the owner continues to search for a permanent answer to fix the team’s offense.
Young offensive coordinators like Kellen Moore, Ken Dorsey and Shane Waldron could intrigue Tepper.
Other reports previously mentioned Tepper wanting to replace Rhule with someone who has head-coaching experience.
A name that has circulated is Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, the former 49ers head coach (2011-2014) who led the team to a 44-19-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance in 2012.
Tepper and the former Panther quarterback (2001) have reportedly talked about the job, but Harbaugh has not had a formal interview.
The Panthers have never had an NFL offensive coordinator as its head coach.
Dom Capers, George Seifert, John Fox and Ron Rivera were defensive coaches. Rhule had an offensive background but mostly on the collegiate level.
History is against interims.
History doesn’t favor Wilks becoming the permanent hire.
Since 2013, there have been 17 interim head coaches in the NFL, according to US Betting Report. Only two were hired by the team that offseason.
The two outliers are Doug Marrone (Jaguars) in 2016 and Mike Mularkey (Titans) in 2015.
Mularkey’s hiring wasn’t a fan favorite, but he ended up leading the team to a 9-7 record in his first year as head coach and took them to the playoffs the year after.
Marrone’s first full year as head coach was also solid, with a 10-6 record that saw the Jaguars nearly defeat Bill Belichick and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Maybe Wilks can have similar success.
There was a missed playoff opportunity.
When Rhule was fired, Tepper said Wilks earning the full-time job depended on how the team finished.
Wilks has kept the team competitive, but fumbling the chance to win the division and earn a playoff spot may be his downfall.
The Panthers blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead and lost 30-24 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Jan.1.
The biggest issue with this loss is that the glaring weakness of the team was the secondary, a position that Wilks has played and specializes in.
Winning is the only thing Tepper cares about. The 6-6 record may not sway Tepper’s decision either in a good way.
A fresh start may be the direction he’s leaning towards.