An offseason of transition for the Carolina Panthers continued last week as the Arizona Cardinals hired away defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to be their head coach. The Wilks hire wasn’t a complete surprise—the longtime assistant has been considered an ascendant star in league circles for the past few years—but it also marks the second time in two years that the Panthers will need to replace their defensive coordinator and confers upon the team the unique off-season challenge of remaking coaching staffs on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Wilks’s departure, following the hiring of Sean McDermott in Buffalo last year, is a demonstration of the consistently formidable defensive play that has been a Panthers hallmark over the past several seasons. During Wilks’s six years with the team as a coordinator and an assistant, Carolina finished in the top ten in total defense five times. Known for a charismatic demeanor and for being a highly aggressive approach, Wilks galvanized his defense and challenged opposing teams, blitzing on nearly half of all snaps and dictating the pace of play. Former players across the league raved about the new Cardinals coach in the wake of his hire, and he appears well-positioned for a long and successful run in Arizona.
Once again, the Panthers have elected to hire from within to replace their DC, and once again they seem to have an ideal candidate in Eric Washington. Having spent the past several seasons as Carolina’s defensive line coach, Washington will provide scheme continuity and a working knowledge of the team’s personnel. The coach has proven an excellent teacher, coaxing All-Pro-level performances out of Mario Addison and Kawann Short in recent years and will enter the season as a well-known and profoundly respected figure in the Panthers’ locker room. Minor growing pains aside, there’s no particular reason for Panthers fans to expect a significant drop-off moving forward.
Nevertheless, the talent drain on the Panthers staff is worth keeping an eye on. One of the NFL’s implicit mechanisms for maintaining parity (non-Patriots category) involves teams raiding the cupboards of successful organizations in an effort to replicate that success. Carolina now finds itself down two top-notch coordinators in two seasons, and while Washington seems a perfect fit in terms of keeping the train on the tracks, the reverberations will be felt throughout the organization. You can only lose so many good coaches before you inevitably end up promoting lesser qualified candidates to positions they may or may not be ready for. Like an NFL roster itself, coaching staffs only run so deep.
We haven’t even reached the official offseason yet, and already the Panthers appear to be heading into a make-or-break 2018–19 campaign. Having rolled the dice on an offense remade in the Norv Turner mold
, they are now betting on their own homegrown talent to keep one of the NFL’s finest defenses intact. That’s a lot of change for a team who frequently seemed one or two skill-position players
away from a second Super Bowl appearance in three years. For Riverboat Ron Rivera and an organization suddenly in flux, next season may prove their biggest wager yet.