When Matt Rhule was fired early this season, the Carolina Panthers were 1-4 and looked like one of the worst teams in football. Shortly after that, they traded their best player, running back Christian McCaffrey, with no help for the current roster coming back.
Steve Wilks isn't a hot name. He won't help Panthers owner David Tepper get big headlines like Jim Harbaugh or another big name would. But Wilks has done a good job considering the circumstances, and Panthers players seem to want him to keep the job on a permanent basis.
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown spoke for his teammates Wednesday, saying, "If you ask anybody in this locker room, we want Steve Wilks to be our next head coach." Cornerback Jaycee Horn quote-tweeted Brown's comments and seemed to agree.
There has been steady support from the players for Wilks.
"We ride behind Wilks," linebacker Shaq Thompson told Panthers.com in December. "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."
Panthers QB Sam Darnold said Steve Wilks has done a great job with communicating with players, and is very much in support of his return next season.
— Steve Reed (@SteveReedAP) January 4, 2023
Wilks is 5-6 as the interim coach, and that's not bad, considering he took over a 1-4 team. The Panthers have played hard and had some nice wins. They were in the NFC South race until the fourth quarter last week, when they blew a lead against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wilks had one shot to be an NFL head coach before this season and got a bit of a raw deal. He went 3-13 leading the 2018 Arizona Cardinals, taking over a team that just lost coach Bruce Arians to retirement and quarterback Carson Palmer to injury. His quarterback most of that season was rookie Josh Rosen, who struggled, was traded after the season and has thrown 120 passes since. Wilks was moved out after just one season for Kliff Kingsbury, a curious hire who hasn't worked out.
“This is a production-based league, and we didn’t win enough games," Wilks told the Arizona Republic in 2019. "Would I have liked to have had more time? Of course. But again, I put that behind me. They’ve moved on. I’ve moved on.”
Since buying the Panthers, Tepper has gained a reputation as a splashy, impulsive owner. Giving Wilks the permanent head-coaching job wouldn't be splashy. The reported pursuit of Harbaugh should give some perspective on what Tepper is looking for this coaching cycle. The last time he was looking for a head coach, he shocked the NFL by signing Rhule to a seven-year, $62 million deal.
But the Panthers players have spoken, and it seems many of them would be in favor of Wilks coming back next season. He has done a good enough job to get consideration. Will Tepper look into Wilks' candidacy with an open mind?