Carolina Panthers set to begin again as Steve Wilks steps into top spot
By Kevin Tolbert
The Carolina Panthers began a new era on Tuesday as interim head coach Steve Wilks took the podium to address the media. He started by acknowledging the greatness of his predecessor Matt Rhule as well as the shortcomings of the staff and players thus far. He included himself in the list.
While Wilks said that he is not going to make any dramatic changes in the overall scheme of things, he did talk about the need for improvement in all areas. "We gotta find a way to finish and that starts with me," Wilks said.
"The schemes aren't going to change much. But you have to be creative in the process."
Hopefully the first area Wilks directs the offensive staff is toward fixes to the team's third down conversion strategy. The previous plan that appeared to be been bogged down by their lack of ability to effectively run the football was responsible for the team being ranked nearly last in that category.
Wilks fielded questions on everything from his reaction to being selected to the level of pressure he felt going into the interim position. He was able to respond to just about every inquiry in stride and left very few stones unturned. Wilks even injected some levity into a tense situation when he jokingly asked a reporter if he was inquiring about Luke Keuchly returning as a player.
Wilks has been here before. As the former head coach for the Arizona Cardinals, he has dealt with the pressure a head coaching position carries. He piloted the Cardinals efforts for a single season and achieved a dismal 3-13 record before the team decided to part ways with him. But Wilks feels confident in his ability to make an impact here in Carolina, partly, because of his prior experience in Arizona. "I draw back on my experience in Arizona. I know how to handle these situations and I feel very confident in that," Wilks said.
The Charlotte native will definitely have an enormous support team. He revealed that he has received more than 300 communications from family and friends to congratulate him on the promotion. However, he reiterated several times that the focus is not about him but the team and its ability to achieve future success.
With regard to the firing of former defensive coordinator Phil Snow, Wilks summed up the change stating he just wanted a different approach. Al Holcomb is now the defensive coordinator. The pair have an established history going all the way back to 2013 when they were both part of the Panthers defensive staff. Holcomb led the linebacker corp while Wilks directed the defensive backs. "Al is someone I've been around for a long time ...has been here before with this organization when we've had success," Wilks stated.
Wilks is facing an uphill battle to get the organization back on track. Starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, who suffered what is now being called a high ankle sprain, is projected to be out 2 to 6 weeks for recovery. That leaves PJ Walker as the top candidate to step up and lead the offense.
Walker has nowhere to go but up as Mayfield was recently ranked as the leagues worst passer with a rating of 71.9 percent. And despite where he's been listed on the depth chart, Walker is responsible for two of the teams wins during the Matt Rhule era. That's one more than Mayfield - a big deal considering that Walker may not have even been on the roster if Matt Corral and Sam Darnold had remained healthy.
There is also the string of injuries starting to pile up on the defensive side of the football. That list includes Jeremy Chinn, now on injured reserve, sidelined with a hamstring injury. Frankie Luvu is nursing a shoulder injury that kept him out of last week's game.
One of the biggest dings to the defense could come if Jaycee Horn's injuries have a long-term impact. Horn suffered a hip injury in the third quarter of the week five 37-15 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The 2022 season was beginning to looked like a breakout year for Horn who currently has ten solo tackles, an interception and four passes defended.
As far as any long term goals, Wilks doesn't have any. He declared that his primary focus was on the issue right in front of him - winning games. "I'm not really looking beyond today. Whatever's gonna happen at the end of the year is going to take care of itself," Wilkes said.
"I think the first thing we need to be concerned about is trying to win a football game which starts with the Los Angeles Rams."
Wednesday the team moves into their new phase to change direction from their 1-4 start as they shake off the dust from this week's coaching changes and absorb what Wilks and his somewhat re-tooled staff have planned for the upcoming matchup against the Los Angeles Rams.