Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera’s hunch three weeks ago about his defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks, was correct.
Wilks’ time is now.
Wilks, 48, was officially announced as the coach of the Arizona Cardinals on Monday afternoon. Wilks interviewed twice with the Cardinals this offseason, as well as with the New York Giants, Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions.
“I know that Steve is a hot commodity, deservedly so,” Rivera said after the team’s wild-card loss. “He has done a tremendous job wherever he’s been, starting in Chicago and San Diego and down here with us. It’s going to be a tough one. Him and (Bills coach and former Carolina DC) Sean (McDermott) are two very good people who are very special to this organization. We helped build this team.
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“I don’t want to talk as if Steve is gone, but I have a hunch. It might be his time.”
The Panthers will miss the man who led the league’s No. 7 total defense in his first year as defensive coordinator, but didn’t have to look far for Wilks’ replacement.
Wilks will be succeeded by seven-year defensive line coach Eric Washington.
A team source told the Observer on Monday that Washington would become Carolina’s defensive coordinator, a move later confirmed by the Panthers.
Under Washington, Carolina’s defensive line ranked in the top 10 in sacks in five of the past six seasons, including a No. 1 ranking in 2013, a No. 2 ranking in 2016 and a No. 3 ranking in 2017.
Carolina’s run defense also has been formidable, ranking in the top six in the NFL in four of the past six seasons, including a No. 2 ranking in 2013.
Washington has developed players such as former undrafted free agent Mario Addison, now a starter and tied for the team lead in 2017 with 11 sacks, while also managing stars like defensive tackle Kawann Short and future first-ballot Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers.
Washington was not under contract after the 2017 season. Two weeks ago, a deal was constructed by Panthers chief operating officer Tina Becker and interim general manager Marty Hurney to keep him in place. A source familiar with the deal said the two worked hard to keep Washington from leaving.
The Panthers recently extended Rivera through the 2020 season. Rivera fired five-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula earlier this month, replacing him with Norv Turner.
Wilks, a former Appalachian State defensive back from 1987-91, got into coaching in 1995 and has been an NFL assistant since 2006. The Panthers hired Wilks in 2012 as defensive backs coach, adding assistant head coach to his title in 2014. Wilks was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017, along with his assistant head coach role.
With the Cardinals, he will take on his first ever head coaching role, following in the large footsteps of Bruce Arians, who made the decision to step away from football at the conclusion of the 2017 season for health reasons.
Arizona boasts an athletic, veteran defense featuring a formidable secondary with Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker. Wilks’ history as a defensive backs coach and his aggressive, blitz-heavy attacking style makes him a great fit with the Cardinals, as well as his commanding presence.
“In our research, (former players) talked about what a passionate coach (Wilks) is on the field and what a terrific leader he is,” team president Michael Bidwill told Arizona’s team website. “Players love playing for him.”