Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ Ron Rivera wisely tabs next man up, and maybe out, as defensive coordinator

Carolina Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington, left, turned defensive coordinator on Monday after the departure of Steve Wilks for Arizona’s head coaching job. Washington has the look of an NFL head coach, too.
Carolina Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington, left, turned defensive coordinator on Monday after the departure of Steve Wilks for Arizona’s head coaching job. Washington has the look of an NFL head coach, too. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera had to leave training camp for two days in 2015 following the death of his older brother.

Rivera had two coordinators on his staff he could have put in charge while he was gone: Mike Shula, who’d been Alabama’s head coach for four years, and Sean McDermott, who would become the Buffalo Bills head coach a couple years later.

Rivera chose Steve Wilks, the defensive backs coach and assistant head coach, to run the show for 48 hours in Spartanburg.

Wilks, 48, was named the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach Monday after just one year as an NFL coordinator. But the Charlotte native has carried himself like a head coach for a long time.

Meanwhile, Rivera’s coaching tree keeps extending skyward – especially on the defensive side.

Rivera, the former Chicago Bears linebacker and defensive coordinator, has assembled a strong staff over his seven seasons in Charlotte.

And just as he did last offseason when McDermott left for Buffalo, Rivera is wisely staying in-house with his choice to replace Wilks. Next in line will be Eric Washington, a well-respected defensive line coach and another Panthers assistant who has the look of a head coach.

This already has been an eventful offseason for Rivera’s staff.

Two days after the season-ending loss to New Orleans in the wild-card round, Rivera fired Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey. By the end of the week Rivera had hired longtime NFL head coach and coordinator Norv Turner to run the offense, and confirmed to the Observer that Scott Turner, Norv’s son, would be hired as quarterbacks coach.

The Panthers also parted ways with special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey and promoted his assistant Chase Blackburn to the position.

A season of change

Wilks’ departure will create more ripples at Bank of America Stadium, where Rivera will go into the 2018 season with a new owner, three new coordinators and several new assistants.

Linebackers coach Al Holcomb is expected to leave with Wilks for Arizona, likely as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator. Ray Brown, who assists John Matsko with the Panthers’ offensive line, also is among those headed to the desert, according to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora.

But Monday’s move was a product of the Panthers’ continued success on defense – and one Rivera saw coming when every team with a head-coaching vacancy called to ask for permission to meet with Wilks.

“I know that Steve is a hot commodity, deservedly so,” Rivera said earlier this month. “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 Sean are two very good people who are very special to this organization. We helped build this team.

“I don’t want to talk as if Steve is gone, but I have a hunch. It might be his time.”

Telling interview? A year ago

Maybe the most telling interview Wilks received came last year in Los Angeles, when he met with Rams’ officials about their head-coaching job before he’d ever called a play as an NFL defensive coordinator.

The Rams made an astute, outside-the-box hire with Sean McVay. But clearly the word was out in league circles about Wilks, whose only previous experience as a head coach was a one-year stint at Savannah State, which finished 5-6 under Wilks in 1999.

When Wilks took over for McDermott, he said he would add his own wrinkles to Rivera’s 4-3 system. Those turned out to be an array of blitzes, more than what McDermott preferred as coordinator and more than all but one other team in the NFL.

The Panthers had the NFL’s top-ranked defense as late as Week 10, before some poor play in the secondary dropped them to No. 7 in total defense at the end of the regular season.

Wilks lived and died by the blitz right to the end. In the playoff loss at New Orleans, two of the Saints’ touchdown passes came when the Panthers blitzed Drew Brees and were not able to get to him in time.

But there’s no doubt this is Wilks’ time to become a head coach, just as it was for McDermott a year ago. And while some critics questioned whether McDermott would be better off waiting for a head-coaching job other than Buffalo, he and former Panthers assistant general manager Brandon Beane combined to end the Bills’ 17-year playoff drought.

DC in waiting

Washington has been the Panthers’ defensive coordinator-in-waiting for the past year. The former tight end, who played under the legendary Eddie Robinson at Grambling, has overseen one of the league’s most productive defensive lines since joining Rivera’s initial staff with Carolina.

Washington has been key in the development of some of the mainstays along the Panthers’ D-line, including Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Mario Addison and Wes Horton. He also is the reason Bryan Cox Jr. signed with the Panthers an undrafted free agent last year after entertaining similar offers from Tampa Bay and San Diego.

Bryan Cox Sr., an NFL linebacker for 12 seasons and an NFL defensive line coach for 10 years, steered his son toward Washington.

“He’s by far the best defensive line coach in football,” Cox Sr. told the Observer last spring. “He’s not paid the highest like some of these guys are. But when you turn on the tape you see the physicality, you see the hand placement, you see the pad level. You see just no-nonsense football.”

Well, Washington will be getting a raise in his new role … and maybe an even bigger one with his next move, if recent history is any indication.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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