New Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington tweeted a group photo from the NFL scouting combine of him posing with the two men who preceded him in the position – Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott and Arizona Cardinals first-year coach Steve Wilks.
Washington is planning to snap another picture this weekend when the gang gets back together at an event that could help Washington follow in his former colleagues’ footsteps.
Washington is part of a group of 64 assistant coaches and front office executives attending the NFL’s annual career development symposium at the Ritz Carlton in Orlando, also the site of next week’s NFL owners meetings.
The symposium is designed to help aspiring head coach, coordinator and general manager candidates make those transitions through various presentations and panel discussion with NFL owners, presidents, coaches, GMs and other executives.
Washington, 48, called the three-day symposium a “gold mine” of information and opportunity. The Panthers’ former defensive line coach had nearly filled a notebook halfway through Friday’s session.
Besides the note-taking, Washington has had some pretty impressive role models when it’s come to head coaches.
The Louisiana native played tight end at Grambling for the legendary Eddie Robinson, who had the second-most wins among Division I coaches in NCAA history.
Asked about Robinson, the first thing that came to Washington’s mind was his former coach’s passion.
“You start with that. What he was interested in first of all was doing as well as you could possibly do with whatever you were involved in,” Washington said in a phone interview with the Observer.
“In his business it happened to be coaching. He saw that as an opportunity to develop people, along with getting players ready to play or a team ready to win.”
‘No one’s going to work harder’
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney used the same word to describe Washington, who was regarded as one of the league’s top defensive line coaches after joining Ron Rivera’s staff in Carolina in 2011.
“He’s got such a passion for it. He’s disciplined. He knows how to communicate with players. He gets the best out of his players,” Hurney said. “I think he’s got a great feel for the system we run and no one’s going to work harder.”
Washington was the obvious choice for Rivera to run the defense after the Cardinals hired Wilks in January.
While coaching players both young (Kawann Short early in his career) and old (Julius Peppers last season), Washington has overseen one of the league’s most productive defensive fronts.
Panthers’ D-linemen have combined for 219 sacks since 2012, more than any defensive line group in the league over that span. Carolina has finished in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks five of the past six seasons.
Washington makes no bones about his goal of becoming an NFL head coach. But he also knows he won’t get that chance if he’s not successful in his current job.
“I am focused on what we have to do as a defense. But I do have my eye on what this could materialize into if it’s done correctly,” he said. “That’s not to shortchange my responsibilities or obligations. But we all dream. We all envision ourselves having a chance to move into a different role or greater role. And I’m no different.”
McDermott and Wilks were wired the same way as coordinators.
After McDermott was hired by Buffalo in 2017 (and promptly ended the Bills’ 18-year playoff drought), Wilks was promoted from secondary coach/assistant head coach to coordinator.
Wilks was in that role for less than a year when the Cardinals tabbed him to succeed Bruce Arians.
Now Washington is next in line, and he said “there will be no drop-off and the standard won’t change.”
A testament to Rivera
Washington attended a discussion led by McDermott at the symposium Friday, and the two talked for another 30 to 40 minutes afterward.
Wilks was scheduled to arrive in Orlando on Saturday. Former Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb – Wilks’ defensive coordinator in Arizona – also is participating.
Washington says it’s cool to see his old co-workers leading NFL teams, adding it’s also a testament to the staffs Rivera has put together.
And while Washington hopes to be the next branch of Rivera’s coaching tree, he has a bigger picture in mind – and not the group snap he posted on Twitter.
“I’ve been a part of what we built in terms of our identity. So I don’t aspire to tear that down for the sake of trying to establish an Eric Washington approach,” Washington said. “I was a part of what we built and developed. I invested in that. But every year you have to improve.”