'He's the right man for the job' -- Panthers players buying into interim coach Steve Wilks

The Carolina Panthers have a 2-3 record under interim head coach Steve Wilks, a defensive specialist who has been leaning into the offensive side of things in his new role. John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks spends most days working with the offense, studying game plans with coordinator Ben McAdoo, talking to the quarterbacks and linemen to make sure they understand exactly what he expects.

This might seem like an odd place for a coach who spent the majority of the past 27 years working with the defense, particularly with Sunday’s challenge of facing one of the NFL’s most dynamic quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens.

It’s been the perfect place for Wilks since replacing Matt Rhule, who was fired as head coach six weeks ago.

Wilks knew for owner David Tepper to seriously consider removing the interim title during the offseason, his biggest challenge would be the offense, beginning with stability at quarterback and the line. So he put Al Holcomb, a man he trusted to be his eyes and ears, in charge of the defense so Wilks could instill on offense the beliefs that made him a successful defensive coach.

Physicality. Effort. Attention to detail.

“Just really the mindset of fighting and just trying to be resilient,’’ Wilks said when asked what he is most proud of during his 2-3 start. “Within this league you’re going to hit some doggone rough spots. We talk about this thing being a heavyweight fight and you don’t have to win every round, but you have to win the fight.’’

So far, Wilks has won enough rounds to keep the Panthers (3-7) in the fight to remain relevant in the NFC South, where they trail the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5) by two games. He has also won over a locker room that for the most part remained loyal to Rhule when Tepper fired him after a 1-4 start.

“He’s the right man for the job,’’ said offensive tackle Cameron Erving, echoing the sentiment throughout the locker room. “I’ve had a lot of coaches, man, and you don’t get the feeling from everybody that you get from Coach Wilks. The results may not always be there as far as wins, but the guys are buying in and that’s what’s key to turning an organization around.’’

Here is an early report card on what Wilks has done well and where he can improve:

Tough decisions: A

The first thing Wilks did in his new role was fire defensive coordinator Phil Snow even though the defense was a bright spot under Rhule. This seemed risky, but it had little to do with Snow and everything to do with trust and wanting Holcomb in place while Wilks worked with the offense.

He also fired special teams coach Ed Foley, and then after a 42-21 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which the defense allowed a franchise-record 35 first-half points, he fired cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper and defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni.

Wilks didn’t get a chance to hire his own staff when he was dropped in as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals for the 2018 season. So he made changes to ensure those under him were just as demanding as he was.

That didn't go unnoticed by the players.

But what really got their attention was when, in his first game in charge, Wilks kicked Robbie Anderson off the field in the third quarter and subsequently traded the disgruntled wide receiver to the Cardinals the next day. Had the Cardinals not offered a 2024 sixth-round pick and 2025 seventh-rounder, Wilks planned to release Anderson outright, a source close to the situation told ESPN.com.

“Just taking control of us, taking control of the situation,’’ quarterback PJ Walker said of what impressed players of Wilks’ decisions. “He’s been put in a crazy situation. The players have responded to him really well, and everybody’s fighting to continue to grow for him as a team.’’

Stability at quarterback: A-

This isn’t to suggest the position is stable. Baker Mayfield, who was 1-4 under Rhule, will start Sunday against the Ravens (1 p.m. ET, Fox) because Walker is sidelined with a high ankle sprain. The long-term future of this team at quarterback remains the 2023 draft.

It’s the way Wilks has handled the quarterback room that gets high grades.

He stuck with Walker, an undrafted player, as the starter the past four games despite a 24-10 loss in his first start and being benched for the second half against the Bengals in Week 8, and despite Mayfield being healthy enough to play after suffering a Week 5 ankle injury.

Even Mayfield, the first pick of the 2018 draft, admired that.

“You’ve got to respect that he calls it like he sees it,’’ he said. “He doesn’t hold back. He’s transparent. That that’s what it’s all about.’’

Physicality up front: A+

This is where Wilks’ presence with the offense has had the biggest impact and could help Mayfield in his return. His commitment to the run has taken pressure off the line in its pass-blocking. The Panthers have averaged 29.8 rushes per game and 146.2 yards rushing under Wilks. They averaged 20.6 rushes per game and 89.8 rushing yards under Rhule.

Scoring is up almost four points (22.2 the past five games, 18.6 the first five) and sacks are down. Mayfield was sacked 15 times the first give games. Walker has been sacked only five times the past five.

The line’s pass block win rate has gone from 59.6% (16th in the NFL) the first five weeks to 62.3% (10th) the past five, per ESPN Stats and Information. Rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu gave up four sacks the first five games to none the past five.

“He’s a big believer in 'it starts up front,'’’ guard Brady Christensen said. “That’s what he preaches all the time. So he spends a lot of time with the O-line just talking through things with us.’’

Said tight end Tommy Tremble: “He talks about it every single day, eyes, hands feet ... stay with where those are at. That’s really helped our run game.’’

Make the jump: C

This has been Wilks’ mantra since taking the job. He wants players to make the jump from mediocrity to excellence. Ultimately, Wilks needs to show he can produce a team that wins consistently. Blowout losses such as the one at Cincinnati aren’t a good look to impress an owner who said Wilks has to do an “incredible’’ job to be in consideration for the full-time position.

But if Wilks can stack wins over the last seven games with a schedule that ranks 27th in difficulty, it will be hard for Tepper to ignore.

“He’s already done a phenomenal job,’’ linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “You can see everybody is coming together, playing fast, playing physical, playing hard. And he knows Charlotte. He knows Carolina. I mean, he’s a hometown guy. Everybody loves and respects him.’’