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On Oct. 10, the Carolina Panthers looked like the worst team in the NFL. They were 1-4, had just lost a home game by 22 points the day before to the San Francisco 49ers, and had parted ways with third-year head coach Matt Rhule.
Carolina’s front office turned to defensive pass game coordinator and secondary coach Steve Wilks to try to right the ship as the interim head coach. That decision is looking better by the minute.
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With Wilks leading the Panthers to a 25-15 win against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night, Carolina is now 3-7 and only two games behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for first place in the NFC South. It was Wilks’ second win as coach of the Panthers, with the first coming against those Buccaneers on Oct. 23.
🗣️ there he goes pic.twitter.com/6OJnAwX0px
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 11, 2022
Wilks is seeking to lead Carolina into true contention for the NFC South title with the deck stacked against him. The Panthers are dealing with a number of injuries to key players, especially in the defensive secondary and at the quarterback position. In fact, with third-string quarterback P.J. Walker suffering a high ankle sprain against the Falcons, all four Carolina quarterbacks have been injured at some point this season.
What’s more, Carolina traded away star running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver Robbie Anderson before the matchup with Tampa Bay, leaving the Panthers thin at the skill positions.
Yet, Wilks’ steady presence, defensive approach and commitment to the running game has his players believing they can win.
“There’s a lot of confidence,” Panthers long snapper J.J. Jansen said after beating Atlanta, according to Panthers.com. “This team believes in itself and Coach Wilks. … The thing we all notice about Coach Wilks is he’s consistent, he’s determined and focused and he doesn’t waver.”
Wilks has a long history in Charlotte and with the Panthers. He was born and raised in Charlotte and played at nearby Appalachian State in the late 1980s and early ’90s before beginning his coaching career. That career eventually led him back to Charlotte in 2012 as the Panthers’ defensive backs coach, and he would be with the team for six years before he was hired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018.
During those six years in Carolina, the Panthers won three straight NFC South titles, posted three seasons with double-digit wins and reached Super Bowl 50. Back with the Panthers this season, his head coaching experience and tenure in Carolina made him the obvious choice as interim head coach.
It’s a path, Wilks says, that he believes was directed by God.
“Everything I do is based off my belief in God, and I truly believe He’s ordered my steps,” he told Charlotte TV host Will Kunkel after being promoted. “Nothing I do, as far as making decisions, [is done without] really trying to pray about it and making sure He leads me in the right direction.
“I know this is my calling. I know the direction and the path I’ve taken within this career. He’s definitely ordered my steps, and I’m back home.”
Steve Wilks called his shot as a young coach @JCSUSports. He pointed at BOA Stadium (then Ericsson Stadium) and said he was going to coach the Panthers.
It's been a long journey with 18 different jobs along the way. But every stop included a prayer for guidance.#KeepPounding pic.twitter.com/s4rAwXCmYY
— Will Kunkel (@WillKunkelFOX) November 3, 2022
Wilks, who has been known to post about Bible verses and important Christian holidays on his Twitter account, remembers when he was a young coach at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, admiring the city’s skyline and dreaming one day of being the head coach of his hometown Panthers.
It has all come full circle now for Wilks, and his gratitude to God for making that dream become a reality has motivated him to give back to the community that formed him. Wilks founded the 3T Foundation, an organization focused on supporting Charlotte youth through educational enrichment and mentorship opportunities.
“To whom much is given, much is required (a reference to the Bible verse Luke 12:48),” Wilks said at a 3T Foundation fundraising event two weeks ago. “To be back here in this city, and to try to make an imprint and an impact, is my desire in my heart.
“… It’s just such a blessing to see what I’ve gone through and how [God has] ordered my steps. My passion and love for this community, this city, and giving back [is] because there’s another Steve Wilks out there that just needs an opportunity.”
Motivational Monday Don’t expect people to understand your grind when God didn’t give them your vision.#Hebrews11One
— Steve Wilks (@ScoreonD) August 16, 2021
— Steve Wilks (@ScoreonD) April 17, 2022
Wilks and his now-energized Panthers will seek to continue to creep closer in the NFC South race as they take on the Ravens (6-3) in Baltimore on Sunday. The game is set for 1 p.m. ET.