CHARLOTTE – There was no guarantee Eric Washington would become a defensive coordinator this offseason. But he had a good shot.
The domino was Steve Wilks.
If Carolina’s coordinator in 2017 landed a head coaching job, he'd likely try to pry Washington away. Washington's other option was to stay in Carolina to fill Wilks’ role if/when he left.
“I was fortunate to be in that position,” Washington said Monday, a week after he was officially named Wilks’ replacement. “It's great to have options when you're a coach.
“When Ron Rivera, who brought me into this organization, expresses a level of confidence in you in terms of moving into a role with more responsibility, you have to take a look at that. And, obviously, my respect for Steve is there. I know Steve is going to be a fantastic leader, so there were some things that were intriguing about that.”
Instead of waiting out Wilks’ ride on the coaching carousel, Washington signed a deal shortly after the season to stay with the Panthers. He still wasn’t sure whether he was heading into his first offseason as a coordinator or his eighth as Carolina’s defensive line coach.
“The fact that we have the players here in place, I understand and know this organization, I respect what it's all about, and I also respect Coach Rivera,” Washington explained. “And obviously, my family was dug into the Charlotte community, so that really pushed me over the top in terms of deciding that I wanted to be here.”
As he settles into his new office at Bank of America Stadium, Washington is mostly focused on preparing for his first defensive meeting of 2018. That’s still two-and-a-half months away.
Washington can concentrate on those kind of details because it’s not like he’s blowing up the playbook. Philosophically, his defense won't look much different than it did with Wilks or in its six seasons under Sean McDermott.
“We have a foundation. We have a system if you will,” Washington said.
As far as if that means he’ll blitz as much as Wilks did for much of 2017, well, we’ll have to wait and see.
“That system consists of being able to create negative plays which means sometimes you pressure. It also means that sometimes you can rely on the basic design of your defense to generate those things,” Washington said. “So we'll sit back and look at what the offensive trends are, where we're strong personnel-wise, and then we'll come up with a sound, solid balance of an attacking mentality in terms of adding an extra guy or letting our base foundation do the job for us.”
Washington also isn’t ready to say if he’ll stay on the sideline or head up to the coaches' booth on game day.
“I'm going to sit down and kind of take a look at where I would be most effective managing the game as a play-caller,” he said, “and make sure more importantly our staff, we're all coordinated.”
And like the rest of us, Washington is unsure if defensive end Julius Peppers will return.
“We'd love to have him back, obviously,” Washington said.
2017 was just the second season of Washington's working relationship with Peppers, but they have a unique connection that began to form in 2010 when Washington was Peppers’ defensive line coach in Chicago. It’s one of the reasons Peppers nearly came back to Carolina in 2014 and why he returned three years later.
So will Washington use that bond to lobby Peppers to play a 17th season?
“You can’t,” Washington replied with a laugh and a reminder that this time of year is a dead-period between players and coaches. “The NFL tells you that you can't. But the thing is, you give a guy like that room to assess and evaluate what he wants to do.
“You want a man like that to play as long as he possibly can play because of what it means to you on and off the football field. You give him room to look at what he wants to do and then make those decisions. I'm hopeful, and I'll respect whichever direction he decides to go in.”