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Steve Wilks hoping the past becomes prelude for Panthers

Steve Wilks

CHARLOTTE — Saturday night at the Panthers' hotel, Steve Wilks showed his team some game film.

It wasn't of the Buccaneers offense or defense this season. It wasn't from this year at all.

To underscore his message to his players that they can still get back into the NFC South race by winning division games — because he was here when the Panthers won three straight NFC South titles — Wilks showed them the old footage.

Their rise in 2013. The way they fought to win the division with a 7-8-1 record in 2014 by winning four straight to close the season. The 15-1 run in 2015 that took them to the Super Bowl.

It was meaningful to Wilks. So it became meaningful to share.

"It's important to us, the history of the Carolina Panthers and the NFC South," defensive coordinator Al Holcomb said, his voice raspy from a game of barking directions and then celebrating like they haven't in a while. "(In 2014), we hadn't won a game for seven straight weeks, and found a way to win the division and have a playoff game here at the Bank.

"I think history is important to Steve; it's important to me. Those things resonated. It's such a different team from when we were first here, those guys don't really understand what it was like around here when times were really good. It was just about the history of us playing against this team and the South and just trying to reclaim what we had done."

What it wasn't about was Wilks, even after a 21-3 win in his first home game at Bank of America Stadium, about four miles from where he graduated from West Charlotte High. It was clearly special, but he didn't make it seem like it.

"Again, I just think it's just really trying to set the tone, and I make it about them," Wilks said of his players. "I make it about us. I stood in front of these guys at the beginning when I first took over here, and I said, 'you know, in order for us to go forward, we are going to have to surrender their individual me for the greater we.' That's what it's all about. It's not about certain individuals. It's not about me. When we continue to keep the focus on us, I think we have a chance."

And to drive that message home, he has continually reminded this team of another team that appeared to be on the rocks.

When the Panthers were 3-8-1 in 2014, they were mostly the punchline for jokes. But then, when they finally started playing well late, all the other stuff faded away.

Seems like a reasonable story to tell a team that was 1-4 and fired a head coach, lost another game, and then traded Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers in less than a two-week span.

So rather than focus on current problems, Wilks focused on solutions that worked in the past.

"Last night we talked about and really went back and had a highlight film of the past and the great divisional games and the rivalries we had," Wilks said. "It talked about really making that jump. We emphasized and talked about that. I told guys, 'man, we got to go out there with a leap of faith, believe in one another, and know that we can get this thing done. Once we do, we will take off.'

"That was really the point of emphasis last night, and guys really bought into that. We took the jump today, so I'm excited."

Al Holcomb, Steve Wilks

The message obviously resonated with players, and Holcomb wasn't surprised by that. He was also here with Wilks during the good times, and was his defensive coordinator in Arizona in 2018.

If anyone knows Wilks' message, it's Holcomb. So hearing that message Saturday night, and seeing it manifest itself Sunday in Bank of America Stadium, had Holcomb pausing between words at times.

"It's genuine, from the heart," Holcomb said of Wilks' message. "It's real, and there's no fluff. And when he delivers a message, it comes straight from the heart."

That's why it was a little emotional in that locker room, when owner David Tepper presented Wilks with a game ball.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, Wilks didn't mention the recognition when asked specifically about game balls in his postgame press conference. He said quarterback PJ Walker got one, and that the offensive line and running backs were recognized. But he never mentioned himself.

"I think he was happy. He was extremely happy for the players," Holcomb said. "He was extremely happy that they took the message last Monday and constantly reiterated that message through the course of the week. The staff, the players, just came out and executed and did exactly what we asked them to do.

"It's not about him. Right? Right. It's the men in that locker room really that came to play, and executed, and believed in what we're trying to build here. It's a credit to those guys for sticking with it."

But the guys in that locker room also know it's more than a little about Wilks.

"It means a lot," defensive end Brian Burns said. "His first win as a head coach, he deserves an opportunity, and he's capitalizing on it. So it means a lot. It just shows you how selfless he is, that he made it about the team."

Linebacker Cory Littleton, who made a key fourth-down stop, said the game was a testament to Wilks' message.

"It was everything. Literally, everything we came into this week trying to do, every word he's given us, everything he's been preaching about, we accomplished," Littleton said. "We worked for it and made a jump to try to move to the next level. And hopefully, we continue to do that.

"He's the guy leading this ship right now. He took over a hard job in the middle of the season, and it still isn't over yet; we've still got a lot of ball to play. And he expects us to win games. That's why we show up to work every day."

Cornerback Tae Hayes, the practice squad call-up who was on the field for some pivotal plays late, clearly can't get enough of the story. Like Wilks, he's an Appalachian State guy who took a hard road here, so it's easy for the coach's words to land with him.

"If you can tell it's important to the leader, it just rubs off on everybody else. So it was important to us," Hayes said. "He was a little teary-eyed. He was emotional. How can you blame him?

"You can tell he's a leader, and he pushes guys. He's not picking favorites, he's being what you want a head coach to be. Wants everybody to improve. When you've got someone like that, it's special."

Walker said the feeling in the locker room when Wilks got that game ball was "phenomenal."

"The energy was ridiculous," Walker said. "Just his passion, his love for this game and this team. He knows what we've got in this locker room. And he ain't shying away from it. He's going to challenge us each week. And that's the best thing we can have as a team."


The Panthers are still 2-5. And they're still far from any destination. But at the moment, when all they had was the game in front of them, keeping them focused on that one game was no small feat.

So those expectations Littleton talked about were real for him, too. Wilks knows what he's faced with, which is why he made a point in his opening statement to point out, "that definitely wasn't a team out there today that was trying to tank it."

"It didn't bother me because I really keep my focus on the men in this room right here each and every day," Wilks said of the popular perception of his team. "But I just want to put it out there and let you know these men in this room have too much character to even dive into something like that."

That's no surprise to those who knew him best. When Wilks was hired as a secondary coach in February, he called team captain and free agent-to-be Donte Jackson.

But it wasn't a recruiting pitch, to Jackson's surprise. Wilks talked to Jackson about his kids, his family, and what it meant to him to be here.

"It was like he cared about my family," Jackson said. "That's just the power of the man. That's what he does. He's one of the most selfless people I've ever been around. When I first met him this offseason, we had a long conversation when I was still in free agency, me and him talked on the phone for about an hour. He came off as a selfless guy, and he hasn't come off that.

"He's not going to make this about anybody but the team."

Check out the celebration photos of the Panthers after their 21-3 win over the Buccaneers.

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