This piece was updated after publication with more information.
Hiring an NFL head coach is like playing a game of musical chairs. There are always more vacancies than no-brainer candidates, and that often leaves one team as the last standing in the coaching carousel. This year, that was the Arizona Cardinals. After being spurned by Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who is expected to take the Giants’ gig, the Cardinals have hired Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, becoming the final team to fill their head-coaching position, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Monday.
Recently on vacation, a person walked up to #AZCardinals GM Steve Keim and introduced himself. On a beach in the Carolinas, Keim was blown away by this impressive dude. It was Panthers DC Steve Wilks... who Keim is expected to hire as his new head coach.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 22, 2018
Whether that interview was on the beach or not will hopefully be the first question asked at his introductory press conference. Wilks is set to replace Bruce Arians, the beloved coach who retired on New Year’s Day after five seasons with the Cardinals. The first order of business for Wilks and GM Steve Keim will be to bring on an offensive coordinator to either maintain or scrap Arians’s high-flying offense, which was governed by vertical passing and Lil Jon–level shots downfield. Arizona’s new offensive identity will largely be tied to whoever replaces Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who also retired earlier this month. Whether the team looks internally at backups Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton or searches for a long-term answer with the 15th pick in the draft, finding a new starter will be Wilks’s no. 1 offseason priority.
On defense, Wilks fits right in with the aggressiveness Arizona embodied under Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher. The Cardinals have been the most blitz-happy squad in football since Arians took over in 2013, and the Panthers blitzed on 44 percent of snaps this season under Wilks, second highest in the league. Bettcher also interviewed for the head-coaching job, and Wilks’s decision whether to retain him may signal if the new coach intends to keep the Cardinals in a 3–4 defense or convert the squad to the 4–3 he ran in Carolina. Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb has been floated as a possible Bettcher replacement.
Wilks, like new Titans coach Mike Vrabel, has just one season under his belt as an NFL defensive coordinator. He has just one season of head-coaching experience — at Savannah State in 1999 — though he also served as assistant head coach in Carolina for the past three seasons. Former players like Carolina All-Pro linebacker and team captain Jon Beason raved about Wilks’s ability to lead.
“He is a hard-core, intense, great coach,’’ Beason told the New York Post. “He plays the, ‘Hey man, c’mon guys’ role, but if he sees guys goof off, he will — without hesitation — Coach Wilks will stand up in the room, address guys in an authoritative manner and everybody will stop what they’re doing. He will have the floor and address it. That’s the whole room. That’s who he is.”
Arizona All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson seemed excited about the news.
I LOVE IT.— Patrick Peterson /P2 (@P2) January 22, 2018
Arizona still has plenty of questions to answer on both sides of the ball. The team might also lose Larry Fitzgerald, the best player in franchise history, who at age 34 has publicly mulled over retirement. But with Peterson, league sack leader Chandler Jones, Honey Badger™ Tyrann Mathieu, and (a healthy) David Johnson, the Cardinals have more talent than most NFL squads. Arizona may have been last in musical chairs, but that doesn’t mean Wilks will soon be on the hot seat.