As of this writing we currently know of three candidates that are reportedly set to interview for the Titans head coaching vacancy: Mike Vrabel, Matt LaFleur, and Steve Wilks. Trevor gave a great argument for Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel yesterday and we had some information on Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur earlier in the week (along with potential candidate John DeFilippo). That leaves Wilks as the one known candidate who has yet to be covered here. Being the avid completionist that I am, I’m going to fix that for us today.
Wilks has an interesting career path that has led him to the brink of reaching the top of his profession at just 48 years old. He got his start in coaching as a defensive coordinator for Johnson C. Smith University, a small private school in Charlotte, North Carolina, just four years after wrapping up his college playing career as a defensive back at Appalachian State. He was just 26 years old at the time. After two years there, he took the same position at Savannah State. After another two years he was promoted to head coach.
After just one year as a head coach, he moved on to a role as defensive backs coach for Illinois State. From there, he changed jobs annually for the next five years, acting as a defensive backs coach for his alma mater Appalachian State and Bowling Green — with a one year stop as defensive coordinator at East Tennessee State in between — before getting his first big break. He caught on with Tyrone Willingham’s Notre Dame staff as a defensive backs coach and then followed him to Washington a year later.
That experience earned him his first NFL coaching opportunity coaching as a defensive backs coach under defensive coordinator Ron Rivera for the Bears in 2006. Rivera left Chicago to head to San Diego following that season, but Wilks stuck around for a couple more years before eventually following him there in 2009. Rivera took the Panthers head coaching job in 2011 with Wilks once again following him a year later. Between 2006-2016 Wilks worked as an NFL defensive backs coach for 11 years, 8 of those under Ron Rivera, his primary coaching influence. During that time he helped mold the young careers of players like Charles “Peanut” Tillman, Eric Weddle, and Josh Norman.
After former Panthers defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, left to take the Bills head coaching job last offseason, Wilks was finally promoted to defensive coordinator for the first time at the NFL level in 2017. While the scheme remained the same under Wilks — the scheme is really Rivera’s — there was a significant shift in it’s implementation. Wilks’ Panthers defense blitzed on over 40% of passing plays in 2017, a major jump from just 25.3% under McDermott in 2016. The Panthers blitzed more often than any other NFL team under Wilks. He has an aggressive mindset and that shows through in his playcalling.
That heavy blitz rate helped Carolina rack up 50 sacks — 3rd highest total in the NFL — despite not featuring a dominant pass rusher. The Panthers defense was also dominant against the run, allowing just 85.3 yards per game on the ground — again, 3rd best in the league. The Panthers defense finished a very strong 7th in DVOA, but if it had a weakness it was — ironically — the defensive backfield. Carolina’s defensive backs struggled at times during the year, possibly a side effect of the heavy blitz percentage.
However, the Titans aren’t hiring Wilks to be their defensive coordinator. They would be asking him to lead the team and bring in his own coordinators to run their specific units. Getting to know Wilks is tough when you just look at his work history. It’s hard to separate his results from Ron Rivera’s and he just has one year of experience as a defensive coordinator at the NFL level. However, I think this quote from Jon Beason, a linebacker who interacted with Wilks often during his time with the Panthers, tells me a lot about who he is as a coach.
“He is a hard-core, intense, great coach,’’ former Giants defensive captain Jon Beason told The 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.
“A lot of times you come in and have young kids at 21, 22, and they don’t know what to expect with the glitz and glamour of being a professional athlete and what they think they know but they don’t. If you don’t win, if you are not productive, you will be gone. Enough with all the BS, the laughing, the joking, we got to get this down. ‘We didn’t have a great day of practice today. That was horses–t, we’re gonna get our ass kicked on Sunday if we play the way we practiced today.’ That’s who he is. That’s coach Wilks.’’
The thing that I love about Wilks is his confidence and communication skills. To me, those two things are among the most important aspects of being a head coach. A team feeds off the energy and presence of its head coach and Wilks inspires confidence. Watch him handle this press conference following their 9-3 win over the Bills in Week 2.
He certainly comes across as a “leader of men” here. He also touches on some of the key differences between his 4-3 defense and a 3-4 around the 10:20 mark as he discusses the transition of a stand up outside linebacker to a 6-tech or 5-tech defensive end which would be applicable if he decided to implement a version of the 4-3 defense in Tennessee.
While we are here, I really think a switch to a 4-3 defensive front could be a good thing for the Titans. Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey are clearly better fits in a 4-man front. Brian Orakpo had his highest sack total of his NFL career as a 4-3 defensive end in Washington his rookie season. It might even revive Kevin Dodd’s career. At the linebacker level, Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard could both fit — Brown is a prototypical Will linebacker and Woodyard could probably play either the Sam or the Mike positions. The only misfit in the bunch is Avery Williamson, who just isn’t athletic enough to go sideline to sideline or handle the coverage responsibilities of a 4-3 Mike linebacker. However, Williamson is a free agent and a player that the team could have been looking to upgrade from already. For a 4-3 to be dominant, the middle linebacker is incredibly important. That would be a critical piece to making the transition successfully, but I think the team has the other parts already in place and it likely would help maximize the effectiveness of Casey — the defense’s best player — as a gap-shooting, penetrating defensive tackle. I really like this idea.
The key question for Wilks would be who he could bring in as his offensive coordinator and there have been previous reports that he is pitching Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo as his choice in interviews with other teams. That’s assuming that DeFilippo doesn’t end up with a head job himself as he is still in contention for the Cardinals job and may get an interview here once the Eagles season ends as well. You all know how I feel about Coach Flip so obviously the prospect of getting Wilks AND DeFilippo together on the same staff is quite appealing.
If that scenario were to play out, it would be important for the Titans to immediately get a coach on staff that could be DeFilippo’s heir apparent if/when he gets a head coaching job. However, if you have a chance to add both of these guys to the same staff you almost have to just do it and figure out the rest later.
Other offensive coaches that have a connection to Wilks include recently fired Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula, Rob Chudzinski, Pep Hamilton, and Ron Turner (Norv’s brother). None of those guys are nearly as exciting as the prospect of DeFilippo, but all are experienced NFL offensive coordinators who would be readily available to join a Wilks-led staff.
Overall, I really like Wilks as an option for the Titans. He checks the “leader of men” box with authority and has a strong track record of success at his previous stops. While many of us — myself included — have preferred an offensive-minded head coach to help with Marcus Mariota’s development, I found an interesting article from Justin Rogers of The Detroit News regarding the success rate of new head coaches over the past 10 years. While the numbers he cites in the article aren’t particularly encouraging for new head coaches in general — of the 66 head coaches hired over the past 10 years, only 3 have won a Super Bowl and just 20 have won a playoff game — it did offer some some insight in to the success of offensive coaches versus that of their defensive counterparts.
Since 2008, teams have hired 39 offensive coaches compared to 28 defensive coaches. Those offensive coaches hold a small advantage in terms of overall winning percentage, winning 47.7% of their games versus 46.4% for defensive coaches. However, defensive coaches have made the playoffs in 33.3% of their seasons while offensive coaches have made it in just 29.7% of their years in charge. Defensive coaches have a bigger advantage when it comes to playoff wins, winning 0.29 playoff games per season compared with 0.18 games per season for offensive coaches. That may help explain why defensive coaches tend to last longer in their head jobs, sticking around for an average of 3.3 seasons as opposed to just 2.6 seasons for their offensive counterparts.
That data set does not include the longest tenured current coaches in the NFL: Bill Belichick (18 seasons), Marvin Lewis (15 seasons), Sean Payton (12 seasons), Mike McCarthy (12 seasons), and Mike Tomlin (11 seasons). Belichick’s presence really skews the numbers heavily towards defense when you add those guys to the mix. But if you add all those guys except Belichick in — so the data set now includes all current head coaches AND all hired and fired coaches from the last 10 years except the GOAT — you get a very very slight lean towards offensive coaches.
What does all that mean? Not a whole lot really. Overall, offensive and defensive head coaches have pretty similar results outside of Bill Belichick who really shouldn’t be categorized with anyone at this point. He is peerless. But I thought it was worth looking at as the debate between offensive and defensive head coaches is sure to rage on until the Titans make a hire.
Wilks is a strong candidate and will almost certainly be a head coach soon. I find him very intriguing, especially if he can bring DeFilippo with him as his offensive coordinator. If the Titans decide to go with a defensive coach, it would be hard to do better than this guy.