Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

22 Jan 2018

Arizona Hires Steve Wilks as Head Coach

Three weeks after Bruce Arians announced his retirement, the Arizona Cardinals have their new man: Steve Wilks, the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.

Like Tennessee's new head coach, Mike Vrabel, Wilks only has one year of coordinator experience, taking over from Sean McDermott last season. However, Wilks has plenty of other experience backing him up. He was head coach at Savannah State in 1999, where he finished with a 5-6 record. He has also served as assistant head coach in Carolina since 2015 while serving as defensive backs coach.

From 1995-2004, he coached in the college ranks, serving as defensive coordinator at Johnson C. Smith, Savannah State and East Tennessee State, and as a defensive backs coach at multiple levels. He then moved to the NFL, where he was a defensive backs coach from 2005-2016 for Washington, Chicago, San Diego and Carolina before moving to defensive coordinator this past season. At the NFL level, he's worked under Joe Gibbs, Lovie Smith, Norv Turner and Ron Rivera. He has a very long resume, then, just not as an NFL coordinator.

Under Wilks, Carolina's defense finished seventh in DVOA, up from 10th a year ago. Wilks runs a very blitz-heavy 4-3; they blitzed 44% of the time, per ESPN. That would seem to make them a logical fit for Arizona's defensive scheme, which regularly rushes five or six players at a time.

It remains to be seen who Wilks will hire as an offensive coordinator, who will have to deal with the fact that the Cardinals currently have no quarterbacks under contract.

Posted by: Bryan Knowles on 22 Jan 2018

36 comments, Last at 28 Jan 2018, 7:04am by Treima


by theslothook :: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 3:55pm

I wonder if Wilkes, McVay, and Vrable being hired is the result of all the head coaching churn and so you are devoid of hot, seasoned candidates.

I mean - how on earth can anyone project what these guys are going to be as head coaches with one year as a defensive coordinator? And while we are at it, why is Dave Toub not even being considered at all?

by Steve in WI :: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 7:07pm

It does seem to be a pretty drastic correction (over-correction?) to the previous practice of retread coaches getting second and third chances despite not really doing anything in their first/second jobs to indicate that they'd be great if given another chance.

by serutan :: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 8:03pm

Neither McVay nor Pedersen were retread hires. The Rams had a huge turnaround
this year, and the Eagles are headed to the Super Bowl.

Now throw in that the NFL is a copycat league...
Was wr

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 11:24am

Pederson was the OC for the Eagles' previous long-term coach (Reid). It was a hire that made sense for a front-office that had returned to power after the short-lived Kelly regime. He wasn't a retread, but it was a return to a previous coaching tree and style.

by rageon :: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 8:34pm

I wish I knew whether Toub's inability to get hired (or even be interviewed this year?) was the result of not interviewing well or a general tendency against special teams coaches.

Also of note with respect to ST coaches -- I'm curious whether John Fassel will ever get a shot at head coach. He's produced a number of good players/units, seems to be well-liked by players, and had a brief stint as interim head coach after Fisher was fired.

by Chip :: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 11:07pm

Toub continues to get looks - he interviewed with IND this yr. He will land a HC seat eventually. Guys that get interviews year after year eventually get picked up.

For example, in the 2016 coaching cycle, a number of hot names were already riding the carousel: Sean McDermott interviewed with CLE, MIA, TB (hired by BUF in 2017), Patricia with CLE, MIA, Shurmur with the PHI,... In 2015 cycle, Gase interviewed with CHI, ATL, BUF (hired by MIA in 2016), Shurmur with BUF, OAK, etc

There are only a few seats each year and lots of candidates. Best reporters in CHI / KC speak very highly of him and think it's a matter of time.

NFL is cyclical and the young up-and-comer is in favor, so this probably isn't his year.

by MC2 :: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 10:52pm

I guess this means Jerry Springer is going to have to find a new security guard.

by Treima :: Sun, 01/28/2018 - 7:04am

Wilkos hasn't been Jerry's muscle for years, he's got his own talk show that I guess he'll have to do between OTAs and mini-camp this season!

by ChrisLong :: Mon, 01/22/2018 - 11:00pm

My understanding is that NFL coaches are often managers of the team and that most have a smaller level of film watching and strategy than you might think. Obviously there are exceptions. But that points to coordinator-level experience being less necessary than media savvy, personnel management experience, and the ability to integrate different perspectives into a coherent plan.

by The Ninjalectual :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 2:31am

That's a good point, and a possible explanation for why it seems so common for great coordinators to become bad head coaches.

by RobotBoy :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 5:32am

Tomlin seems like exactly that type of coach.

by jtr :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 9:29am

Yup, agree 100%. The head coach is first and foremost a manager, in the same way that the director of your office is. That tends to get forgotten until somebody like Ben McAdoo really obviously screws up the interpersonal aspect of the job. It's definitely more important to be a good leader than to be a good football strategist. Obviously some guys like Andy Reid get heavily involved in x's-and-o's, but that's not really their primary job.

by dryheat :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 1:35pm

Compare Cleveland Belichick with New England Belichick. The difference between the two is that the former didn't care enough about what you call the "interpersonal aspect". He learned, and I think McDaniels has learned those same lessons since Denver.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 5:24pm

Belichick is 54-63 without Brady and 196-57 with him.

The secret appears to be having a 1st-ballot HOF QB.

\It's going to be fun to try to disentangle those two
\\Dungy had Tampa and Manning had Denver
\\\Montana had KC
\\\\Shula had an amorphous sea of non-Marino QBs

by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 12:11pm

From my count, he's 19-18 in NE without Brady - and 14-6 without Brady after Brady made his first start (and given Brady's winning percentage, you'd expect 15-5). He seems to win just fine without Brady.

The bigger factor seems to be "Don't coach for Cleveland"

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 1:41pm

Even in Cleveland, I thought he was underappreciated, and did an admirable job. He took over a terrible team and at least made them respectable in '91-'93, then had a pretty good team that won a playoff game in '94. He got too much blame in '95 after the team collapsed with aging veterans, the chaos of relocation, and the front office trying to force Eric Zeir on him, as well as the disaster free agent signing of Andre Rison.

by theslothook :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 2:21pm

Yeah someone did a deep dive on his time in Cleveland and found that he was given a suicide mission.

I think the moral of the story was the point made above - don't coach in Cleveland.

by Jerry :: Thu, 01/25/2018 - 3:06am

Even in Cleveland, I thought he was underappreciated


They were coming off a bad year in 1990, but they'd been to the playoffs the previous five years. The Browns had one good year in Belichick's five. If you want to give him a pass for 1995, I won't argue too much, but I'm not convinced that Belichick's Cleveland tenure was much better than, say, Sam Rutigliano's. All of which is fine. I just expect the greatest coach of all time to succeed in more than one circumstance.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/25/2018 - 1:17pm

If you wanted to be cruel, you could compare his career to reverse George Seifert.

\sort of like how Brady is reverse Elway

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Thu, 01/25/2018 - 1:45pm

1990 for the Browns wasn't just one down year. It was like the 1992 Bears, when the roster was just no longer good enough to compete. Most of the core of the Late 80's Browns were either gone are aged into only average players. Bernie Kosar was essentially washed up (it was actually a pretty ballsy move by Belichick to cut him, and salvage Vinny Testaverde's career).

I think he did fine with what he had, but I'll concede that a reasonable argument can be made that he underachieved.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 12:43pm

I think that's exactly right. As a head coach, you need an Eisenhower, not a Patton or Rommel.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 5:19pm

You want someone who survived WWII?

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 10:16pm

Excuse my pedantry, but Patton technically survived WWII, as he died in the Jeep accident 4 months after the war ended.

Anyway, I meant the head coach needs to be a good organizer, have a head for logistics, be able to massage multiple egos, and process input from multiple minds into a unified, coherent plan. As opposed to a coordinator that can focus on tactics. Patton was a brilliant tactician, but he would have been a goddamn disaster as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces (probably less successful than Todd Haley and Jim Schwartz were as head coaches).

But I guess you can also say that avoiding traffic accidents, and not getting executed for trying to assassinate your boss would be good skills for NFL head coaches to have.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 4:49am

Final paragraph is why Jason Garrett is still in Dallas

by jtr :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 8:53am

Patton would be Rex or Buddy Ryan as a head coach; a clever but somewhat one-dimensional tactician who was really good at getting the team fired up to go out there and disembowel the enemy. And like Rex and Buddy, things would collapse as soon as he hit a complication that couldn't be resolved with a pump-up speech.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 11:39am

I think that's a good analogy.

Rommell was different. He was successful initially, because he realized ahead of time that the British 8th Army had him outnumbered, outgunned, and out-supplied. He employed a number of "David" strategies by using trickery and taking risks that other generals at the time considered insane (kind of like using trick plays and going for it a lot on 4th down...like Belichick with the early 90's Browns).

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/25/2018 - 1:21pm

Patton wasn't as dumb as his reputation (he was as hot-headed).

This was the same guy who researched his adversary's strategies and theory prior a battle in which he routed him, because he knew his playbook ahead of time.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Thu, 01/25/2018 - 1:51pm

I would also argue that as a coordinator, Rex Ryan was smarter than people gave him credit for.

Also, when it comes to sexual proclivities, Ryan's foot fetish is far more palatable than Patton (allegedly) sleeping with his neice.

by serutan :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 7:09pm

I think coordinator experience is equally important as IMO it feeds in to the into the integration of different perspectives - he needs to understand how it works in order to understand and integrate the perspectives.

Agree he sinks or swims based on how good a manager he is which makes
hiring a coordinator w/o head coaching experience a crap shoot since he has not had his management ability put to the test.
Was wr

by dryheat :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 1:33pm

I'm just glad they left Brian Flores alone, so there's a degree of continuity on the Patriots defensive staff.

by johonny :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 2:04pm

More and more, I admit I don't know at all how good these guys will me. As head coach it seems to really help to have your QB situation be a positive one. It also really helps to have a decent owner and GM. Obviously at this moment you have to think the Arizona job has a huge negative in the QB department. Most coaches are replacement level talent and I've seen no ability of the popular press or fans to be able to predict who will have success, sustained success, and who will fail. Indeed these days it's really hard to know what metric these coaches are even evaluated on. Winning is no longer enough, play off games aren't enough, and experience seems to be seen as a negative since almost every head coach gets fired within 4 year, thus almost all previous experience a coach had at the highest level will be seen as a negative one.

by MC2 :: Tue, 01/23/2018 - 9:29pm

True, the lack of a QB is a major problem, but other than that, I think this is a much better situation than most NFL job openings tend to be. The Cardinals have a very solid defense, and one of the few truly elite RBs in the league (Johnson is, IMO, right up there with Bell and Gurley; I'll need to see another year from Kamara before putting him in that group).

A top 10 defense and a top 3 RB will go a long way, but of course, they still have to get something out of the passing game. So, if I were them, I'd try to do whatever it takes to get a proven veteran QB like Cousins or Smith. Then, if they can get a young WR and/or TE in the draft, and maybe upgrade their O-line a bit, they should have at least a league-average passing game (especially if they can coax Fitzgerald back for another year). That, combined with their ability to run the ball and play defense, should be enough to make them contenders next year.

by Mr Shush :: Sat, 01/27/2018 - 10:46pm

One additional downside: the NFC West looks set to be brutally competitive in the next few years.

by MC2 :: Sun, 01/28/2018 - 1:39am

Good point.

I think a lot will depend on whether Seattle can find adequate replacements for their many aging players, and on how long it takes the Niners to assemble a competent defense to complement Garoppolo and Co.

by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 2:08am

"s it's really hard to know what metric these coaches are even evaluated on"

I would kill to know how what the Raiders evaluated Gruden on. Is being a "TV personality" actually a plus here? Gruden can really relate with the stupider players?

And thinking along these lines, what does his successful coaching tree say about Andy Reid?

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Wed, 01/24/2018 - 3:22pm

"I would kill to know how what the Raiders evaluated Gruden on."

You're assuming Mark Davis is a rational actor, which is a pretty big assumption.