He reminded Wilks the two had had one of the NFL's top defenses and reached the Super Bowl in 2006 when they were together with the Chicago Bears -- Rivera as the defensive coordinator and Wilks the secondary coach. He reminded when they were coaching together with the San Diego Chargers in 2009 they won the AFC West with a 13-3 record and the next season had the NFL’s No. 1 defense.
“I said, ‘Steve, did you ever notice that every time you’re with me we have a top defense and we get to the playoffs?’’’ Rivera told ESPN.com. “He goes, ‘You know what, Ron. Maybe it’s every time you’re with me.’"
That confidence is one of the many reasons Rivera believes Carolina owner David Tepper should make Wilks the full-time head coach after his run as the interim ends shortly after Sunday’s regular-season finale against the New Orleans Saints.
He doesn’t believe Tepper will find a better candidate than the 53-year-old Charlotte native when interviews begin in the coming weeks.
He’s not alone. One NFL executive source told ESPN the city of Charlotte “should boycott the team if Tepper doesn’t hire" Wilks.
“He’s more than shown he’s capable," the source said.
Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, the original general manager of the Panthers (1995-97), agreed.
“You’re judged in this game by what you do with what you have,’’ he said, pointing out that Wilks inherited a roster midseason with big questions, particularly at quarterback and tight end. “What Steve has done with this team is really outstanding.’’
In October, only hours after firing head coach Matt Rhule following a 1-4 start, Tepper said Wilks would get a shot at the full-time job if he did an “incredible job’’ as the interim.
He never defined what "incredible" meant to him, but from those around the league to Carolina players to others at Bank of America Stadium, the word "incredible" has been used a lot since Wilks took over.
Players respected the way he sent Robbie Anderson to the locker room in the third quarter of the coach's first game and moved on from the disgruntled wide receiver the next day in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals.
He earned more respect rebuilding the offense around running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard after star running back Christian McCaffrey was traded to the San Francisco 49ers before his second game.
The respect continued to grow with the way Wilks handled the carousel at quarterback between Baker Mayfield, PJ Walker and Sam Darnold, ultimately releasing Mayfield and settling on Darnold for the stretch run that would decide his future.
Despite all the “chaos,’’ as guard Austin Corbett described it, Wilks had the Panthers in playoff contention heading into last Sunday’s Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They lost a competitive game, 30-24, but had they won, Sunday's regular-season finale at the New Orleans Saints (1 p.m. ET, Fox) would have been for the NFC South title and a trip to the playoffs.
Regardless, Wilks has given Carolina (6-10) an identity, and players love playing for him.
“Being a head coach in the National Football League, you have to be a leader, you have to know how to control a room,’’ Corbett said. “He’s done a fantastic job and we need to just build off this momentum we have.’’
Statistically, the Panthers improved a lot under Wilks, particularly offensively. They went from 24th in scoring (18.6 points per game) under Rhule to 15th (22.1), last in yards per game (271.4) to 17th (331.5), and 27th in rushing (89.8 yards per game) to sixth (144.6).
“He’s amazing,’’ linebacker Shaq Thompson said of Wilks. “I don’t see why he’s not the best fit for this team.’’
MANY AROUND THE league believe Tepper wants to make a big splash with his next hire -- likely with an offensive-minded coach -- since his first one (Rhule) turned out so poorly.
Former Saints coach Sean Payton would fit that bill, but because New Orleans still hold his rights through 2024, an organization likely would have to give up at least one or two first-round draft picks for him. The Saints also might be reluctant to let Payton go to another NFC South team.
Tepper, according to a league source, already had a conversation with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Although it wasn’t considered an interview, Harbaugh would check a lot of boxes for Tepper.
He’s a big name coming off a run to the College Football Playoff semifinals where he lost to TCU on Saturday. He’s been a successful NFL coach, leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship in 2011, the Super Bowl in 2012 and back to the NFC Championship in 2013.
Former Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, who started at quarterback in Carolina’s first-ever game in 1995, and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn also could get interviews.
Then there is Wilks, who has made a good case to stay on.
“When you use the standard 'Did he get the most out of what he’s got, did he make a bad situation better?', the answer is yes,’’ Polian said. “So that puts him at the top of the line [with others] that have been a successful head coach before.
“If you’re talking about somebody who has qualified himself for the job, there’s no question about Steve.’’
RIVERA FINALLY CONVINCED Wilks to come to Carolina in 2012 as the defensive backs coach. The Panthers finished second in the NFL in defense the following season and won the first of three straight NFC South titles, including the 2015 season that ended with a trip to the Super Bowl.
Rivera elevated Wilks to defensive coordinator in 2017, when the Panthers finished seventh in total defense and had what ended up being their last winning season (11-5).
He recommended him for the Cardinals' head coach job in 2018. Wilks got the job but was fired after one season (3-13), which later led Wilks to join several other Black coaches suing the NFL for racial discrimination in its hiring practices.
“He already has experience, even though it wasn’t as fair as it should have been at Arizona,’’ Rivera said. “He understands and knows some of the mistakes he made. He also knows some of the things that he does right.’’
Wilks admits he made mistakes at Arizona. One was not being himself, in part because he didn’t feel he had full control.
He’s had that at Carolina, and players respect him for who he is.
Panthers interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, who was with Wilks with the Cardinals, said both he and Wilks grew from the Arizona experience. But he said Wilks’ core beliefs are the same.
“Steve’s overall leadership, his message and his consistency with the team has been the key elements,’’ he said.
One of Wilks’ favorite sayings is he wants to be friends with the players but not their buddy.
“Friends are going to always tell you the truth,’’ Wilks said. “A buddy’s going to tell you what you want to hear.’’
Josh Norman understands. The 35-year-old cornerback realized in his rookie season (2012) when he was benched for playing outside the system after starting his first 14 games at Carolina that Wilks would be in this position one day.
One reason he returned last week after being away from the game all season was to help his former position coach, who made him into a first-team All-Pro (2015), make a run at the playoffs and get the full-time job.
“Guys want to play for him,’’ Norman said. “One of the guys came up to me [Monday] and said, ‘You coming back [next season]? Because if Wilks is back, I’m back. ... I truly believe in what he’s got going on here. It’s a good feeling.’’’
Rivera isn’t surprised.
“That’s Steve,’’ he said. “He’s got such great confidence, and he handles everything with such poise and character. I hope he gets the job.’’