Coaches for Panthers defense have ‘built something special’

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 7, 2013 

Nearly every week when he meets with the media, Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott mentions the contributions of the team’s other defensive coaches.

McDermott went so far as to jokingly spell their names one week, hoping to get some publicity for the men whose behind-the-scenes work has been instrumental in the Panthers’ climb to the top of league’s defensive rankings.

It’s a relatively youthful staff led by McDermott, 39, the former Philadelphia Eagles coordinator who is expected be a candidate for head-coaching vacancies after the season.

The Panthers, No. 1 in scoring defense (13.1 points a game) and No. 2 in total defense (289.5 yards), face a tough challenge Sunday against New Orleans. Even after a 34-7 loss at Seattle on Monday, the Saints have the league’s third-best passing attack.

McDermott spent his entire NFL coaching career in Philadelphia before joining Ron Rivera’s inaugural Panthers staff in 2011. McDermott had never worked with any of the current defensive assistants previously, although defensive line coach Eric Washington and secondary coach Steve Wilks have ties to Rivera.

“I think it’s a good, young group of guys that are learning to work together,” Rivera said. “They’ve done a great job.”

Washington, with the Panthers since 2011, was a coaching intern in Chicago when Rivera was a Bears assistant. Washington, Wilks and linebackers coach Al Holcomb, hired this past offseason, all worked their way up through the college and pro ranks – as did McDermott.

“To me it’s an important step to have that in your background,” McDermott said. “It just shows that you’re willing to pay your dues.”

Wilks, a West Charlotte graduate who played at Appalachian State, and Washington are the oldest defensive assistants at 44.

“Chronological age is one thing,” Washington said. “But we’ve got a lot of experience in that room, starting with Sean.”

Wilks said McDermott takes input from his entire staff while developing the gameplan each week.

“Everybody works well together. We don’t really have any egos. Everybody’s good about expressing their opinion and ideas, and Sean has the final decision,” Wilks said. “It’s just been a good working environment.”

Holcomb, 43, a defensive assistant with the Giants the past four seasons, said Carolina’s young coaches – including assistant defensive line coach Sam Mills III and assistant secondary coach Curtis Fuller – bring energy to the meeting rooms and practice field.

Holcomb tries to keep the mood light in the linebackers room by playing music before meetings, and showing funny YouTube clips before Saturday film sessions.

“It’s a long season. So you’ve got to change it up. You’ve got to keep them fresh. You’ve got to keep them engaged. And I think having a younger staff helps with that,” Holcomb said. “They don’t take us too seriously. It’s serious, but we have fun with it.”

Rivera said Holcomb, who worked with Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman in New York, has overseen the development of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and the comeback of outside backer Thomas Davis.

Washington, who played for legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, has helped transform a defensive line that was a liability when Rivera was hired. Washington, whose final college game was the 1990 Bayou Classic in the Superdome, said Robinson was influential in Washington’s approach with players.

“His philosophy was, ‘Teach the man and the player will learn,’” Washington said. “That had a huge impact on how I relate and communicate with players in all of the levels I’ve been on.”

McDermott said the chemistry among the coaches and players has been “huge” in the defense’s success.

“You’re only as good as the people around you,” McDermott said. “I absolutely love it here, and I love those guys in that room. We built something special.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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