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Critical In-Game Decisions Await Steve Wilks

Cardinals coach Steve Wilks on the sideline of a recent training camp practice.
Cardinals coach Steve Wilks on the sideline of a recent training camp practice.

Elijhaa Penny is but a cog in the machine during Cardinals games, awaiting his playtime and execution orders.

If coach Steve Wilks goes for it on a fourth-and-1 this preseason, the third-year fullback won’t sit around and consider the implications of the decision. He will bound onto the field and prepare to blaze a path for the running back behind him.

That doesn’t mean Penny is unsympathetic to the head coach’s plight. While he has never been in position to make the call in real life, Penny accepts the responsibility every time he fires up Madden on his PlayStation.

“Heck, yeah, it’s hard,” Penny said. “Especially when you have some money on the line. And, man, they have their jobs on the line."

Wilks is running the show at the NFL level for the first time in his career. The former Panthers defensive coordinator made plenty of in-game decisions in recent seasons, but nothing as high-profile as a fourth-and-1 call, or a fake punt, or throwing a challenge flag.

Wilks has pored over game film this offseason, dissecting key decisions made by NFL coaches the past few years. But there is only so much studying he can do. Wilks will debut on Saturday night when the Cardinals host the Chargers to begin the preseason. It will be his first game experience ahead of his all-important regular season calls.

“It’s a learning process,” Wilks said. “It’s (about) great communication with the coordinators on how we see things and giving those guys direction on what we want to do. It’s been good. It’s going to be good to get in those situations and see how we pan out.”

Former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was such an aggressive playcaller that his ‘No risk-it, no biscuit’ mantra made its way onto a T-shirt. Ron Rivera, the head coach during Wilks’ time in Carolina, famously turned up his aggressiveness over the years, earning the moniker ‘Riverboat Ron’ for his willingness to gamble.

Wilks doesn’t have a catchphrase, and he said many decisions will be dependent on context, but his defensive background won’t keep from pushing the envelope.

“I’m not going to sit back and be passive,” Wilks said. “If there is an opportunity to be aggressive, we’ll take advantage of it.”

Wilks has a former head coach on his staff to lean on. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy handled myriad in-game scenarios with the Chargers from 2013-16. McCoy said it’s important for a coach to clearly delineate the type of gambles he is willing to take before each game.

“What is your philosophy?” McCoy said. “There’s not just one answer. Everyone has a belief in it. I think the most important thing is you stick to your plan and do what you think is right at that time. There’s going to be a time when the people on the outside might question (it).”

Wilks has put in months of work, but the outcome of only 16 regular season games will ultimately judge his worth. If the wrong in-game decision influences an outcome or two, it can completely change the narrative. Wide receiver J.J. Nelson, another virtual head coach, is not envious of Wilks’ position.

“When I’m playing Madden in those situations, it’s tough,” Nelson said. “I can only imagine a real game. Live. I definitely understand how they feel.”

For the record, Nelson likes to go for it on fourth-and-1. Penny leans the other way.

“If it was me,” Penny said, “I would just punt the ball. I’d play it safe.”

Welcome to Wilks’ new world, where half the world will think he is a genius and the other half an idiot on every crucial call. While no coach is right every time, Wilks pledges to be rooted in a clear thought process.

“It’s a very calculated decision at times,” Wilks said. “I don’t want to say guess, because I don’t try to guess. I try to put the time and effort in ahead of time to go through those situations.”

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