SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Ask a Panthers defensive back, "Who are you?", and he'll spit right back: "We're smart. Physical," veteran safety Roman Harper says. "Great tacklers and playmakers."
Panthers defensive backs and assistant head coach Steve Wilks emphasized those exact words in every meeting he had with his unit until it could respond to them reflexively. Those words are the underpinnings of the most instinctive group of defensive backs in the NFL.
"Coach Wilks is everything to this group, man. He's the juice," Harper says. "He understands how to coach each individually, because you can't coach Bene Benwikere the same way you coach Roman Harper. Or you can't coach Josh Norman the same way you coach Robert McClain.
"He's been awesome. And he's one of the best coaches, if not the best coach I've ever had."
They call themselves the "Thieves," living on Thieves Avenue. They're best known for their personalities, none more enigmatic than All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. They talk about their brotherhood all the time, and it's genuine.
But the emphasis on who they are as individuals has done injustice to how great they are as craftsmen. Being friends doesn't inherently make them good. "Thieves" implies both a kinship and a finely tuned skill set.
Norman has only had Wilks as a defensive backs coach in the NFL. They went to Carolina at the same time, Norman as a raw fifth-round pick and Wilks to work with Ron Rivera for a third time. Norman wasn't a surefire star. He had been an FCS All-American at Coastal Carolina when he entered the NFL in 2012, but he was undisciplined. During his second season, he missed a teammate's instructions and allowed Stevie Johnson to score a wide-open, game-winning touchdown in the final six seconds of a game against the Bills.
Carolina took a chance on Norman because of who he is, intelligent and disruptive. Wilks reached him.
"I told him, 'Your whole life, people have been telling you what you want to hear, but you've finally got somebody who's going to tell you what you need to hear,'" Wilks says. "At just the mere fact that when he does it right, I'm going to love him up, and when he does it wrong, when he steps out of line, I'm going to let him know."
Norman took to heart perhaps Wilks' best of many lessons: "Stay green." Wilks came up with it one day when Rivera was out and he had to lead practice. It involved a tomato.
"I showed where it was green, I showed them where it was ripe, and the last one I showed them where it was rotten," Wilks says. "And the process was that -- whether you're 10, 12, 13, 14 years in the league -- every day that you come in this building it's a learning process. Try to get better today than you were yesterday.
"Because once you realize you've heard it all, and you feel like there's no more growth or room to grow, and you're ripe? The next thing you're going to do is rot."
Being a teacher, not a professor
Rivera and Wilks are finishing their seventh season together -- they spent one in Chicago and two in San Diego before linking up in Carolina. Rivera made Wilks the Panthers' assistant head coach before the season, and counts him among his closest confidants.
"He’s been a sounding board," Rivera says. "He’s been a guy that will come into my office and tell me, ‘You might want to rethink this,’ or, ‘You’re wrong about that.’ When you have a coach that can do that -- that can come in and honestly say what you need to hear -- I think that’s important."
That honesty is big reason why the Panthers are in Super Bowl 50. Players and coaches feel comfortable telling each other what they think, but more importantly, they've learned to be honest with themselves. Rivera exemplifies humility. After his first two seasons as head coach, he asked his core players what he could do better.
"The things that they told me made me realize that I was missing a lot going up into the ivory tower," Rivera says. "So the bottom line was I had to do something about it."
Rivera was working upstairs in the Panthers' facility, above the locker room, so he put a desktop computer downstairs that got him out of his sequestered office and put him closer to his players.
Rivera wants his players to be comfortable with who they are. Wilks is like-minded.
"You allow the person to be who they are based off their personality," Wilks says. "I'm not in to try to change someone's personality, because no one's going to change mine."
That philosophy conflicts with the demands he puts on players. After all, if Norman continued to be who he was in 2013, he wouldn't be the player he is now. More specifically, Wilks wants players to be who they are as long until it affects the group.
"We take that personality and we try to filter it within the confinements of what they're doing, within the system and within the scheme," Wilks says. "Be who you are, be yourself, but understand you want to be 11, wondering how it affects the team."
Camaraderie is pivotal to greatness -- individuals have to want to be a part of the group -- and Wilks facilitated that, too. The Panthers didn't become the "Thieves" by accident. He emphasized takeaways to his players on the first day he physically could. On April 20, Day 1 of the Panthers' offseason, he gave a PowerPoint presentation promising his players that they would lead the league in takeaways. That's exactly what they did -- including a league-best 24 interceptions.
In his tradition of repeating every lesson he gives, Wilks showed his players that PowerPoint slide again before their NFC Championship win over the Arizona Cardinals. Safety Kurt Coleman had seven interceptions during the regular season, one pick short of tying the league lead. He had two against Arizona. He echoed Wilks when asked what it takes to have a place on Thieves Ave.
"Takeaways, takeaways, takeaways," Coleman told reporters on media day. "You have to have a great personality. I think the great part about our group is, we’re a brotherhood. We’re a family, we love each other and jokes will be flown each and every direction."
Wilks' players speak effusively of his teaching, which is remarkable given how many distinct personalities there are within the unit.
"It's crazy because I've never seen a coach be able to do it," second-year safety Tre Boston says. "He finds a way to get into guys' minds and really relate to them what he needs from them, and how to do things. You don't find too many people like that in the league now, who can adapt to their players, and get away from their traditional styles."
Just as Rivera says he stopped doing things "by the book" and became more accessible, Wilks consciously distanced himself from the way things are supposed to be done in the NFL.
"I think a lot of coaches are professors, and I pride myself on not being a professor, I pride myself on being a teacher," Wilks says. "Professors as we know, we've all been in college and you go to class that first day -- you get your syllabus, you take the exams, you see when the paper is due -- they could care less whether you come to class or not, sit in the first row or the last row.
"Well we all know as a teacher, whether grade school or middle school, they take a little bit more interest in the individual, and they could sit here and tell you, 'Steve's not in his seat today, did anybody see him in the home room? Is everything all right at home?' They take that special time and interest in the individual."
Wilks says that it isn't difficult to relate to so many disparate personalities, but the fact that he can reflects his own deep education. He started his coaching career in 1995 as the defensive coordinator for Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. The head coach at JCSU, and Wilks' mentor, was a man named Daryl McNeill, who passed away in 2013 at 53. He told Wilks something that will reverberate more than 20 years later and 2,200 miles away in Santa Clara on Sunday.
"He said, 'Steve, they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,'" Wilks says. "You can have a great background in Xs and Os, you can get up there and you can try to teach them, but if they know that you don't care about them as a person, they're not going to listen to anything that you have to say."
The power of brotherhood
"He's a great coach," Boston says. "He's our Denzel Washington."
Wilks looks a lot like the actor -- "My wife, the first time she met him, she's like, 'He looks like Denzel, I'm going to call him Coach Denzel,'" Harper says -- but the comparison extends beyond his appearance.
Wilks has heard the Denzel jokes since his playing days. He says he tries not to encourage them, but he doesn't entirely shy away, either.
"They always joke me about that, they always come up with different Training Day sayings or different movie parts that he may have been in," Wilks says. "I embrace it a little bit, I laugh about it."
Doing otherwise would compromise the dynamic of the group. Wilks doesn't treat his players as subjects. Rather, he relies on them to work with him and actively teach each other. He uses the veterans as deputies. When Harper signed with the Panthers in 2014, Wilks invited him out to lunch so he could tell Harper that the veteran needed to be his second voice on the field.
At the same time, he found a way to make sure that Harper, a player with years of polish and ostensibly on the downside of his career, stayed green.
"I can just be myself," Harper says. "And coach does a great job understanding that I've been through a lot of games, so you know when he's coaching me, he might be coaching [rookie safety] Dean [Marlowe] by trying to get to me in different ways, and coaching me to get to Dean Marlowe and just different things like that, man."
Wilks' coaching-by-proxy ensured Norman's development. Wilks told Harper about Norman when Harper arrived in Charlotte. Harper paid Norman a visit.
"And I went to his house, we had some wings, and I talked to him about being complete, continuing to push forward, because at one point I was in the same place he was in my career, where I'm kind of lost -- you know, 'What am I doing? The coaches don't trust me,'" Harper says.
Norman's reclamation is perhaps the best testament to Wilks' teaching and the power of brotherhood. Norman admits he "shut down" at one point because of the early struggles in his career. He had to rebuild his self-confidence, and he might never have been able to if, first, he hadn't been able to be himself. Harper calls Norman an "enigma" and a difficult person to figure out. Norman is impulsive, a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie -- "anything, just thrill, need for speed." He doesn't seem to consider his words too carefully.
But Norman is highly capable. This season has been proof enough -- four interceptions, three forced fumbles and two touchdowns as part of a first-team All-Pro campaign. Wilks and Harper helped him see it.
"It was really hard going through all the things I went through," Norman said. "But I had to persevere and push through all the doubters and naysayers and people to overcome where I'm at now now in my life. I just have fun with it because there’s nothing like being self-made. There’s nothing like being self-made because then nobody can take nothing from you."
Self-actualization means recognizing your self-worth. It means being honest with yourself, evaluating your potential and pushing towards it. Total self-actualization is also impossible, not if you want to stay green.
"Because God has given us a great talent level," Norman said. "It's just the work and you match that talent level. And I will never be able to match my talent level with how hard I work, it's just I gotta try to at least meet it some how, some way. If I can come within of just an inch of it then I know I'm doing something special."
Wilks' players know who they are: Thieves in every sense, restless and never rotting.