Panthers coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman conducted the interviews for the team’s offensive coordinator vacancy this past week.
But a third member of the organization also played a big role in Mike Shula’s promotion from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator on Friday.
Quarterback Cam Newton was not present for the interviews. But making a seamless transition following the abrupt departure of former coordinator Rob Chudzinski was seen as critical by the Panthers’ decision-makers, particularly where Newton is concerned.
Last season was the first time since high school that Newton played more than one season with the same offensive system as a starter.
Shula, 47, might not run a system that is identical to Chudzinski’s. But Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert and former Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King, who played under Shula in his last offensive coordinator position with the Buccaneers, figure it to bear a striking resemblance.
“I like it. I like it a lot, actually,” Tolbert said of Shula’s new role. “I think it’s good for us as an offense. Shula is a good coach. He’s done it before. And it’s big for Cam not having to start new, start over. It’s a good transition for Cam.”
Newton was the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011 and has passed for more yards than any quarterback in NFL history in his first two seasons.
But the biggest improvement in Newton’s development did not come until the second half of his second season, when he demonstrated a better grasp of the offense, made smarter decisions and reduced his turnovers substantially.
After committing 11 turnovers the first eight games, Newton had just four the final eight games. He broke a team record with a stretch of 176 consecutive passes without an interception.
Shula has spent more time with Newton than any of the Panthers’ coaches the past two seasons. He’s been with him in the meeting room and alongside him on the sideline going over plays and pictures of defensive alignments between series.
Now, Shula will oversee an NFL offense for the first time in 14 years, and King believes Shula has the right demeanor to lead.
“Shula knows what he’s doing,” King said. “His communication with Cam is going to be very important, and that’s where he excels. It’s about exuding confidence when it comes to interacting with your quarterback.
“He’s so easy-going emotionally. He’s not a guy who’s going to cuss you out on the sideline. He’s going to keep you focused on things that matter and winning a football game.”
King was Shula’s quarterback for the second half of the 1999 season that saw the Buccaneers go to the NFC Championship game after an 8-8 season the previous year. Shula, who in 1999 was in his fourth year as Tony Dungy’s offensive coordinator, never finished above 22nd in the league in total offense and would be fired at season’s end.
But King said the offense’s struggles weren’t all Shula’s fault. Tampa Bay’s team was built around the defense, with big salaries to guys like John Lynch and Derrick Brooks while the running backs were still on their rookie deals, play-making wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson had yet to come to the team and starting quarterback Trent Dilfer was often inconsistent.
“He didn’t have Pro Bowlers across the board to put them in positions to win,” King said. “Trent really struggled early in his career. He had been criticized mightily by the home fan base in Tampa. He wasn’t in a position to be a leader per se. There was still some of that, ‘We don’t fully believe in Trent,’ and that’s hard for a coordinator.”
Despite his own struggles in his rookie season, King—who stepped into the starting role after Dilfer was injured for the year—said Shula always had his back. He never felt pressure to play mistake-free football, and that if he did make a mistake, Shula wouldn’t “clam up and get conservative” by running the ball for the rest of the day.
Now an analyst for NBC Sports, King watched every game from the Panthers’ 2012 season and believes with Shula as the offensive coordinator, Newton and the rest of the offense will flourish.
“I think the offense should be based off power running game, the passing attack should be play-action based and sprinkle in some zone-read stuff,” King said. “That’s the personnel they have with three legitimate running backs, a sturdy quarterback, a good tight end in (Greg) Olsen and a legitimate wide receiver in Steve Smith.
“I think he’ll do better utilizing other role players like (Joe) Adams. He’ll find a way to get guys like that the ball.”
Chudzinski, hired as the Browns’ coach after the Panthers finished seventh and 12th in total offense during his two seasons in Charlotte, also believes Shula will be successful.
“Mike is an outstanding person and coach,” Chudzinski said Saturday in a text message. “He was an integral part of our offensive success in Carolina and I have no doubt he will do a great job of building on that.”
Chudzinski employed a hybrid offense that combined a downfield passing game with a zone-read rushing attack similar to what Newton ran at Auburn. Shula, the son of Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, will put his own wrinkles in the scheme.
But Tolbert expects the essence of the offense to remain the same.
“You never know what (a coach) has planned,” Tolbert said. “But at the same time, I think the basic scheme of things probably won’t change much.”