MOBILE, Ala. — A day after Alabama coach Nick Saban made a royal entrance at a Senior Bowl practice in a luxury SUV, his predecessor sat in relative obscurity Tuesday in the end zone bleachers at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Mike Shula, wearing a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville cap and black Oakleys, said fans still recognize him in the state where he played quarterback for Alabama and coached the Crimson Tide from 2003-06.
“A little bit,” Shula said. “Maybe not quite as much anymore.”
The Panthers’ new offensive coordinator will no longer be able to keep a low profile in the Carolinas.
The team’s quarterbacks coach the past two seasons, Shula takes over a Cam Newton-led offense that ranked 7th and 12th in the league in two years under former coordinator and new Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski.
The Panthers considered a pair of former head coaches in Pat Shurmur and Hue Jackson before promoting Shula, the son of Hall of Fame coach Don Shula.
“I’m excited because number one, our quarterback,” Shula said following the first of two Senior Bowl practices. “And I’m excited because of the guys that we’re coaching.”
During his final year as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in 1999, Shula coached a pair of proven running backs in Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn and a rookie quarterback in Shaun King. Despite finishing 28th in the league in total offense, the Bucs came within a game of the Super Bowl.
Fourteen years later, Shula inherits a veteran running back corps featuring DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. But instead of a rookie quarterback, Shula has a franchise quarterback – the same one he’s worked with the past two seasons.
Shula wants to continue to find ways to utilize Newton, who enjoyed the best stretch of his two-year career over the second half of last season.
“Obviously, we want to make things as best we can to allow our quarterback to play fast. And I think he’s playing faster,” Shula said. “I’m more excited about him now than I was this time last year.”
Shula, 47, said his offense will resemble Chudzinski’s, but will not be identical.
“I think we’re going to try to keep all the good stuff,” Shula said, laughing. “There’s going to be a lot that’s going to look similar. But there’s going to be other things that we’ll continue to throw around in the offseason.”
Shula said he was proud of the way the players ended the season after a tough start. The Panthers won five of their last six games to finish 7-9 and in second place in the NFC South, enough to keep coach Ron Rivera in Charlotte another year and get Chudzinski hired in Cleveland.
“It was a tough deal starting slow and putting ourselves behind the 8-ball and not being where we wanted to be at the halfway point,” Shula said. “And yet, guys never blinked. They practiced hard. They did everything we asked them to do. They just kept believing, even though it was frustrating.”
Shula’s four-year stint as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator under Tony Dungy often was frustrating. The Bucs had a championship-caliber defense and an underwhelming passing game in 1999, even before King replaced the injured Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Tampa Bay averaged 16.9 points a game but advanced to the NFC Championship Game, losing 11-6 to St. Louis.
“We had a really good defense and we had two good running backs, and a rookie quarterback,” Shula said. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t put up better numbers. But we also were close to that formula taking us to the Super Bowl.”
After the Bucs drafted Dunn in 1997 to pair with Alstott, the Bucs finished 11th and fourth in the league in rushing the next two seasons. While Chudzinski was criticized for under-utilizing the Panthers’ running backs, Shula successfully split carries between the Bucs’ backs in a power running scheme.
“I thought we did a good job with Mike and Warrick back then because it’s hard to get those guys in rhythm,” Shula said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have. But there is the word, ‘problem,’ in that sentence. So we’ve got to continue to find out what each guy does well and ask him to do those things.”
But with Newton, who led the Panthers in rushing last season, Shula indicated he would use a mix of the zone read and more traditional runs, along with a downfield passing attack.
Besides Shula, Rivera talked to Shurmur and Jackson, whom he called outstanding candidates. During the interviews, Rivera asked each of them a series of questions about the Panthers’ offense and their personnel.
“Mike was the only one who could sit there and say, ‘I know this. I know this. I know this.’ The other ones couldn’t do that,” Rivera said. “And that was the overlying factor when I made my decision.”