There is a very important man in the life of new Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
This man has been known to take losing very poorly. He might punch a wall, or scream at somebody, or retreat inside himself. This man has won so much, and has become so famous for doing it, that it is best to handle him carefully in the immediate aftermath of losses. There has always been a fire inside him – one that must be contained but never put out.
I’m talking about Don Shula, Mike’s legendary father.
Wait… who did you think I was talking about?
Maybe you guessed Cam Newton. That wouldn’t be far off, either.
One of the primary reasons I believe Mike Shula will succeed in his first year as the Panthers’ play caller – and in his ongoing relationship with Newton – is precisely because he still gets along so well with his father.
“An awesome sounding board,” Mike Shula said of his father. “We talk all the time. I’ve always said that when my mom was alive – whether I was playing or later coaching – she always would tell me what I wanted to hear. My dad told me what I needed to hear. And it’s still that way.”
Mike has the sort of personality that works well with a natural headliner – someone like his father or the Panthers’ current quarterback. Shula, 48, can calmly get a point across without getting into a fight about it. He works well in the background – prefers it, really – but can push when necessary.
Don Shula, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in NFL history, is 83 years old now and in good health. I covered his teams for The Miami Herald for three years in the early 1990s when he was still coaching the Miami Dolphins and can testify firsthand to Shula’s longtime axiom about the benefits of letting your emotions out.
“I don’t get ulcers,” Shula liked to say. “I give them.”
The elder Shula berated me a couple of times after stories – loudly and angrily – but then that was it. No grudges. No silent treatment. I ended up respecting and liking him as much as anyone I’ve covered in my 25 years in sports journalism.
I got in touch with Shula for the first time in years a few days ago to talk about his son. The Shulas have owned a summer vacation home in the North Carolina mountains since 1991, which is where he was.
“Mike is more low-key than I was,” Shula said. “I let it loose. Mike is more in control and always has been. He’s does a good job with the quarterbacks, going over things without letting emotion get in the way too much. That’s one of Mike’s strengths. He’s always in control emotionally.”
Said backup quarterback Derek Anderson of Mike Shula: “He’s a little more mellow than Chud (former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski). He brings a calming effect in meeting rooms.”
‘This isn’t golf’
Don’t mistake that calm demeanor for passivity, however. Mike Shula has been the starting quarterback and head coach at Alabama, as well as the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and now for the Panthers. You don’t get any of those jobs by being a wallflower.
“He’s very direct and deliberate,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who promoted Shula from quarterbacks coach after Chudzinski left to become the Cleveland Browns’ head coach following the 2012 season. “He’s always in control. And I think the thing I really like about him is he’s not overly demonstrative, but walking up to a guy and getting in his grill is part of his nature. He doesn’t do it very often. So when he does do it, it carries an awful lot of meaning.”
Shula’s promotion had a lot to do with continuity. He already knew the Panthers’ personnel. He had already demonstrated an ability to handle the talented but sometimes immature Newton, who has drawn flak for isolating himself on the sideline or in the locker room when things are going poorly.
“First of all, I think he’s misunderstood by a lot of people,” Shula said of Newton. “He loves to compete. It’s been documented how he hates to lose. The biggest thing we’ve talked about is, ‘Hey, no one ever wants that to change.’ I want that feeling when it’s not good enough that it burns in your gut.”
“But you also have to manage that. This isn’t golf. You got 10 other guys around you who are going to help you win. It’s your job as a leader to make those guys better and to use those guys, to let them know you need them, too.”
Shula will tweak the way Newton is used this season. Newton led the Panthers in rushing yardage last season, becoming the first NFL quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Donovan McNabb did for Philadelphia in 2000.
That is not a good thing. The Panthers have three other running backs they are paying millions to run the ball and it also exposes Newton – the most talented quarterback Carolina has ever had – to so many hits. I suggest to Shula that he would never want that statistic to be duplicated.
“Not unless his rushing average was about three times as high,” Shula said with a laugh. “It’s going to need to be a balancing act for a lot of reasons. We’ve all seen what happens to quarterbacks when they run the ball a lot…. But we’ve also got something with Cam that a lot of people don’t have – the ability for him to run the ball. We want to keep defenses off balance. The threat of him running at any time is what we want to keep.”
In Shula’s last job as offensive coordinator, for four years with Tampa Bay from 1996 to 1999, the Bucs made the playoffs twice but never ranked higher than 22nd in total offense. That was partly because his quarterbacks were mediocre, his running backs (Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn) were good and coach Tony Dungy wanted a ball-control, run-first offense. And, Shula conceded, he made some mistakes (he thought he was sometimes too negative with players).
But that doesn’t mean Shula is going to run the same offense in Charlotte. “We’re not going to lead the league in rushing attempts, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’ve got a guy who can throw it and some receivers who can get open and a line that can protect.”
Newton said shortly after Shula was hired that his relationship with the coach was “unbelievable.” Newton accounted for 19 touchdowns and only four turnovers in the final nine games of 2012, but a 1-6 start to the season doomed the Panthers.
Shula, Newton and Rivera all go out of their way to praise new quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey. Formerly an advance scout for the team, Dorsey has taken the role Shula vacated as quarterbacks coach. It’s likely that Dorsey will stay on the sideline during the games while Shula goes upstairs to the press box to call plays.
Growing up a Shula
After most games, win or lose, Mike will talk to his father. Don Shula watches all the Panthers games from his home in Miami. He also plans to attend Carolina’s game at Miami Nov. 24.
“That will be a strange feeling,” Don Shula said. “I’m probably going to go and then hide in the stadium where nobody can find me.”
Mike Shula was on his father’s staff in 1991 and 1992 in low-level positions. “I got a lot of other coaches coffee,” he joked.
“Look, it’s been a blessing being a Shula,” he continued. “Some people claim it’s a curse. Not me. Not my brother (Dave, who had an unsuccessful stint as Cincinnati’s head coach in the 1990s). We never thought that…. I’d be lying if I said the name hadn’t opened up doors. But I have tried not to take things for granted.”
Now the coach with the famous last name is supervising a quarterback who would love to be a legend himself. This may be the best chance Mike Shula ever has had to succeed in the NFL, if he can direct Newton with the same grace that his father directed hall of famers Bob Griese and Dan Marino.
“Oh, Michael will be fine,” Don Shula said. “He’s still eager to learn. Every day. And he’s got himself a quarterback.”
Scott Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler