When Trent Dilfer watched film of the Carolina Panthers’ offense last year, he never knew what to expect from play to play – good, bad or otherwise.
This year when the ESPN analyst sits down to study the Panthers’ offense, it looks a lot like the one Dilfer ran as Tampa Bay’s quarterback in the late ’90s.
The common denominator on those teams?
Mike Shula, whose conservative approach as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator didn’t win him a lot of style points, but was good enough to get the Buccaneers within a game of the Super Bowl in 1999.
Dilfer said Shula is using the same formula in Carolina, albeit admittedly with a more explosive quarterback in Cam Newton than he had in Tampa with Dilfer and Shaun King, who replaced an injured Dilfer near the end of the ’99 season.
“We did it with really good front-seven defense (and a) conservative offense. They obviously have a more dynamic quarterback in Cam than I was in Tampa,” Dilfer said. “But I didn’t make a lot of mistakes, and he’s not making a lot of mistakes. And that’s kind of what Mike Shula does.”
While the Panthers’ playbook remains largely the same, the look of the offense is decidedly different under Shula, who was promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator after Rob Chudzinski left in January to become the Browns’ coach.
Gone – or at least greatly reduced – are the “big chunk” plays of 20 yards or more that were a staple of Chudzinski’s offense, replaced by long, methodical drives that have kept the Panthers’ second-ranked defense well rested.
Carolina is tied with Arizona for fewest big plays (25) this season after finishing first and second in plays of at least 20 yards in Chudzinski’s two seasons. But the Panthers lead the league in time of possession (33:48) and are third in third-down conversions at 46.2 percent.
And most importantly, they’re winning.
“I have no preference, as long as it’s going forward and not backward,” Newton said. “That’s been the key to our success.”
Shula, who was fired after the Bucs’ run to the NFC Championship Game in 1999, said he’s not afraid to take chances downfield and appreciates a quick strike as much as anyone.
“It’s every offense’s goal to be explosive and have huge plays each and every week,” Shula said. “And we look for that in defenses and we’re close on some. They don’t always show up for whatever reason.”
Dilfer said Shula is more aggressive than he was as Tampa Bay’s play-caller.
“Being around Chud and a different breed of coach after he left the Bucs has really helped his offensive pedigree,” Dilfer said. “It is not a spread-out, high-risk offense. That doesn’t mean it’s not aggressive. But it is a run-driven, play action pass-driven offense.”
Backup quarterback Derek Anderson said some teams, including Atlanta and San Francisco the past two games, have played soft coverage against Newton and forced him to take the underneath throws.
After completing 77 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and no interceptions, during the first three games of the Panthers’ five-game winning streak, Newton had a 56.5-percent completion percentage (39 of 69), with one touchdown and three interceptions, against Atlanta and San Francisco.
But teammates and coaches say Newton has improved in his ability to recognize coverages and make good decisions.
“When we call (downfield) plays, Cam’s doing a better job of if it’s not there, not just throwing it downfield to take a shot,” Anderson said. “(Newton is) taking what the defense is giving him and throwing the ball to the backs or underneath receiver, moving the chains. Maybe not as explosive, but it’s more efficient.”
“He is managing the games really well,” added Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “He has limited the takeaways and he has done a great job protecting the football for us. I really love his maturation.”
Since a 79-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell against Minnesota in Week 6, Newton has two completions longer than 23 yards in the four games since – a 25-yarder to tight end Greg Olsen against St. Louis and a 35-yarder to Ted Ginn Jr. against Tampa Bay.
Ginn, who signed as a free agent during the offseason, has added speed to the receiving corps. The former 49ers wideout had a pair of touchdown catches covering at least 40 yards in back-to-back weeks against Buffalo and the Giants in September.
“I think in this league to win consistently you have to have the big-play threat, which we do have. But for longevity so to speak, you have to have methodical drives,” Newton said. “And if we have that mentality, especially with our defense playing lights-out like they are, it can be scary at times.”
If nothing else, it’s made for more relaxing viewing for Dilfer when he settles in at his northern California home to break down the Panthers’ offense.
“Last year just seemed frenetic. There was a lot of good, and oh my gosh, a lot of bad. You never knew what was coming. I stood on the edge of my seat going, ‘What’s this play going to (look like)?’” said Dilfer, pointing out he thinks Chudzinski is a talented offensive coach.
“This year I can lean back in my chair and just say, ‘OK, it’s not glamorous, but it’s good.’”
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