Even at 8-0, the Carolina Panthers’ chance of becoming the first NFL team since 1972 to post a perfect season remains an incredible long shot. But they have one famous fan in Miami who wants to see it: Don Shula.
“That would make me so proud if that happened,” Shula told me, referring to the Panthers’ slim possibility of going 19-0. “I’d love to see the Panthers do it. I’m rooting them on, that’s for sure.”
Shula, of course, is not just the coach of the Miami Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season of 1972 and the winningest coach in NFL history. He is also the father of Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula. The two are close and talk about once a week, the elder Shula said.
Often, Mike calls his dad from the car while driving home after a Panthers game. But while the son followed the father into the coaching profession, Don Shula is quick to point out one difference between himself and Mike.
“Mike is calm and cool,” Shula said, “not hot-headed like the old man.”
The “old man” is 85. He remains as gruff, funny and opinionated as he was when I covered several of his Dolphins teams in the early 1990s while working at The Miami Herald. He used to joke he never got ulcers because he specialized in giving them.
Shula was also a multitasker long before the word ever came into vogue. I called the legendary coach Tuesday. He did this interview while working out with a physical therapist who, he said, “is beating the hell out of me.”
Not many people ever beat anything out of Don Shula, and no one did in 1972. He has watched teams shoot at the unbeaten, untied mark put up by Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Paul Warfield and the “No-Name Defense” – and fail – for 43 years. Shula won another Super Bowl with Miami after that one, too, but he also never went undefeated again. Despite his rooting interest, he said it would be extremely tough for the Panthers to stay undefeated this season.
“I just think that it hadn’t been done before we did it and it hasn’t been done since,” Shula said. “That just tells you how hard, how difficult it is to do. There have been a lot of good teams, and only one team has done it.”
Perhaps the best team to almost climb that mountain was the 1985 Chicago Bears, which featured current Panthers coach Ron Rivera as a backup linebacker. One of Shula’s Miami squads pinned those 18-1 Bears with their only loss the entire year in a regular-season game that remains one of the most famous in “Monday Night Football” history. (That was long enough ago that Mike was playing quarterback at the University of Alabama at the time).
That 1985 Dolphins team featured Dan Marino at quarterback, just like so many of Shula’s teams did in the 1980s and 1990s. Mike Shula now has a star quarterback of his own to supervise in Cam Newton, but the two quarterbacks have very different skill sets. The elder Shula admires both immensely.
“Marino was probably the best pure passer that has ever played the game,” Shula said. “He had quick enough feet to move around in the pocket to buy time to throw the football, but he always ended up throwing the football. Cam is going to beat you with his arm or his legs.”
Scoring wins games in today’s offensive-minded NFL. The three remaining undefeated teams – Carolina, Cincinnati and New England – all average at least 28 points per game and rank among the NFL’s top four in scoring. The Panthers rank No. 4 in points per game at 28.5.
Shula really likes tight end Greg Olsen. “He’s exciting to watch and is really their big-play guy whenever they are struggling,” Shula said. And of course he likes the job his son is doing and enjoys watching the rest of the Panthers’ team on TV every week in Miami.
But the Pro Football Hall of Famer saved some special praise for Newton Tuesday.
“That’s a unique guy – 6-5, 250 pounds, and can run faster than anybody and throw better than anybody,” Shula said. “He’s just the complete package. They’ve got him working as a field general now, understanding what quarterback position is all about.
Continued Shula: “Cam is just such a great athlete and a big, strong guy. If he stays healthy and keeps doing all the good things he’s doing, if he keeps getting better like he is – he will be a lock to be a Hall of Famer.”