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Shula integral to Newton's success

Posted Dec 9, 2011

CHARLOTTE - From meetings to practice to film study to game day, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula are inseparable.

Yet somehow, the former Auburn quarterback and former Alabama quarterback haven't had to be separated.

"We have our differences there," Newton said with a smile regarding their college affiliations. "But it's OK."

Newton and Shula surely butted heads in a playful way during the week leading up to the Iron Bowl, but they're very much on the same page in their pursuit of an appearance in the Super Bowl.

Their budding relationship is one of the reasons for Newton's rapid development as a rookie.

"Mike's rapport with Cam is tremendous," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said. "If there's somebody who understands Cam's psyche, it's Mike.

"He's had a rapport with young quarterbacks for years. That's what made him so attractive, knowing that we were going to draft a quarterback and kind of in the back of my mind that we were going to draft Cam. A guy like Mike is invaluable in helping a player develop."

Shula, son of Don Shula – the winningest coach in NFL history – has a personal history of getting the best out of young quarterbacks.

In 1999, he helped rookie quarterback Shaun King guide the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC Championship game.

The next year in Miami, he helped first-year starter Jay Fiedler go 10-5 one season after Dan Marino retired following a 9-7 season.

And four years ago in Jacksonville, he overcame the sudden release of starter Byron Leftwich just before the season opener and mentored first-year starter David Garrard to a 10-4 mark.
"I've learned from a lot of good quarterbacks and from a lot of good quarterback coaches, and I just try to use that experience with the guys," said Shula, 46. "I love football and love being around guys that love football. I've been lucky enough to be coaching since I was 23, and when I first started coaching, the first guy I coached was 39 (Joe Ferguson). You find out in a hurry how you have to communicate and understand people's personalities and what pushes their buttons."

Shula certainly seems to have managed to find the approach that works well for Newton.

"I don't think he gets the credit that he deserves," Newton said. "My level of comfort has been fast-forwarded because of our relationship. He's a person I've gone to numerous times asking for help, for what to do on the field and off the field.

"He's an excellent father figure, and he's a coach you can relate to on so many different levels. He's played this game, he's coached this game for a long time, and his father was a tremendous coach. That's what you want in a guy that you see each and every day and is coaching you up."

The life of the average NFL quarterback is draining during the season, but Newton's experience has been anything but average: a rookie quarterback playing right away and coming off a shortened offseason.

Shula, however, has helped Newton remain fresh and focused, something Rivera notices every time he sticks his head into the quarterbacks room.

"I don't care who you are - after 15 minutes, your eyes can glaze over. But Mike keeps those guys engaged," Rivera said. "Mike is creative in ways where it's not always the same thing in meetings, where every time it's not a lecture where Mike talks.

"Mike changes up the way he does things, and Cam responds very well to that. It's not just about being on the board and watching tape. It's about asking direct questions, about having him draw on the board or lead certain discussions in meetings instead of just sitting there."

Shula said Newton also deserves credit for keeping it interesting.

"He's fun to coach," Shula said. "He's smart. He has his opinions, which is what you want. He wants to know why. That way, you're not a robot. He understands the concepts, which helps you understand the overall picture."

Shula saw Newton's potential even before the two met, and he saw flashes during their time together in the preseason. Still, even Shula didn't know what he'd see when Newton made his NFL debut, a narrow loss at the Arizona Cardinals in which Newton became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards in their first career start.

"I don't think any of us knew quite what we had until really the Arizona game," Shula said. "He's really progressed. Probably the biggest surprise is how well he sees the field. That, combined with his knowledge of the game – where the one-on-ones are, where the weaknesses are in coverage, seeing blitzes – has been a lot more than a lot of us thought. That being said, he still makes some mistakes."

Shula continues to work on eliminating the errors every day, and he looks forward to the day when Newton's victory total matches up to his stat line.

The Alabama man and the Auburn man plan on getting there together.

"I think the sky is the limit for him, but it's only going to get tougher," Shula said. "He's had some success even though we haven't had the success as a team that we want to, so people are going to study guys who have had success and try to find ways to stop them.

"We have to find ways to continue to improve until we can think fast and are making the right decisions a hundred percent of the time."