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Why the Panthers moved on from Mike Shula

Posted Jan 9, 2018

The Panthers have done some good things since 2013, but too often, they were "a little bit off."

For about 10 minutes the day after games, offensive coordinator Mike Shula would meet with fewer than 10 local media members.

The gatherings were so small and so informal, reporters formed a semicircle around Shula while he stood next to the podium head coach Ron Rivera had used earlier for his day-after press conference. The laid-back atmosphere was ideal for Shula, whose answers were usually deliberate and monotoned. He’d never be mistaken for getting too high or too low.

After wins, Shula would quickly deflect questions that implied his offense had everything figured out. After losses, he would search for silver linings. Those shared a common theme.

“We were just a little bit off,” Shula would say before adding, “but we’re close.” 

He was almost always right. The offense was often close but just a little bit off. That inconsistency is the biggest reason the Panthers needed to make a change.

Ups and Downs

When he was promoted from quarterbacks coach in 2013, Shula was charged to bring back a power run game that had largely disappeared in two seasons under Rob Chudzinski. To that end, Shula was successful.

Over their past five seasons, the Panthers averaged the league’s fourth-most rushing yards at 128.3 yards per game. That helped Carolina lead the NFL since 2013 in average time of possession at 31:52.

But a good offense isn’t all that great without solid balance, and with Shula in charge and Ken Dorsey as quarterbacks coach, Cam Newton and Co. averaged 229.5 passing yards per game, third-fewest in the league.

Look at the four major offensive statistical categories during Shula’s tenure and you’ll see a clear outlier – the 2015 season when the Panthers led the league in points scored. But 148 of those 500 points – or 30 percent – came off turnovers. This season, by comparison, the Panthers scored 21 percent of their 363 points off turnovers.

Panthers' Offensive Rankings

Total Yds Points Rushing Yds Passing Yds
2013 26th
18th 11th 29th
2014 16th 19th 7th 19th
2015 11th 1st 2nd 24th
2016 19th
15th 10th t21st
2017 19th
12th 4th 28th
 

Lacking an Identity

After 2016’s 6-10 finish, Rivera was under internal pressure to make a coordinator change. But staunchly loyal and firmly positive, he believed Shula could navigate personnel tweaks to make the offense thrive like it did in 2015. That evolution never happened as the Panthers struggled to establish an identity this season.

Sometimes the passing game worked. More often than not, it didn’t.

The running game finished inside the top five, but it was again largely dependent on Newton’s legs.

The Panthers would too often follow a dominant drive with quarter long-plus stretches that featured few yards and multiple three-and-outs.

The offense piled up a franchise-record 548 yards against the Dolphins in Week 10. Then they came out of the subsequent bye “just a little bit off” against the Jets and Saints. 

To be fair, Shula’s job wasn’t easy.

For the second time in four offseasons, Newton's summer was interrupted by surgery. That left him with a short recovery window and a sore shoulder that was incapable of threatening defenses vertically until October.

Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen broke his foot in Week 2 and essentially had a lost season.

The passing game needed a trade of No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to become unclogged.

When second-round pick Curtis Samuel was finally healthy and starting to produce, he broke his foot.

Fellow speedster Damiere Byrd was injured twice and played just half the season.

First-round pick Christian McCaffrey was supposed to be Shula’s “shiny new toy.” Instead, the Panthers spent the majority of the season trying to find the rookie's sweet spot. 

What’s Next?

It’s too early to predict who Rivera will bring in to replace Shula, but it’s not hard to connect him with colleagues current and former. It’s also unclear what specific changes Rivera will want.

It’s probably safe to assume the Panthers will remain a clock-eating, power-running team, but Rivera does want to see more efficiency and consistency. He also needs someone who can help Newton reach his full potential. After winning the NFL’s MVP award, Carolina’s quarterback has finished the past two seasons with the two worst passer ratings of his seven-year career.

One of Newton’s lowest points this season was in Week 7 when he was sacked five times and threw for just 211 yards in a 17-3 loss to the mediocre Bears. A day later, Shula was asked if he was worried about his job security.

“I have concerns about our offense,” he replied, “and getting points on the board.”