Why does everyone want to "punish" Mike Shula for a history so long ago with Tampa? I would think his body of work and experience would trump that. – David in Charlotte
Shula, promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator last week, was the Buccaneers' offensive coordinator from 1996-99. Strictly from a statistical perspective, it wasn't what you look for: four consecutive seasons ranked 22nd or lower in total offense.
But it isn't all about black-and-white stats. Those Tampa Bay teams relied on their stout defense while asking the offense not to lose games, a formula that netted two playoff berths – including a NFC Championship appearance – during Shula's tenure. Tampa Bay's quarterback for most of that time was Trent Dilfer, who enjoyed by far his best touchdown-to-interception ratio (21-to-11) of his career under Shula's tutelage in 1997. By comparison, Dilfer had 12 touchdowns versus 11 interceptions for the defensively dominate Baltimore Ravens team that won the Super Bowl following the 2000 season.
Anyway, what really should matter is what Shula has done lately and is poised to do in the future, and the Panthers are excited about those prospects. He's obviously very familiar with quarterback Cam Newton, who has helped Carolina finish in the top 12 in total offense in each of his two NFL seasons after the Panthers finished dead-last the year before he and Shula arrived. The Panthers scored 30 or more points in four of their final six games in 2012, and Shula is in a better position than anyone to pick that up where it left off following the departure of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job.
What are some of the improvements that Cam Newton needs to make in his third year? – Parnell in South Orange, N.J.
Newton was playing the best football of his pro career when last season ended, accounting for 14 touchdowns and just two turnovers during the team's 5-1 finish. The Panthers lead the NFL in plays of 20 or more yards over Newton's two-year tenure with 165, but it's the smaller stuff that Newton made the most progress toward shoring up late last season. He became much more effective in the short passing game, more often making a wise decision to take what the defense gave him rather than trying to force the ball downfield. Still, he finished just 26th in completion percentage. That's undoubtedly one number he wants to improve in 2013.
Bryan, can you tell me what the Panthers do to the footballs in preparation for a game? The footballs look different from "The Duke" you can buy. – Jim in Columbia, S.C.
"That's kind of an in-house secret," longtime equipment manager Jackie Miles said, adding that any pregame treatment is done to satisfy the preferences of the starting quarterback. Assistant equipment manager Don Toner, whose sure hands often catch the footballs to keep practice moving, explained that balls can be used in practice prior to game. Each team is allowed 24 balls per game, and balls can be used in as many as three games.
"We'll practice with the balls starting in training camp and then put them aside to use them for the games," Toner said. "You're allowed to wipe them down with a wet towel and use a bristle brush on them. The new ball is real slick, still has some residue on it, so we try to bring the tack out."
The Wilson ball currently used by the NFL is called "The Duke" in memory of late New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who was nicknamed "The Duke" in reference to the Duke of Wellington by his father, Tim. The ball carried that moniker from 1941-69 in recognition of Tim Mara's role in bringing the NFL and Wilson into partnership. It dropped the nickname upon the NFL-AFL merger, but it was reinstated in 2006 following Mara's death.
Bryan, I saw where the Panthers signed Lamont Bryant, Nick Hixson and Nelson Rosario from the practice squad to future contracts. Does that mean the other practice squad players are now free agents? – Greg in Fairdale, W.Va.
Yes. And no.
The other five became free agents when practice squad contracts expired for NFL teams not in the playoffs. Two, however, are no longer free agents, as wide receiver Jared Green and guard Ray Dominguez signed future contracts with the Dallas Cowboys. They're called future contracts, by the way, because players signed to them don't officially join the roster until the new league year begins March 12.