Mike Shula to Keep Offensive System Largely Intact as New Offensive Coordinator


Rob Chudzinski – or “Chud” as he is known as – was somewhat surprisingly hired by the Cleveland Browns to replace Pat Shurmur as Head Coach, Ron Rivera was forced to examine his offensive philosophy, players on hand, who is likely to be gone next year, and tried to fill the gap with someone who could keep the team on course from its upswing during the last 6 games of the year.

The answer was right in front of him all along. Mike Shula has a pretty long resume now, both in college and in the NFL, not to mention an impeccable pedigree. Don Shula’s son. Dad may be pushing 90 now, but he’s still the NFL’s all-time winningest Head Coach and on a very short list of coaches that dominated the league wherever they were.

Deceased Saints and Oilers Head Coach, Bum Phillips, had a great line about “paw” there that only he could deliver. About the elder Shula, he had said “He is the one coach I know that can take his’n and beat yourn, then take yourn and beat his’n.”

Quite a colorful way of saying what a great coach the man is/was.

Mike Shula hasn’t shown the same high level of achievement as a head coach…his Alabama teams were mediocre at best under his tenure…but as a ‘Bama ex-quarterback who led the team on the field to some very good seasons, he’s been there as a player. That’s invaluable, because he can relate to his young QB, ironically an Auburn guy.

Carolina Panthers’ fullback Mike Tolbert likes the move, for one.

“I think it’s good for us as an offense. Shula is a good coach. He’s done it before. And it’s big for Cam not having to start new, start over. It’s a good transition for Cam,” Tolbert explained to the Charlotte Observer last weekend.

It’s going to be a pretty straightforward transition. The system will remain intact and Cam won’t have but one coach to break in, if that. No word yet on who the quarterbacks coach might be after Shula’s promotion.

I also think it’s a way for Ron Rivera to demonstrate his own loyalty to his staff. Rivera himself was on the hotseat after a very poor start but saved it with a strong finish. The defense actually played more consistently overall than did the offense over the entire season, but I noticed during the second half of the season that the offense was making fewer mistakes and putting longer scoring drives together more consistently.

It showed in their record as well.

I think the decision is not only a smart one, but it’s the safe call. Shula’s a known quantity by now among those in the Carolina organization and he has a ton of experience. He played the same position in college as the team’s top offensive player, Cam Newton of course. They’ve worked together in the vertical passing read/option offense Rivera’s run the past two seasons.

I recall watching Mike Shula play college ball at ‘Bama. I hated him, and that’s a good thing. I’m an Auburn grad, and Mike Shula was a great “game caretaker” – Alabama offenses rarely have been big on throwing the ball since some kid named Namath left there, and even then Bear Bryant and the college game in general was student body left, student body right. Shula was very efficient, rarely making mistakes and moving the chains for the running game.

Similarly, the Panthers are built from the ground-up to BE a running team. There is no backfield in the NFL with as talented a group of four guys with the skills Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert have. NONE. Sure, the Redskins have RG3 and Alfred Morris, but that’s only half of the equation. Also, I expect the Panthers to lose one of those backs before the 2013 season in salary cap moves, and that’s most likely DeAngelo.

Dec 30, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the fourth quarter of their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Carolina Panthers defeated the New Orleans Saints 44-38. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Newton’s not going anywhere and Tolbert was just signed last season, so that cuts down the field a bit. With J-Stew moving into more of a “primary back” role, and if he can stay healthy, he and Tolbert are a 500-pound pair of hurt coming out of the backfield.

That’s a power running team if I’ve ever heard of one. Seriously. Since we’re talking about Shulas, Jonathan Stewart compares physically to 70’s back Larry Csonka but with a more diverse skill set. Zonk wasn’t asked to catch much as it was a different game 35-40 years ago and besides they had a man named Jim Kiick for that. DeAngelo Williams could be compared with Mercury Morris since we’re already there. He was the change of pace back…the “fastball,” much like D-Will is.

Pretty powerful backfield when a guy compared to Larry Csonka is the SMALL one, no? With Newton’s 4.5 speed and his own size, the offense has the potential to be bruising.

With Mike Shula’s past, my own thinking is that is the direction he’d rather go. A run-first team with play-action deep passes to keep the defense honest. Toss in some read/option, now that the team has had a chance to digest the concept at the NFL level, and Shula will be calling plays for an offense that can hurt the opposition in a number of ways, thus opening the playbook even more.

With Steve Smith entering his twilight years as a top-tier #1 WR and no heir-apparent in the wings and a tight salary cap situation, any improvement is going to have to come via the draft. Looking forward, I see a relatively weak draft class at WR and certainly no Justin Blackmon/Dez Bryant type talent screaming to be a top-fifteen pick right now.

I’ll be looking more in-depth at the draft in coming weeks and months. For now, Panthers fans are probably content with the promotion and the “don’t rock the boat” approach Rivera is taking with his improving offense.

Mike Shula was OC in Tampa Bay for 4 years under Tony Dungy but never finished higher than 22nd in total offense, but as I recall they were a defense-heavy team whose offensive struggles went well beyond Shula’s control. In fact, the Buccaneer organization finally fired Dungy and brought in Jon Gruden to help the offense. The result was a Super Bowl victory with a team that still dominated on defense but got just enough mistake-free offense out of their players that they didn’t beat themselves.

Ricky Proehl has been promoted to receivers coach and interim special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers has earned the spot officially after taking over a bad special teams unit in the middle of the season in 2012 and improving it substantially.