When Mike Shula met with Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera to interview for the offensive coordinator job in January, he didn’t do a PowerPoint presentation or slap any pie charts on the table.
The only thing Shula brought to the meeting was the playbook – and his vision for what portions of it he would highlight if he were hired to replace Rob Chudzinski.
Rivera liked Shula’s pitch, and liked the idea that the Panthers would not be starting over with a new offense in quarterback Cam Newton’s third season if Rivera promoted Shula from quarterbacks coach.
Nine months later, that continuity is paying off.
Newton is in the midst of the most efficient, three-game stretch of his career, Shula is directing a balanced attack with a renewed emphasis on the run game and the Panthers (4-3) are above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season.
“We were hoping we’d be able to keep things very similar to what we’d built,” Shula said this week. “We felt we’d done a lot of good things at the end of the year.”
“He’s done a good job cutting out some of the verbiage, cutting out some of the fringe plays and really focusing on what our core specialty is,” tight end Greg Olsen said of Shula. “We’ve been pretty balanced run and pass.”
Even before Chudzinski left for Cleveland as the Browns’ coach, the Panthers had begun to dial down some of the wilder sides of their offense in favor of a more traditional approach.
During a four-game winning streak to end the season, the Panthers ran the ball nearly eight more times a game than they had in their first 12 games and jumped from 16th in the league in rushing to ninth.
Shula, who guided a ground-oriented offense as Tampa Bay’s coordinator from 1996-99, has stuck to a balanced attack this year.
Through seven games, the Panthers are averaging 32.6 rushes a game and 28.9 passes. At the same point last year under Chudzinski, the Panthers were attempting 26 rushes and 30.4 passes a game.
“We picked up right where we left off,” Rivera said.
The running success – the Panthers are eighth with 130 yards a game – has helped take some of the pressure off Newton. But coaches and teammates say Newton has made big leaps in his knowledge of the system, allowing him to make quicker decisions and play faster.
Newton has an NFL-best 130.3 passer rating over the last three games, during which he’s completed 77.3 percent of his passes (58 of 75) for 667 yards and six touchdowns, with no interceptions. He’s also rushed for two touchdowns during that stretch.
“Being together with pretty much the same group of guys, communication between plays and between series, I think has helped,” Shula said.
Newton has done a better job going through his progressions: On a 79-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell at Minnesota in Week 6, LaFell was Newton’s third read.
“A good decision doesn’t mean it’s a short throw (or checkdown). A good decision means he’s getting the ball out there on time, his feet are set, he’s going to the right guy,” Shula said. “When he’s making those good decisions, regardless of anything else – stats, whatever this or that – we’ve won games.”
It hasn’t been just been Newton, Shula said. The entire offense has produced.
A line that lost both starting guards to season-ending injuries hasn’t missed a beat. Running back DeAngelo Williams is on pace for his first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2009.
Steve Smith and Olsen remain Newton’s top targets, but free agent pickup Ted Ginn has given the receiving corps another weapon with his secondary-stretching speed. Ginn, relegated to return duties during three seasons in San Francisco, has already matched a career-high with two touchdown catches, both of which were at least 40 yards.
“We had no idea Ted Ginn was going to be the type of player he has been,” Rivera said. “We knew he had potential and we knew he had ability. But he’s been very special for us.”
While the Panthers have quick-strike capabilities, they’ve been more methodical under Shula.
Carolina is No. 1 in time of possession, holding the ball an average of 33 minutes, 40 seconds a game, and its seven touchdown drives of five minutes or longer also rank first.
“We want to get it into the end zone as fast as we can,” Shula said. “But we’ll take it any which way we can.”
Both Shula and Olsen cautioned that the offense has room for improvement. Newton is getting sacked three times a game and the Panthers’ 197 passing yards a game rank 29th.
“When you’re winning everything seems like it’s the magic touch. If some of these balls bounce our way in the past, we’re just as big a geniuses,” Olsen said. “We can’t get too wrapped up in ourselves that all of a sudden we’ve solved the world’s problems.”
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