KAPOLEI, Hawaii Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula sat in the lobby of a posh Hawaiian resort Tuesday, his face tanned and wearing a “Life is Good” T-shirt.
Life could be better for Shula: He and the rest of the Panthers’ coaching staff could be getting ready for the Super Bowl.
Their consolation prize is a week in Hawaii, coaching the Jerry Rice-captained team in the Pro Bowl during the NFL’s off week before the Super Bowl.
After the Panthers’ 10-point output in their playoff loss to San Francisco, Shula became the man Charlotte sports talk radio callers loved to hate.
Shula oversaw quarterback Cam Newton’s most complete season as a pro while running an efficient, though not flashy offensive attack.
Didn’t matter: The talk show and email reactionaries wanted him fired.
“It was a brutal ending to a good year,” Shula said after eating lunch with his family. “We’re all disappointed because of the way it ended. Unfortunately, that takes away from a lot of good things we did. ...
“But to do what we did – beating San Francisco out there, New England, the next week on the road at Miami, New Orleans – those are some great games and great ways to win games.”
Critics point to the Panthers’ 26th-place finish in total offense (316.8 yards a game) as evidence Shula needs to take more chances with his play calls.
The man doing the hiring and firing at Bank of America Stadium points to the Panthers’ nearly 32-minute time of possession (5th in the league) as evidence Shula’s approach helped the Panthers’ second-ranked defense.
“When we had talked philosophically, we wanted to control the ball. And we did,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “And you have to understand that one of the reasons – not the reason – that our defense was so good was they’re only playing 27 minutes a game. So that’s a function, those 10-play drives, 5- and 7-minute drives.
“I thought Mike did a very great job. I was very pleased.”
Shula is frustrated the Panthers failed to score touchdowns on a pair of goal-to-go situations against the 49ers.
The Panthers ran Newton and fullback Mike Tolbert up the gut on five of those seven plays. The other two goalline plays were a play-action pass the Niners covered, and a Newton sweep for 6 yards.
“They did a nice job, got penetration. We tried to mix in a pass (when) we got down there in close with goal line (personnel). They executed better than we did,” Shula said. “You’ve got to try to find a way to get in. We’d been really good down there for most of the year.”
The Panthers were seventh during the regular season in percentage of red-zone possessions (58.0) that ended in touchdowns. But their inability to produce near the goal line against the Niners was still gnawing at center Ryan Kalil more than a week later, more than any of Shula’s decisions.
“I have a lot of faith in coach. I felt like this season we were productive when we needed to be, obviously except for that last game,” said Kalil, one of seven Panthers players in the Pro Bowl. “That was a huge deal.”
The Panthers ranked among the league leaders in big plays the two years Rob Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator, but were near the bottom this season.
Shula said he’ll look for ways to improve in that area, but doesn’t want to dwell on it.
“We didn’t have that, but to our guys’ credit we had a ton of long drives, more so than any (team) I’ve ever been around,” he said.
Most believe Shula’s offense would be more explosive with the addition of an explosive playmaker.
“That’s more for Dave and Ron. Our job is to coach the guys we have,” Shula said. “Ted Ginn brought in an element that we didn’t have in our third receiver prior to this year. The fact that Steve (Smith) gets so much attention helped Ted out. Then when we started going to Ted it helped Steve out, helped Brandon (LaFell) out.”
But the Panthers’ offense will continue to go as Newton goes. And while Newton’s passing and rushing yards were down this season, he posted career highs in touchdown passes, completion percentage and passer rating.
“When it comes to coaching, it’s not what the coach knows, it’s what the player knows. You can be a brain surgeon, but if you can’t get that information to the player, what’s the point?” Gettleman said. “You (reporters) been here all three years with Cam watching him play, so you tell me. Did he make improvements this year? Absolutely. That’s part of it. That was Mike’s job. And he did a hell of a job.
“And, oh by the way, we won 12 games.”
Jonathan Jones contributed