Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has been around undefeated NFL teams before.
His father Don famously coached the 1972 Miami Dolphins to a 17-0 record and a Super Bowl. In 1992 he was a coach on a Dolphins squad that started 6-0, just like this year’s Panthers.
But Mike Shula was 7 when the Dolphins popped champagne in ’72 and was just a coaches’ assistant in ’92. He has more control over an unbeaten Panthers team in 2015.
A punching bag for most of his two-plus seasons as the Panthers’ offensive play-caller, Shula has quieted his critics this season with the Panthers. And he said he’s still learning as a coordinator.
“Still growing,” the soft-spoken Shula, 50, said Monday. “Still got a long way to go. I’m a baby tree right now.”
Carolina’s offensive scheme is unmistakably Shula, grown from years of learning from coaches and the personnel he’s been given. It’s an offense predicated on rushing the ball without being preoccupied with big passing statistics.
In Year 3, it’s working.
The Panthers’ offense ranks sixth in the league in points per game at 27, but is 22nd in yards per game with 344.2.
In Sunday’s win against Philadelphia, Carolina had seven plays of 20 yards or more, something that isn’t characteristic of an offense that doesn’t always throw deep shots downfield but instead drains the clock.
Quarterback Cam Newton had 197 passing yards against the Eagles, but the Panthers had even more on the ground with 204 rushing yards.
“We want to be balanced,” Shula said. “We want to find a way to help our team win. I think that’s what we’re really concerned about. We’re concerned about just execution and executing better. Having 200 yards rushing is a stat I know our offensive line is proud of.”
By nature, the offensive coordinator is heavily critiqued from city to city in college and professional settings. In this era of video game play-calling and fantasy football numbers, many fans feel they know best when it comes to their favorite team’s offense.
In recent years, there have been calls to Charlotte sports talk radio shows to complain about Shula. Others have emailed beat reporters with bullet-by-bullet memos of what’s wrong with Carolina’s offense and how to cure it.
But criticism is nothing new for Shula. He was born into a life of coaching. He was an offensive coordinator before in his three-year stint in the 1990s with Tampa Bay before getting fired.
And he had one of the most scrutinized jobs in American sports when he was the coach at Alabama (2003-06) for four years, where he achieved moderate success – relative to Crimson Tide standards – in but one season.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be around professional football a long time to learn from some really great people with great perspective,” Shula said, “and probably the No. 1 perspective in that regard is worry about the things that you can control and not anything else.
“It’s still hard, but you block out things that aren’t going to help you, help the football team, be better. That’s hard to do. Not if you’re losing. It’s both winning and losing. You’ve got to stay the course.”
Against the Eagles, the mission was clear: The Panthers wanted to establish a rushing game.
Jonathan Stewart helped with 125 rushing yards on 24 carries as the Panthers recorded their 17th consecutive game with at least 100 yards rushing, the second-longest active streak in the league.
“I think coach (Mike) Shula’s an incredible play-caller. We liked the game plan all week against these guys and what we wanted to do in the run game in that regard, and we executed,” center Ryan Kalil said after the game. “And obviously Stew ran his tail off. He’s a really good back and it’s fun blocking for him.”
The Panthers have an opportunity to extend the winning streak with Monday night’s visit from the Indianapolis Colts, who have the league’s worst total defense at 408 yards per game allowed.
Despite how well Carolina’s offense might match up against the Colts’ defense, Shula reminds himself each week of how difficult it is to win in the NFL.
It’s a humble approach for a coach who’s been humbled along the way but now is enjoying some of his best success as an NFL play-caller.
“Because of the ups and the downs and the nature of the season,” Shula said, “you’ve got to keep a level way about yourself, and then have a short memory and get ready to move on to the next week and be ready to prove it all over.
“We still think, on offense, that our best football is still out there.”