Mike Shula can’t lie. Super Bowl 50 still gnaws at him.
He still has those “what if?” moments. He’s still perturbed that the league’s No. 1 scoring offense couldn’t muster more than 10 points after getting 315 yards of total offense against the Denver Broncos.
While some Carolina Panthers players have said they’ve moved on past the game, the team’s offensive coordinator admits he still thinks about it. He believes the starting quarterback does, too.
“He’s taken ownership even more,” Shula said of Cam Newton. “And I say that because I think we were right there. As close as you could possibly be. One drive away. And I know Cam and that’s in the back of his mind and he uses that as motivation.”
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As he looks back on the Super Bowl — and how to not let it happen again in 2016 — Shula points to the staggering third down numbers Carolina faced. Not only were the Panthers 3-for-15 on third downs in the game, but they faced a third-and-8 or longer situation 12 times.
Only twice did they convert those third-and-long situations, and one came via a personal foul penalty.
These situations allowed the Broncos do use green-dog blitzes. When Carolina’s offensive scheme dictated man coverage, the Broncos would send an extra blitzer that the Panthers could not account for.
It wasn’t revolutionary, Shula said, but it was the smart thing to do. Receivers take longer to get down the field in their routes, and sending pressure means the quarterback can’t wait too long.
Plus, Newton can’t just take off and run because there’s so much ground to cover.
“A lot of it ties into that. It sounds like an easy fix,” Shula said, “but to me you have to figure out what you’re doing on first and second down. Or what weren’t you doing to make first downs on first and second down?”
That’s been a focus of Newton this season. He wants to take more of what the defense gives him, what he said team owner/founder Jerry Richardson called “layups.”
Shula has been working with Newton on making those quicker decisions and getting to his second or third option faster. Newton’s accuracy is as good as it’s ever been, Shula says, but now it’s time to make decisions that raise his completion percentage above the 60-percent mark where it’s hovered for five years.
Last year’s experience should help Newton. In 2013 he pressed while depending too heavily on receiver Steve Smith. That continued in 2014 with rookie Kelvin Benjamin. In 2015, though, he had to look elsewhere after Benjamin went down with a torn ACL.
“We never really even talked about this, but I think he made up his mind that he wasn’t going to worry about getting it to one guy or the other,” Shula said. “He’s going to use all those guys.”
Benjamin’s return to action doesn’t necessarily mean he picks up where he left off in the 2014 season. He is still working his way into football shape, and coach Ron Rivera said the aim is to get him 30 snaps in the third exhibition against the Patriots.
It’s unclear when Benjamin will get back to the 60 snaps per game that typical No. 1 receivers get, but Shula doesn’t seem worried. He wants a rotation at receiver.
Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess and Philly Brown can play some No. 1 receiver, and all three can play as many as three receiver positions in Carolina’s offense.
“I liken it a little bit to a defensive line,” Shula said. “In the fourth quarter, if you have depth at the defensive line, those guys are fresh rushing the passer. That’s kind of how we want our wideouts throughout the game.”
There’s only one football, so egos will have to be checked at the door as Rivera keeps reminding his players entering this season.
Then there’s the theme of moving on from last year. Sure, this team has all the makings to be good again.
The Panthers aren’t going to go 15-1 just by putting on a jersey. Shula and his group have learned from the Super Bowl, but it’s over.
“We need to remind ourselves that we’re not pretty good if we just line up and think that we’re going to be good. We have to start all over,” Shula said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who can make plays, who are self-starters and who don’t want to let each other down. But we’ve got to go prove it all over again.”