Carolina Panthers fans won’t have Mike Shula to kick around anymore – the team’s offensive coordinator was fired on Tuesday .
Shula has been a popular scapegoat for years – as offensive and defensive coordinators always are throughout the NFL whenever something goes wrong. Quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey was also fired Tuesday by coach Ron Rivera, who wants more consistency and more points from an offense that has struggled for large chunks of the past two seasons.
Here are five points to think about as the Panthers figure out what’s next – which I think will happen very soon and with a very veteran NFL coach with deep ties to Rivera like Norv Turner or Rob Chudzinski:
THE CAM CONUNDRUM: The best thing the new offensive coordinator gets to inherit is quarterback Cam Newton, who was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2015 and, at age 28, is a seven-year veteran who should be in his prime. Newton can make any offensive coordinator look good when he plays like he did Sunday, when he threw for 349 yards and nearly led a remarkable comeback against New Orleans in the playoffs.
However, there are times Newton is will make any offensive coordinator look bad. A perfect play call doesn’t matter one bit when Newton throws off his back foot or misses the receiver high – fundamentals Shula and Dorsey worked with Newton on constantly, without a whole lot of change forthcoming.
Coaching Newton is a tremendous opportunity - and a tremendous challenge. You have to understand who he is, how to deal with that big personality and what he most wants and needs. Unlock all of his potential and you’ve got a surefire, first-ballot hall of famer.
Then again, Newton can be frustrating for any coach or fan to observe – and he has gone backwards for much of the past two years. That just shouldn’t be happening. Perhaps the relationship with Shula and Dorsey became too comfortable, too stale, too much “We’re just a little bit off” as Shula liked to say and not enough “Look, we’ve got to shake every bit of this up, because it’s not working.”
This change, to me, has more to do with the Panthers trying to maximize “The Cam Years” before the quarterback gets too hurt or too old to run the way he can now. It is telling that Rivera talked to Newton right after he made this move. Newton has to be on board with it.
Here’s a damning stat that argues for change: Newton had the second-most interceptions in the NFL in 2017, throwing 16 of them. Only DeShone Kizer, rookie quarterback of the 0-16 Cleveland Browns, had more.
SHULA’S BEST IDEAS: There’s no sense in demeaning Shula’s good work while he was in Charlotte. There was a lot of it. Remember that 28-yard screen pass to Fozzy Whittaker against New England in 2017? That Shula play was gorgeous, utilizing a fake screen to Christian McCaffrey that fooled the entire Patriots defense.
And this one you may not remember: Shula is actually responsible for one of the best ideas and one of the most beloved traditions in Panthers history – Newton’s Sunday football giveaway after Panthers touchdowns.
In 2011, as a rookie, Newton’s original celebrations were Superman spoofs and very much “Look-at-me-I-just-scored.” Then, on Oct. 23, 2011, Newton scored on a run against Washington. Shula was talking directly into Newton’s headset, as usual, and as Newton recounted later: “He (Shula) says when you celebrate, it’s not a celebration unless you give back. He says, ‘You do all that riff raff, whatever you do, but at the end you give that football to a little kid. You find a little kid.’
“So after I did whatever I did,” Newton continued, “I heard somebody [Shula] in my headset saying, ‘Give it to a little kid! Give it to a little kid!’ I looked and there was this kid just gleaming from ear to ear, so I gave it to him.”
Shula never was one for publicity – I think this had something to do with growing up in the same family as his legendary father, Don Shula – and liked to diminish his idea as much as he could. I thought this tradition was one that helped Newton grow up – to spread the joy around. But Shula told me once when I tried to compliment him about it: “That’s all Cam. He has made that tradition his own.”
THE WORST SHULA STAT: Of course, the Panthers’ offense has had all sorts of problems under Shula. Check out the passing yards that the Panthers had for the last half of the regular season: 137, 254, 168, 183, 137, 242, 160 and 180. Newton didn’t throw for 260 or more yards but three times in 17 games, including the playoffs. Those just aren’t NFL-worthy numbers, and I don’t care how much you are running the ball.
WIDE RECEIVER WRECKAGE: Here’s another one of the main problems with Shula that wasn’t his fault: general managers Dave Gettleman and Marty Hurney never provided him with enough help at wide receiver.
Since Gettleman abruptly fired Steve Smith following the 2013 season, the Panthers’ wide receiving corps has been no better than average and frequently worse.
I remember watching Newton throw a game-ending interception in the 2014 postseason against Seattle. Newton’s first target on the play was Brenton Bersin, but he had fallen down, which meant Newton looked the other way, threw the ball late and had it run back 90 yards for a touchdown. I thought to myself on the plane home: “That was one of the huge problems; Cam has to throw to Brenton Bersin, of all people, on one of the most important plays of the game. That surely will never happen again.”
And so what happens this year?
Bersin – fired five times by the Panthers, and yet back once again – was the recipient of some of the most important targets against New Orleans in the playoff game (and again fell down at a crucial moment, although this time he caught the pass first).
This isn’t to pick on Bersin, whose resilience and pluck has provided him with a much better career than you would expect. But the Panthers have got to upgrade this position from the top down or there will be many more 170-yard passing games in Newton’s future.
They absolutely need a better receiver than Devin Funchess on this team, so Funchess can return to a No. 2 slot. They need more speed. They need just about everything except a tight end and a pass-catching running back – Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey play those positions quite well.
‘RELIEVED OF DUTIES’: I found it humorous how delicately the Panthers put the firing of Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey in their press release, announcing they had both been “relieved of duties.”
Oh, c’mon. What’s the point of that euphemism? They got fired. Shula and Dorsey would certainly tell you that, and I’m sure they weren’t the least bit “relieved” about it. The relief comes more from the portion of the Panthers’ fan base that has been clamoring for Shula to get fired every year except for the Super Bowl one in 2015.
OK, so now Shula is gone. And yes, could well be time for a change.
But unless Newton buys into this all the way – and the Panthers’ front office gives him better receivers to throw to – it’s not going to matter at all who is calling the plays in 2018.
If Newton does improve, though -- and the Panthers make an upgrade at wide receiver and keep a very solid offensive line intact – 2018 could be special.