Panthers Rivera likes the play calls but team has to make plays
Criticism is nothing new for Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Not only did Shula’s father coach 490 NFL games, Mike Shula also was Alabama’s quarterback.
And after a sophomore season in which Shula completed only 42.7 percent of his passes in 1984, he heard it from the Crimson Tide fans.
“I was very inaccurate,” Shula said. “Except when I was throwing the shovel pass.”
But Shula silenced the critics somewhat the following season by completing 60 percent of his throws and leading Alabama to a nine-win season. But the houndstooth naysayers were back in force at the end of Shula’s four-year tenure as the Crimson Tide’s head coach.
So Shula gets it. He knows the surest way to lose your job in the NFL is to lose, something Don Shula didn’t experience too often.
“You’ve got to go win,” Shula said Monday. “We know we’ve got to go win, and even sometimes then you’re going to get criticism.”
Shula has come under public pressure again this week after the offense bombed during a 17-3 loss at Chicago on Sunday.
It was the second time this season the Panthers (4-3) failed to score an offensive touchdown. Worse, they had two turnovers that became defensive scores of 75 and 76 yards for Bears rookie safety Eddie Jackson.
But a day after the offense again lacked big plays – except creating two huge ones for the Bears – Panthers coach Rivera offered a vote of confidence in offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
“I’m happy with what we’re doing. Again, just watch the game and see what’s happening. OK?” Rivera said. “But I’m happy with what we’re doing.”
The Panthers came into the season trying to evolve their offense so quarterback Cam Newton wouldn’t take as many hits as he entered the next stage of his career. Rivera and Shula talked about not using as many called runs for Newton.
But Newton has led the Panthers in rushing the past two games, and was sacked five times in the loss at Chicago.
While Rivera defended Shula, he did say the Panthers could stand to simplify things to help all the newcomers on offense. Besides drafting running back Christian McCaffrey and wideout Curtis Samuel in the first two rounds, the Panthers also added a new slot receiver in Russell Shepard and $55.5 million left tackle Matt Kalil.
“We’re in a situation now where you’ve got so many new guys as you’re going through this communication, it takes a little bit to register,” Rivera said.
Shula conceded the Panthers might have tried to do too much with some of their new pieces over the first seven games.
“We need to look at that. And that’s a fine line,” Shula said. “You don’t want to cut it down too much. We’ve had some moving parts (with injuries to tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil). Not to make an excuse. But it’s something we’ve got to look at.”
During their streak of three consecutive NFC South titles, the Panthers hung their hat on a physical run game, mixed with a big-play passing attack. Shula directed the NFL’s highest-scoring offense during the Super Bowl season of 2015.
But with the arrival of McCaffrey, the Panthers are running more east-west plays that are not well suited for Jonathan Stewart.
They got back to more downhill runs against the Bears. But they still have had little in the way of explosive plays.
Kelvin Benjamin’s 37-yard catch at the end of the first half was the only play longer than 20 yards over the past two games – losses to Philadelphia and Chicago that have dropped the Panthers to 4-3.
Not all of this falls on Shula. There were a couple of times against the Bears that Samuel had some separation deep, and Newton either didn’t see him or didn’t throw it to him.
The Panthers aren’t going to fire their $103 million quarterback. But Shula’s job security could become an issue if things continue spiraling downward offensively.
Nearing the season’s midpoint, the Panthers’ offense has run hot and cold. Newton had a pair of 300-yard passing games in impressive victories at New England and Detroit, but struggled -- as did the rest of the offense -- against the Eagles and Bears.
The Panthers are in the middle of the pack statistically -- 19th in total offense, 21st in rushing offense, 22nd in scoring.
“We’re not as far off as we think. It feels like we are and we all feel terrible,” Shula said. “Then you throw on top of that turnovers. It’s stuff we feel confident we’re going to get fixed.”
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen thinks public criticism of Shula is lazy and shortsighted.
“I think we’ve shown around here that we’ve been a very good offense. So I think a lot of that is typical overreaction to bad games. That’s the easy way out,” Olsen said.
“That’s the easy critique for people who watching from a distance don’t really have an idea of what’s going on. That’s the easy solution to everybody who doesn’t have much knowledge of what we’re actually doing.”
Shula knows what he has to do.
Asked if he ever has concerns about his job security, Shula said: “I have concerns about our offense getting points on the board and helping us win.”