At 3:15 a.m. on Tuesday, coach Ron Rivera woke himself up to resume poring over the notes he had taken all season long on his offense and its coordinator, Mike Shula, a task he had begun hours earlier following his annual season-ending press conference.
By noon on Tuesday, Rivera had fired Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey, and began, alongside interim general manager Marty Hurney, to put a plan in place to replace the two.
“I just want to make sure that everybody understands that this organization is very grateful for the contribution of Mike Shula and Kenny Dorsey to this organization and to where we are as a football team,” Rivera, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep as he addressed media Tuesday afternoon in Bank of America Stadium.
Rivera said in his end-of-season press conference on Monday, following a wild-card loss to New Orleans, that he didn’t expect any staff changes (other than the assumption that defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will get a head-coaching job after his interviews with the New York Giants, the Arizona Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts this week).
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But then, he began to go over his notes and evaluate Shula more closely, writing down ideas and thoughts in the process.
“Came to the conclusion that, going forward, I believed that the thing we needed to do was bring in a different perspective, different ideas, in terms of going forward to what I believe is our ultimate goal (of) winning a Super Bowl,” he said.
A source close to the situation told the Observer that a major candidate involved in the search is former longtime offensive coordinator Norv Turner, 65, who was the person who hired Rivera in San Diego and who has a brother and a nephew, Ron and Cameron, in assistant roles on Carolina’s staff.
The source said multiple names are involved, however, and that there will be due process involved in making the decision.
The decision, while discussed at length between Rivera and Hurney, was ultimately Rivera’s to make. The source also said to expect a “veteran hire” for the vacancy.
Rivera did not offer a timeline for the hire.
“Well, I have a plan,” said Rivera, who didn’t bite when Turner’s name was brought up alongside other potential candidate Rob Chudzinski. “There are some ideas that I’ve sat down and talked with (interim general manager) Marty Hurney about. We’ve discussed, and are going to work through this plan that we have going forward.”
Shula spent seven seasons in Carolina, and was the team’s offensive coordinator since 2013. Dorsey was the Panthers’ quarterbacks coach since 2013.
The Panthers finished the regular season 11-5 before falling to New Orleans in Sunday’s wild-card game, ending the year with the league’s No. 19 total offense.
Under Shula, Carolina’s offensive production was inconsistent year over year despite continuity at the quarterback position with Cam Newton.
Carolina finished the 2013 season ranked No. 26 in the NFL in total offense, No. 16 in 2014, No. 11 in 2015 (the year of the Panthers’ Super Bowl run), and No. 19 in 2016 when the team went 6-10, averaging 343.7 yards per game.
But even with dynamic pieces added, like No. 8 overall draft pick Christian McCaffrey, Shula’s offense averaged only 323.7 yards per game in 2017 and fluctuated between productive and stagnant from week to week.
The offense also suffered setbacks when Newton spent the offseason and most of training camp and the preseason recovering from surgery on his throwing arm to repair a partially-torn rotator cuff, as well the season-ending injuries to rookie second-round draft pick Curtis Samuel and emerging talent Damiere Byrd.
Rivera said that he took Newton into consideration in terms of how the decision would affect the quarterback and his production moving forward, but he did not inform the quarterback of his decision until after Shula had been relieved of his duties.
Goals in mind for Shula’s replacement will likely include a better way to utilize McCaffrey’s versatile ability alongside a running back-led power-run attack (Newton led the team in rushing in 2017, which is not ideal despite his success doing so) and to increase consistency in quarterback play and putting points on the board.
“You want to make sure you’re getting the ball into your playmakers’ hands,” said Rivera. “Looking at some of the guys I’ve thought about, some of the things they do, they do use the backs. And we have a back in Christian who has that type of ability, and you do want to get him the ball in space.”
Carolina will not move away from its signature power-run style, nor will it stop running the zone-read plays in which Newton has been so successful.
“One of the things that happened for us last year obviously was that we had a little bit of slowdown obviously because of the way the quarterback went through training camp,” he said. “But taking a step back and thinking about the things that we can do, or do better, I just feel that this plan that Marty and I have talked about, I think we can accomplish those things.”