In My Opinion

Even at 12-5, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula can’t win

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Every city has a job that won’t let you win. You can be great at it, good at it, better than average at it and new at it. Still, people will campaign to get you fired.

In Charlotte, that job is offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.

At a news conference at Bank of America Stadium Tuesday, Panthers coach Ron Rivera is asked if he will bring his coaches back next season.

“Absolutely,” Rivera says. “I anticipate all my coaches being back.”

Even in the building’s bunker, surrounded by concrete and team carpet, you could hear the collective groan from Charlotte and its suburbs. I think one came from Apex.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula will be asked to return.

Shula’s offense did not tear it up this season. It ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing, 26th in total yards and 29th in passing.

The Panthers were 18th in scoring; the 14 teams they outscored failed to make the playoffs.

Last season Shula coached Carolina’s quarterbacks. When his predecessor, Rob Chudzinski, left to coach Cleveland (for a season) Shula was promoted.

Chudzinski was more innovative. There was a carnival quality to his calls, and the offense was entertaining even when it failed.

Shula didn’t trash Chudzinski’s system. He altered it. He made it more conventional.

Did it work?

Only three teams turned the ball over less than Carolina.

The Panthers were fifth in time of possession. While they were driving, their defense was resting.

They were fourth in third-down conversions and third in fourth-down conversations.

Also, the improvement of Cam Newton is a testament to Shula. In Newton’s first two seasons he had a total of two game-winning drives. He’s had four since November.

The Panthers were limited offensively. As the season wore on, their offensive line wore down. Newton’s running masked some of the line’s flaws.

And yet, Carolina went 12-5.

The Panthers will upgrade the line, perhaps in the first round of the NFL draft, and they will upgrade their receiving corps. Steve Smith is still very good, Greg Olsen is good and Ted Ginn Jr. is a find. But they need speed. Stick a good young receiver on the field with the other three and then see what Shula can do. And no hog mollies split wide, please.

The Panthers have had eight offensive coordinators. Fans had little against the first four – Joe Pendry (1995-97), Gil Haskell (98-99), Bill Musgrave (2000) and Richard Williamson (2001).

But they came from a different time. Back then, head coaches received the applause and took the hits. The league didn’t mandate that coordinators address the media once a week.

Coordinators are now stars – or instruments of evil. Dan Henning (2002-06) was the first offensive coordinator of the modern era. He was creative and smart. Angry villagers in Panthers colors all but marched to his hotel with torches. Henning worked within the parameters set by his boss, John Fox (pre-Peyton Manning), which meant that on third and long a lucky back was getting a handoff.

Jeff Davidson, who replaced Henning, was (and is) an offensive line coach and never fit. Chudzinski (2011-12) came next. Fans loved the clever formations his first season. Midway through his second the show had grown old and they clamored for more conventional runs and passes.

Who do you want to replace Shula? You want Chud back, or do you have somebody new in mind? Do you want to foist a new system on Newton? Do you want him to play for his third offensive coordinator in four seasons?

If the rest of us were held to the same standards we hold coaches, the unemployment rate would hover at 80 percent.

Shula and the offense have to improve. Along with having more poise Sunday, San Francisco had more offense.

Instead of giving Shula the boot, however, let’s give him two linemen, a receiver and an opportunity to see what he can do.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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