Time To Give Mike Shula Some Credit For This Playoff Run

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports


I was trying to think of the second OL that was lost for the season due to injury. That was Garry Williams.

Mike Shula's playcalling, strategy and performance has been much-maligned all season long. To a degree it is justified, as the Panthers' offense has been at times brutal to even describe or contemplate, let alone watch, and even on its better days needs considerable assistance (i.e. when the Panthers "score over 30" because of turnovers produced by the defense). But here is the deal: early in the season Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott and the players received just as much criticism as Shula did. When the team was 0-2 and 1-3, there were lots of calls to blow the whole thing up and start over. But as the team reached .500, became a playoff contender, won big games over San Francisco and New England, avoided letdowns against lesser teams (IMHO an even bigger accomplishment) and are now on the cusp of winning the division, opinions of everyone improved. "Fire Ron" became "Riverboat Ron." Sean McDermott is now very popular. Folks have gone from wanting to bench Cam to wanting to re-sign him. Even the criticism of the offensive line and secondary has largely been muted. Well, that is not entirely true. Opinions of everyone but Shula has improved.

However, to a great degree, this is unfair. First off, how much credit should Rivera and McDermott get for having the #1 defense in the NFL anyway? Look at the personnel: Pro Bowl caliber players at RDE, LDE, ROLB and MLB, and 2 very strong rookies and good depth at every position in the front 7. Not only that, but consider that having pass-rushers at both DE spots is rare. Having a single full-sized pass-rushing DE who can also play the run is rare; the Panthers have 2 such players. Having a single guy who can apply pressure from the DT spot is rare, the Panthers have 3 such guys, even if none of them do it consistently (yet). Where the MLB in the 4-3 is now a deprecated position (not as much as the fullback on offense but still) the Panthers have not only an every-down player but the best MLB in the game - including even the 3-4 ILBs - at the position, and Kuechly plays beside an OLB who can do all 3 phases of the game (run-stopping, coverage, pass-rushing) in Thomas Davis. Yes, the Panthers have survived with a mediocre secondary, but even there the team has assembled a deep group of veterans who can be role players and adhere to and implement various schemes, strategies, looks etc. behind the great pressure the front 7 produces, with examples being some big plays produced by Drayton Florence when the team was digging out of its 1-3 hole, Captain Munnerlyn's sack performance to rattle Geno Smith in a potential trap game, and Mike Mitchell's edgy risk-taking setting the tone and rubbing off on the entire unit, helping hold the secondary together after a rash of early season injuries. And speaking of injuries: the defense has been mostly healthy this season. What few injuries there have been have struck the least vital players (with the exception being the leg-whipping of Charles Johnson, who hasn't been the same sense). While Rivera and McDermott have done a lot of good things this year, it would have been more impressive had the unit been less of a sieve in 2011 or a top 10 unit in 2012, when they didn't have multiple Pro Bowl performers at the first two levels and veteran role players in the 3rd level.

Meanwhile, contrast the talent level on defense to that on offense. Jordan Gross in a great comeback performance, Ryan Kalil a consummate pro as always at center, and that is about it as far as the OL goes. At TE, Greg Olsen is very good but not great catching the ball and at times a liability as a blocker as always, and there is absolutely no depth. At WR: a group that consistently struggles with drops, getting open and making plays downfield. At RB, for the 3rd year in a row no Panther will reach 1000 rushing yards, though with a big performance against Atlanta next week DeAngelo Williams should get close. And the Panthers have had the sort of injury issues on offense that the defense has generally avoided, and the offense has nowhere near the talent base as the defense does to begin with. As a result, the right side of the OL has been manned by an undrafted free agent at RT all year. RG? Take your pick between a late rounder that Buffalo cut for being out of shape and an undrafted college DT that the Panthers were trying to turn into an RT. LG? Amini Silatolu was lost for the year early, so the Panthers resorted to Travelle Wharton, who didn't play last year and was out of football. RG? Garry Williams, lost to the season due to injury - and before him Edmund Kugbila and after him Chris Scott who may be ready to play again by the playoffs - forcing the Panthers to resort to TE/DT/RT/RG Nate Chandler. Possibly the worst OG situation and the worst right side of the OL in the NFL. That plus injuries to James Stewart negated what was supposed to be the strength of the offense, which was the running game. How would the defense have performed had its anticipated strength - whether you believe this strength to be the DEs or the LBs - been similarly taken away?

And I am among those who simply believes that there isn't much there in terms of the WRs. And I believe that this is why a lot of folks are ambivalent at best about Shula: the belief that his lack of creativity and aggressiveness has stifled that unit. Well, there are two ways to look at this. 1) The horrible situation on the right side of the OL and at both OG spots hurts the deep passing game as much as the running game. It would be negligent of an offensive coordinator to call slow-developing deep passing routes or play action off a very inconsistent running game when you know full well that the result of both will be more wasted plays, more hits on the QB, and possibly more turnovers.

The latter point is key. One of the most devastating turnovers in the game - the strip sack - most often happens when a QB makes a deep drop, is looking downfield and can't see the DE coming from the blind side or a DB coming on a delayed blitz. Also, pick-sixes most often occur when a QB is late or high in deeper throws over the middle due to guys in his face. And while INTs on long throws can often basically be punts (except when they happen on 1st or 2nd down that is) they happen a lot more when a defense doesn't really respect your pass catchers (or they only respect one) and as a result automatically rolls a safety over to whoever goes upfield (or automatically doubles whoever they believe might). So is a coordinator supposed to stick with the gameplan and call these plays anyway just so he can LOOK more creative and aggressive?

In today's NFL, that is a conundrum for an offensive coordinator I guess. You can either do what LOOKS better despite that it creates turnovers, loses games and can get your franchise QB pounded into the dirt OR you can do what looks boring and racks up fewer yards but turns the ball over less, controls the ball more (making your defense even more dominant), tires out your defense and ultimately produces about the same amount of points and have everyone state that you are holding the offense back.

But here is the ironic thing: despite a mess of an offensive line, Steve Smith being older and less effective and a frustrating lack of progress from the other WRs, the Panthers are scoring more points per game this year under Shula than last year under Rob Chudzinski: 23.8 ppg versus 22 ppg. But what about 2011, when the high-flying Panthers and their record-setting rookie took the world by storm? Yes, the Panthers were tied for 5th in the NFL in scoring that season: at 25.4 points per game. So Shula gets hammered for producing MORE OFFENSE than in 2012 and a whopping 1.6 points less (basically 3 TDs and a field goal OVER 16 GAMES) than in 2011. And here's the rub: the Panthers' are scoring 23.8 ppg against a tougher schedule.

No, Newton isn't putting up 4500 yards a season like in 2011 and 2012. A return to the 35 TDs of 2011 would also be nice. But Newton hasn't completely fallen off the map. He has 3700 yards with a game that the Panthers pretty much need to win to go, and getting to 4000 yards running and passing isn't entirely out of the question (even if it will have to be done without Steve Smith). Also, Newton had only 27 TDs in 2012 (19 passing and 8 rushing) but he has 28 this season with a game to play ... it is not unreasonable to project that he will finish with 30.

But here is the difference: Newton had 20 turnovers in 2011. He had 18 turnovers in 2012, despite the team making a concerted effort of trying to make Cam reduce them that season. But this year, Cam has had only 13 turnovers with a game to go. In 2011, the big problem was INTs, of which he had 17. In 2012, Cam succeeded in cutting down his INTs as requested by coaches - though it arguably came at the expense of the effectiveness of the passing game - but he had 6 lost fumbles. This year he has only 12 INTs, but he has had only 1 lost fumble. Even if Cam has a couple of turnovers in the Falcons game (as his toe is injured and he will be without Steve Smith) that will be 15 turnovers, still a decided improvement over a year ago, and this despite an OL that has gone from almost decent his rookie season to a total mess this year, and getting less help from his WRs (if more from his RBs) also.

The reduced turnovers are clearly a product of this scheme. Newton has less than 100 rushing attempts this season, as compared with more than 125 in 2011 and 2012, which obviously helps account for the fewer fumbles. As a passer, Newton's completion percentage is 62.1%, and for much of the season was around 64%. Yes, his average completion is down to 7.24 instead of 7.84 and 7.98 his first 2 seasons, but his he has completed 277 passes in 15 games in 2013 as opposed to 280 passes in 16 games in 2012. Frankly, there isn't that much of a downside to throwing more short passes that actually have a chance to be completed given the personnel on offense as opposed to throwing intermediate and deep passes that will lead to more hits, fumbles, INTs and wasted plays.

It is not just the same amount of points (curiously, the average ppg of seasons 1 and 2 under Chud roughly equal the 23.8 ppg under Shula), the increased efficiency of the passing game, more production out of DeAngelo Williams, and fewer turnovers incidentally, though those are certainly big and have all contributed to the Panthers' already having 5 more wins than last year, 6 more in 2011, and being better against good teams and late in games than both years. Instead, the biggest contribution of Shula is that the offense now has an identity. Ironically, I believe that this is part of the perceived problem - one of the things that the Shula detractors hold against him - is that his detractors do not like the identity. Now would it have been possible to construct another, more effective and explosive identity from this roster? Who knows. (However, I would caution those who believe that Chip Kelly could have waltzed into Carolina and begun scoring 50 ppg right off the bat: Carolina has no DeSean Jackson. It is debatable whether Carolina even has a Riley Cooper - who has 800 yards and 8 TDs - at this point. They have 2 TEs - former Pro Bowler Brent Celek and 2nd round rookie Zak Ertz - who are comparable in ability to Chris Olsen. And most important, Kelly dedicated the offseason to rebuilding the Eagles' horrible OL, which is why LeSean McCoy has 2000 yards and 10 TDs rushing and receiving.)

The importance of an identity, a routine, a consistent philosophy and gameplan that gets adhered to from game to game and within games no matter the opponent, the results the prior week or whether you are up by 10 or down by 20, cannot be underestimated when one considers how the mind of an individual - say Cam Newton - works or the mentality of a group - say a locker room of offensive and defensive players, both starts and reserves - responds. When you get humiliated by Arizona and New Orleans? Keep pounding. When you eke out narrow wins against San Fran and New England that forces the whole league to notice? Keep pounding. When you need to prevent devastating lapses in trap games? Keep pounding. Where "keep pounding" for the Patriots, New Orleans and Denver means letting Brady, Brees and Manning throw it 40-50 times a game, for the Panthers under Shula it has meant running the football, low-risk passing, time of possession and playing off a defense that gets the other offense off the field.

And this is the difference between the Panthers and, say, the Detroit Lions. The Lions on paper have much more talent. But because so much of what they do is just let Matt Stafford throw it up to Calvin Johnson and live or die with the results, they are possibly the most mentally fragile team in the NFL. (If that title doesn't belong to the Lions, it belongs to the Dallas Cowboys.) Who used to be the most mentally fragile team in the league? The Cincinnati Bengals. Marvin Lewis solved that problem by getting rid of a bunch of veterans and big free agent contracts who didn't want to be there, acquiring a bunch of young players through the draft that did, and sticking with that program. When a bunch of people - including star WR A.J. Green - were trashing QB Andy Dalton for making bad reads and not being able to get the ball outside the hash marks or down the field, Cincinnati's response was to not change squat ... to keep doing what they are doing, and not try to do things that their QB isn't yet capable of just to please the media, the fans and star player. Now they are in the playoffs for the 3rd year in a row. Granted, they haven't won a playoff game yet and probably won't this season, but this is a team that didn't lose fewer than 7 games in any season between 1988 and 2005. They haven't won a playoff game since 1990. Before last season, they had only gone to playoffs in back-to-back years once in franchise history: in 1981-1982. Again, an unpopular identity that works.

Does this have to remain the Panthers' identity? Honestly, I do not see why it shouldn't. Here is one way of looking at it: the Patriots won their 3 Super Bowls back when they had a great defense, no name WRs and Tom Brady's main role was to keep games competitive until they won them in the 4th quarter. Since adding star WRs like Randy Moss and Wes Welker and opening up the offense, the Patriots have lost the big postseason games that they used to win. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning? More of the same. Shattering regular season passing records right and left on their way to early playoff exits. No one seems to care that much-maligned Joe Flacco has the same number of Super Bowl victories and a much higher playoff winning percentage. Eli Manning? Ditto. So why not keep Shula as coordinator and the identity that he has created and just get better players to do it with? Get a big, reliable WR (think Allen Robinson or Jordan Matthews) and a second pass-catching TE (think Marcel Jenson of Fresno or Arthur Lynch of UGA) to help out a QB who often "just misses" on a lot of his throws and improve the situation at RT (Seantrel Henderson of Miami or JaWuan James of Tennessee maybe) plus add another late pick in the mix at OG (Kenarious Gates of UGA, an OT in college who would play OG in the NFL)?

Because here's the deal: if you want a different offensive identity to be more "explosive", you are still going to need a WR (truthfully 2 and they will have to be those boom or bust type deep threats who are either going to be speedsters generously listed at 6'0" or the taller inconsistent guys with questionable hands) and more OLs (except they will be pass blockers like Jake Matthews and Baylor's Cyril Richardson instead of guys for whom run blocking and only average pass blocking will be good enough). Giving Shula credit for an offense that was able to coax 11 (likely to be 12) wins out of this roster would only allow him to build on what really does seem to largely work with this QB and also complement the heavy investment on defense (which will likely get even heavier if the Panthers can keep Hardy ... his 3 sack performance in yet another in the stretch of "the biggest game of year!" will simultaneously make it much more foolish to simply let him walk AND that much harder to keep him around). Building on that is a lot better than joining the other 31 NFL teams that are chasing explosiveness.

When I see the Panthers' offense, I see one that has an aging LT and LG and a huge liability on the right side of the OL. I see RBs that have combined for 1300 yards, but at less than 4 yards per carry and only 8 rushing TDs. I see where no WR or TE has reached 800 receiving yards or surpassed 5 TDs, only 1 TE on the entire roster has caught a pass. And the 48 combined catches for 432 yards by DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, as vital as it was to the offense, should be viewed in context: 10 RBs had more receiving yards individually than Williams and Tolbert combined. Yet, this offense is 1 road game away from being the #2 seed in the NFC. Yes, it is because the Panthers have Cam Newton, who would be considered an MVP candidate had no one truly believed (or for that matter wanted to believe) that the Panthers were going to be a playoff team until they actually became one on Sunday. But Shula, a former QB himself as well as Newton's former position coach, deserves credit for putting in a system that made Newton a more reliable player. Newton didn't lose games with wildly erratic, mistake-prone play this season because Shula made a point of keeping Newton out of situations where it was possible for him to do so. This helped keep Newton on a more even keel emotionally, which made it a lot easier for his coaches and teammates to trust him, and for Newton to trust himself. If you don't think that this wasn't a key ingredient for the comeback/close wins against New Orleans, Miami, San Fran and New England (the types of games that Carolina used to lose) as well as maintaining leads in the sorts of games that the Panthers used to blow in the second half, than that is simply choosing to ignore why teams go with the ball control/strong defense philosophy to begin with.

Yes, the Panthers are at 11 wins right now due to Riverboat Ron Rivera. But while "Identity Mike Shula" lacks the catchy alliteration, he deserves his share of credit also.

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