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Sunday, August 10, 2014
Panthers offense has several new toys

By David Newton

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Mike Shula has a lot of new toys. He got some because the old toys were getting, well, old. He got some because opponents wanted to play with his old toys more than management was willing to pay to keep them.

The Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator still is learning everything these new toys can do, but he likes what he's seen so far -- particularly from a certain 6-foot-5, 240-pound gadget after his spectacular catch in Friday night's 20-18 preseason loss to Buffalo.

Shula believes he has flexibility to have more fun with this new toys than his old ones, and that has the potential to make his offense better than a year ago.

"Yeah!" Shula said. "Heck yeah!"

There's plenty of room to improve.

The Panthers ranked 26th in total offense in 2013, averaging 316 yards a game. They were 29th in passing (190.2 yards per game) and 18th in scoring (22.9 points per game).

Kelvin Benjamin
Kelvin Benjamin's touchdown catch was a reason for excitement as the Carolina Panthers have big plans for their big target.
They were able to go 12-4 because the defense was ranked second in the league, the offense was among the best at ball control and quarterback Cam Newton made more game-winning clutch pays than he had during his first two seasons.

But it was obvious the offense needed an overhaul if the overall team was to improve. That's why Shula is excited about his new toys, particularly as it pertains to his new wide receivers -- rookie Kelvin Benjamin (the 6-5 toy), veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant -- and tight end Ed Dickson.

"It been great," Shula said. "They've come in with a workmanlike attitude, very serious, eager to prove themselves and earn a spot on the team. Competition is a beautiful thing. These guys get along good."

Shula isn't dishing on his old toys. But wide receiver Steve Smith, who was released in March, is 35 and at the end of his career. He didn't always get along. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon were adequate, but not irreplaceable.

Sometimes you have to tear things apart to move forward. That's what Carolina has done.

"We're starting over with guys that are knowledgeable, that are smart guys, that there's a reason why they've been in the league," Shula said. "They're new, but it's kind of been a positive thing."

Benjamin has received most of the headlines. The 28th pick of the draft has been phenomenal, catching everything thrown in his direction. His 29-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo while stumbling into the end zone showed just how special he is.

He's emerged as a No. 1 receiver that the 5-9 Smith admittedly wasn't anymore.

"He's such a big target, it has to give you more confidence as a quarterback, like a jump shooter with a basket that is twice as big," Shula said.

Dickson, a free agent pickup from Baltimore, also was a big addition. Putting him opposite Greg Olsen, the team's leading receiver in 2013, in a two-tight end set has opened possibilities that Shula didn't have last season.

Defenses will have to commit eight players to the box, which will prevent double-teams on receivers and free up the entire offense.

"It gives you flexibility," Shula said. "It makes you less predictable by personnel groupings. So if all of a sudden you come in with two tight ends, you're not necessarily going to run the ball, you're not necessarily going to be in single-back, you're not necessarily going to have two tight ends on the edge.

"So now the defense can't just say, 'Oh, well, they're just going to play these formations, and out of these formations they're going to run just these plays.'"

But it's not just the new toys that excite Shula. Newton has looked as sharp as ever despite being limited since returning from offseason ankle surgery.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil gives the line a stabilizing force. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert still offer a solid one-two punch in the backfield. Olsen looks as dependable as ever.

"The core guys," Shula said with a smile.

At the core of Shula's excitement is Newton. The only thing sharper than his timing with receivers has been his leadership. Nobody has been more active in encouraging players who do well and motivating them when they need pushing.

"With all that there's a calmness and confidence," Shula said of the fourth-year quarterback. "He's always had that cool personality on the field. Now there's some added confidence with experience."

Old toys, new toys.

Shula has a lot more to play with now.