NFL Nation: Mike Shula

Why Rivera's right to keep Shula

January, 17, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a gasp from some of you when Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said earlier in the week he was keeping his staff intact for next season.

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AP Photo/Chuck BurtonYou don't change offensive coordinators such as the Panthers' Mike Shula based on one bad game.
The gasp was aimed primarily -- maybe completely -- at offensive coordinator Mike Shula returning.

Perhaps it was an overreaction to the dismal showing in Carolina's 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game. Perhaps it was an overreaction to the offense's inability to score a touchdown on eight plays inside the 10-yard line.

Whatever it was, it was an overreaction.

Rivera doesn't need to run Shula off. Here's why:

Continuity: One of the reasons Rivera moved Shula from quarterbacks coach to coordinator when Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach at Cleveland was to maintain the momentum the team established at the end of the 2012 season. He also knew Shula and quarterback Cam Newton had a solid relationship, which led to a lot of maturity and much more consistent play this season for the first pick of the 2011 draft. To change would destroy all that.

Chudzinski: If you remember, wide receiver Steve Smith and running back DeAngelo Williams took shots at their former coordinator this season. They felt he was all about putting on a show to get a head coaching position, which he got -- for one season before being fired. They couldn't say enough good things about Shula and how he helped the offense develop an identity.

Injuries: Three players were used at left guard because of injuries before Travelle Wharton became the regular in the fourth game. Four players were used at right guard due to injuries before former defensive lineman Nate Chandler became the regular after midseason. Running back Jonathan Stewart missed all but six games, first with an ankle injury and then with a knee injury. There were others, but when you lose players you were counting on in the line that makes any coordinator's life tough.

Talent: Outside of Smith, Newton didn't have a consistent go-to wide receiver. No doubt finding more firepower there will be a priority during the offseason, likely the draft but perhaps in free agency as well. As solid as running back DeAngelo Williams was with 843 yards, he's still on the wrong side of 30 for backs. If you can argue Newton needs more weapons to take Carolina to the next level, then you can argue Shula does.

Production: The Panthers averaged 22.9 points a game this season, which is slightly more than the 22.3 average in 2012. They were third in the NFL in third-down efficiency, 11th in rushing and fifth in time of possession (31:54 minutes per game), areas that win you a lot of games when you have the league's second-best defense. You can argue Newton's 585 yards was a big reason for the rushing rank, but his legs are one reason the Panthers drafted him.

Just because: You just don't shake things up because the last game left a sour taste in your mouth. You remember this is an offense that was good enough to help the team win 12 games and the division title.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Asked how he balances keeping three running backs happy while sticking with the hot hand, Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula needed only one word.

"Delicately,'' he said with a smile.

Perhaps the more delicate situation is how to resist the temptation to give quarterback Cam Newton more carries.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAlthough his passing stats may not wow you, the Panthers say QB Cam Newton is worthy of league MVP consideration.
The lack of huge numbers from running backs DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart has raised questions about the health of Carolina's running game lately. It's been well documented that Newton has led the team in rushing the past two weeks and three of the past five.

Much of the focus of concern has been on Williams. He ranked third in the NFL in rushing with 291 yards after three games (97 yards per game), but has only 319 yards over the last eight (39.9 ypg). Some see the addition of Stewart to the mix in those eight games as part of the problem.

But is there really a problem? Consider this: Newton has averaged 4.3 carries and 26 yards a game in Carolina's three losses. He has averaged 8.1 carries and 37.6 yards in the eight wins.

During their current seven-game win streak, one that has them 8-3 heading into Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, the Panthers have gained more than 100 yards each week. So what if Newton is a big reason for that?

The key numbers are 7 wins and 0 losses.

“I know the quarterback had to run a little more ... but again, it shows that if you pile up on us, you do certain things, we have another weapon,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Is it disconcerting? Yeah. I’d like to see us have more success [with the backs]. But when we had to, we ran the ball, and we had some big runs at the right time.”

That doesn't mean Shula and his staff don't keep track of how many times Newton runs. For his well-being, they would prefer the running backs to carry the load.

But when teams stack the defense to stop the run, Newton's two best options often are to pass or run it himself. When the Panthers are playing from behind, as they have the past three weeks, there also are fewer opportunities to run.

When you think about it that way, the Panthers have struck a decent balance. Newton is on pace to have 113 carries, 14 fewer than he had last season. Throwing, he is completing a career-best 61.7 percent of his passes and his touchdown-to-interception ratio, 17 versus 9, is better than it has ever been.

So while Shula may have to delicately handle the balance of touches his running backs get, he has the comfort of knowing his quarterback will touch the ball on every play.

Mike Shula proving to be right choice

November, 1, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Shula hemmed and hawed to practically every question involving the efficiency of his quarterback and offense, giving a lot of "I don't know" type answers. He deflected most of the attention away from what he has done in his first season as offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers and toward the players -- on both sides of the ball.

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AP Photo/Chuck BurtonPanthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has eliminated confusing plays and terminology, allowing Cam Newton to better focus.
"I don't know if I brought anything to the table, other than as a staff we were hoping to keep things very similar to what we had built," Shula said. "We felt we had done a lot of good things at the end of the year."

That, in a nutshell, is why Shula was promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator.

Head coach Ron Rivera liked the direction the offense was headed at the end of last season when the Panthers won five of their last six games. He liked that the running game had become more prominent, better fitting the style and attitude he wanted.

He could have gone outside to hire a replacement for Rob Chudzinski, who left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. But his fear was an outsider's ideas might push aside much of what had been built.

"I didn't want that," Rivera said. "I wanted to keep the continuity. And Mike gave us the best opportunity."

So Shula was the right choice. He was the only choice. His style that sometimes is criticized for being too conservative was just what quarterback Cam Newton needed to take his game to the next level.

That has helped take the Panthers (4-3), winners of three straight games and four of their last five heading into Sunday's game against Atlanta, to the next level.

Shula saw that potential. When he made his pitch to Rivera he came simply with a playbook documenting the best of what Carolina did at the end of last season and how he would add to that.

"Mike's presentation was tremendous," Rivera said. "He did a heck of a job of showing what our offense was capable of."

Since then, Shula has been doing just what he promised. He's taken the best from an offense that averaged 30.5 points and 183.7 yards rushing the last four games of 2012 and done away with much of what didn't work during the first 12 when Carolina averaged 19.5 points and 112.7 yards rushing.

Newton has reached a comfort level that has allowed him to average an NFL-best 130.3 passer rating over the last three games, completing 77.3 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and no interceptions.

"The thing with Shula that has been different is probably holding everybody to a standard," Newton said.

More than one player noted that. But another key to Shula's success -- and maybe more significant -- has been giving players the freedom to voice an opinion and actually building the play-calling around those opinions.

"I love the way he listens to guys that are on the field," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "He will listen to in-the-game reports, and he'll ask directly [for input] at halftime and in the game. But the part that is phenomenal is when we go in the next series, he doesn't just listen to us and disregard us. He actually implements it and puts it in the game."

Best example: On fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 2-yard line Shula changed the play to one Smith suggested. The result was a 2-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Smith.

"Some of our biggest plays this year have come by making adjustments in the game," Smith said.

Shula also has changed some of the terminology. Not a lot, but enough that Newton doesn't go to the huddle, in his words, stuttering out the plays like he sometimes did under Chudzinski.

"He has done a good job cutting out some of the verbiage, cutting out some of the fringe plays and really focused in on what our core specialty is," tight end Greg Olsen said.

That core begins with the running game. It's not complicated or fancy. It's simply a continuation of what the Panthers did at the end of last season.

And now he gets another toy to play with in running back Jonathan Stewart, the team's second all-time leading rusher who will come off the physically unable to perform list Saturday.

So when Shula hems and haws on taking credit, it's because he really does believe the success is just a continuation of what was started last year.

"I'm not trying to sidestep," he said. "I just think we tried to get back to last year and just take the good stuff and just kind of build on that, try to fine tune the offense."

Double Coverage: Panthers at Bills

September, 12, 2013
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Manuel-NewtonGetty ImagesRookie QB EJ Manuel guides rebuilding Buffalo; Cam Newton's under pressure to win now in Carolina.

Following tough home losses Sunday, the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers look to get back on track in Week 2.

This game offers an intriguing quarterback battle between Bills rookie EJ Manuel, selected 16th overall this year, and the Panthers' Cam Newton, the top overall pick in 2011.

We'll hit on that matchup and more in our weekly "Double Coverage" conversation, so let's get it started:

Mike Rodak: David, it seemed like the Bills and the Panthers opened their seasons in similar ways. Both teams faced superior opponents: The Patriots and Seahawks are near the top of the AFC and NFC, respectively, while the Bills and Panthers are bottom-dwellers in their conferences. Yet, both teams kept it close. The Bills lost by two points on a late field goal, while the Panthers kept it within five points. There is a cautious sense of optimism around the Bills locker room right now. Is that also true down in Charlotte?

David Newton: Definitely optimism, which wasn't necessarily the case a year ago. The team feels it has more of an identity, an awareness of where it can go from here. Much of that identity is based around the defense, which established itself as one of the more solid units in the league by holding the potent Seattle offense to 12 points. Wide receiver Steve Smith, whether he was trying to inspire the rest of the team or because he actually believes it, set the tone by predicting that the Panthers will face Seattle again deep in January. I still don't see Carolina as a playoff team based on what its offense showed, but there is potential.

So both teams played top opponents close and lost. Now what? Is this a must-win for both if they have any hopes of being playoff contenders?

Rodak: I think it’s more of a must-win for Carolina. You look at the NFC South, and it’s stacked. If the Panthers want a shot at a wild-card spot, they might need to finish ahead of either Atlanta or New Orleans, and that’s a tall task. The Bills are in a weaker division, where an 0-2 start could have less of an impact. But still, not a good sign for Buffalo if it drops its first two, both at home.

The Bills spent a first-round pick this season on a quarterback in Manuel. The Panthers selected a quarterback, Newton, first overall in 2011. He’s now entering his third season. How does the team (and fans) feel about Newton’s development?

Newton: Agreed, it's much more of a must-win game for Carolina. An 0-2 start after getting out of the gate 1-6 a year ago will have the vultures swarming for coach Ron Rivera. It will have the critics pounding on Newton. As new general manager Dave Gettleman said before the season, it's time for Newton to win. Buffalo can write this off as a rebuilding season with a rookie quarterback; Carolina can't do that with Newton. I said before the season the Panthers had to start no worse than 2-1 to have a chance to be successful. The Seattle loss, as close as they came to pulling it out, wasn't unexpected. Sunday's is one of those winnable road games they can't afford to lose. There aren't many out there.

So what do you see this game coming down to?

Rodak: I think the Bills will need a better game out of C.J. Spiller. If he can get it going -- the Patriots shut him down Sunday, holding him to less than 3 yards per carry and per catch -- it opens up the Bills offense and gives Manuel a chance to take more shots downfield. The Panthers held the Seahawks to just 70 yards rushing and have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL, so it won’t be easy. If Spiller has another quiet day, not only will it upset his fantasy owners, but it will also be tough for the Bills to win.

What about for the Panthers?

Newton: It's going to come down to the Carolina offensive line and whether it can establish the run as well as New England did in Week 1 against the Bills. Right guard Garry Williams is gone for the year with an ACL/MCL tear. His replacement, Chris Scott, played well against Seattle. But Scott started on the left side, where Amini Silatolu was out with a hamstring injury. Silatolu is expected back this week, so if he holds up, the Panthers should be OK. But Carolina has to run effectively to make the offense under new coordinator Mike Shula click.

Cam Newton better than No. 100?

August, 19, 2013
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Cam NewtonAP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe Panthers like what they've seen from Cam Newton so far during training camp.
Let’s start this off with a trivia question: Whatever happened to Cam Newton?

Yeah, I know he's still the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. But why is Newton, the offensive rookie of the year for the 2011 season, no longer even mentioned breathlessly as one of the NFL’s top young quarterbacks?

It seems as if Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have made Newton an afterthought outside of Charlotte.

The latest example comes in ESPN.com’s list of the top 100 offensive players, which kicks off today. For the record, I had a vote and gave Newton high marks. But, apparently, I'm one of the few who thinks highly of Newton.

He came in at No. 100 on the list. He also came in as the No. 16 quarterback. Luck, Kaepernick, Griffin and Wilson all came in well ahead of Newton. So did Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, whose names rhyme with mediocrity, at least in my book.

I’m not saying Newton belongs in the upper echelon (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, the Manning brothers, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan) just yet. But I do think Newton is substantially better than the 100th-best offensive player in the league right now, and I think he could be a top-10 quarterback by the time this season is over.

The guy has thrown for 7,290 yards and 40 touchdowns in his first two seasons. He also has run for 1,447 yards and 22 touchdowns in that same time frame.

So why does it seem as though Newton is in the witness protection program whenever people talk about great players or great quarterbacks?

The answer is simple. Newton hasn’t won, and the way he has handled losing (pouting on the sideline and his body language in postgame interviews) hasn’t earned him fans among the national media.

But I think all that is about to change. I say that after having a one-on-one sit-down with one of the most guarded coaches I’ve ever covered. I say that after talking about Newton with Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

“I feel really good -- and anybody that knows me knows I usually don’t say things like that -- but I do," Shula said on a July morning in Spartanburg, S.C. “When I think about why I feel good, it’s because of the look in [Newton’s] eye. He’s highly motivated. When you get guys that are motivated and are going to listen and do the things you’re asking them to do, you’re way ahead of the game."

Maybe we’ll be able to forget the body language, because Shula knows Newton’s eye language better than just about anyone. Shula spent the past two seasons as Carolina’s quarterbacks coach before being promoted when Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Teammates also are noticing a difference in Newton.

“I think we’re getting ready at the quarterback position, which is the most important position on the field," center Ryan Kalil said. “Experience is a big part of that, and he’s growing. His leadership skills have gotten better, and he’s somebody that guys are looking up to. Those are all good things."

But the main reason I think Newton is in for a big season is because the Panthers finally have figured out how to use his unique skill set. They started off 2-8 last season when they were asking Newton to run the read-option often. They largely scrapped that in favor of a more conventional running game late last season and won five of their last six games. Expect that trend to continue.

The Panthers are ready to let DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart be running backs, and they’re ready to let Newton be just a quarterback.

“One of the things I’ve talked to him about is don’t let a day go by here in training camp where you don’t think about how you felt the first half of the season last year and then how you felt at the end of the season," Shula said. “And just think about that every day as you’re going through practice and use it as motivation."

Maybe, by the time this season is over, Newton no longer will be a forgotten man.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When the Carolina Panthers end a training camp practice, there’s a universal yell from the fans.

“Cam!" they shriek.

It’s an attempt to get quarterback Cam Newton to come sign autographs. It’s also a reminder that Newton’s popularity is greater than that of the 89 other players in camp combined.

“Imagine what it would be like if we win," a team employee said on a recent day while fans yelled Newton’s name.

Yeah, imagine the frenzy around Newton if the Panthers produced a winning season in his third year. That’s pretty much the objective, because coach Ron Rivera needs to win to keep his job, and this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2008 season. And it’s mostly up to Newton, who is somewhat a polarizing figure, to make it happen.

The guy is an attention magnet. He’s beloved by Carolina fans but is often bashed by the national media. Presumably, the negativity stems from episodes in which he pouted when things were going badly, and critics have questioned his leadership skills.

But those who know Newton best say what you see isn’t what you get. They say Newton is ready to take the Panthers to the playoffs.

“The thing that I really admire about Cam is, even through all the adversity and even through all of the stuff the media has tried to create that’s not true about him, he’s done a really good job of weathering those storms," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “His self-evaluation is phenomenal. He’s approached many guys and said, 'Look, I know I don’t do a great job with this or that,' and he’s the first one to tell you that he’s working on it and he’s going to do his best to make sure bad things don’t happen again. I’ve been around guys that are too prideful to ever say that or make an effort to do that.

“I’ve played around guys who will tell you, 'This is who I am, take it or leave it. I really don’t care what you think of me.' Cam’s not like that. That’s something that I really respect out of him, and that’s going to help not only with his teammates, but with himself."

Those who have spent the most time around Newton say the quarterback has grown immensely and is more than ready to be a leader.

“People have talked about him handling the ups and the downs," said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who worked as quarterbacks coach during Newton’s first two seasons. “We all hate to lose. You don’t ever want to get used to losing and justifying and saying, 'That’s OK, we can get them next week.' You want them to burn inside, but on the outside you have to manage that. It’s not golf. You’re not by yourself. You’ve got 10 other guys that feel just as bad as you do, so channel that feeling and get the most of not just yourself, but get the most out of those other guys. That’s what leadership is in my opinion."

If Newton can get the most out of himself and his teammates, the Panthers will be in the playoffs. And the Newton critics finally will be silenced.

"He's had the best first two seasons of any quarterback," general manager Dave Gettleman said. “The elephant in the room is the win-loss record. Now, it's time to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonRon Rivera and Carolina finished strong last season, and hope that momentum carries into this fall.
1. Ron Rivera needs to make the playoffs. Rivera needs to win, and he needs to do it quickly. The Panthers have gotten off to dismal starts in each of his first two seasons. Owner Jerry Richardson spent several days after last season debating whether he should keep Rivera.

Richardson ultimately decided that the team’s strong finish last season was a sign that Rivera had the Panthers pointed in the right direction. But Richardson is running out of patience.

Anything less than a playoff berth probably won’t be enough for Rivera to keep his job.

2. The offense needs to find an identity. Newton is talented in so many different ways that the Panthers haven’t figured out how to use him properly. That task is now up to Shula as he takes over the offense.

I think Shula has a chance to be one of this season’s success stories. In his previous stint as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s, Shula was bashed for being too conservative. But he didn’t have very talented personnel. He also was under instructions from coach Tony Dungy to keep things conservative.

Shula is too smart to be conservative in Carolina. He has a rare talent in Newton and good skill-position players such as DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. I can’t see Carolina’s offense being boring.

3. The secondary can make this defense great. On paper, Carolina’s front seven is as good as any in the league. But some very large questions remain in a secondary that wasn’t very good last season.

Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing. Because of salary-cap issues, the Panthers weren’t able to bring in any big names to patch up the secondary and settled for several midlevel free agents. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw out of the secondary during my visit to camp.

Mike Mitchell looks like he can fit nicely at strong safety. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence aren’t household names, but they’re smart veteran cornerbacks and they seem to have the edge on youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. Still, it remains to be seen how this secondary will match up in a division that includes wide receivers such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The way the team finished last season showed that the players have bought into Rivera. It also showed he’s grown as a coach. The Panthers made major changes to their offensive scheme after the dismal start and wound up winning five of their final six games.

If the Panthers can carry over that momentum, anything is possible. This is a team that’s been down for a while. But there are plenty of players with elite talent on this roster. This isn’t a team that is building from scratch. This is a team that simply is looking to turn a corner.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeJon Beason
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTo reach their goals, the Panthers could use a healthy season from linebacker Jon Beason.
Linebacker Jon Beason and Stewart have been unable to practice so far as they attempt to come back from injuries. Both are extremely talented players. But their injury histories are troubling.

It remains to be seen if Beason and Stewart can get back to being anywhere close to the players they once were.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • A lot of people rip on Carolina’s receiving corps and say it has no depth beyond Smith. I have to disagree with that after watching the Panthers in camp. I think Brandon LaFell is a much better No. 2 receiver than he gets credit for. I also think reclamation project Ted Ginn Jr. might pay off because he has elite speed, and Domenik Hixon gives the Panthers a steady veteran backup.
  • That new-found depth at wide receiver doesn’t bode well for David Gettis. I know he’s a fan favorite because he had a nice rookie season in 2010. But injuries have limited Gettis to only two games over the past two seasons. I don’t know whether Gettis still is dealing with injuries, but I watched him in camp and he didn’t look much like he did as a rookie.
  • Sixth-round draft pick Kenjon Barner is going to have an impact on this team in some way. The backfield is crowded, and the Panthers have plenty of other options in the return game. But Barner has explosive quickness, and I think the Panthers will find a way to get him on the field.
  • Even though he hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since the 2010 season, I think defensive tackle Colin Cole has a shot at making the roster. Cole is massive and can be a nice backup run-stuffer to rookie Star Lotulelei.
  • Maybe it’s a smokescreen, but I don’t think I saw a read-option play the entire time I was at Carolina’s camp.
  • Despite their salary-cap limitations, I think the Panthers made an excellent move by signing free-agent linebacker Chase Blackburn. Beason and Thomas Davis have a history of injuries. Blackburn has starting experience and can play all three linebacker positions.
  • I’m not sure the Panthers are sold on their depth on the offensive line. They’re taking a look at some young backups now, but I think they could look to add a veteran or two.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?

ATLANTA FALCONS

Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.

Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.

Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.

Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.

Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.

Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.

Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.

Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.

Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I’ll be heading out shortly to watch the Carolina Panthers open their minicamp.

Let’s take a look at five things I’ll be keeping a close eye on:

Cam Newton. For whatever reason, the quarterback is a magnet for scrutiny. I saw some signs of maturity the second half of last season and I’m curious to see if Newton is continuing to progress.

Mike Shula’s playbook. Shula replaced Rob Chudzinski as offensive coordinator. I’m thinking there’s a good chance Shula learned from what Chudzinski did last season. Early on, the Panthers were leaning heavily on Newton and the read option and not really using their running backs. The Panthers started 2-8. Then, they went to a more traditional running game and finished the season strong. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are talented running backs. The Panthers need to use them and let Newton be a quarterback.

Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. The Panthers used their first two draft picks on these two defensive tackles. I thought that was a great move because the Panthers have struggled in this area for far too long. Lotulelei is a classic run-stuffer and Short has the potential to bring an interior pass rush. If these guys are anywhere near as good as advertised, Carolina’s defense has a chance to be very good.

The defensive backfield. The Panthers didn’t make any big moves here and that was somewhat surprising. But general manger Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera know a lot more about football than I do. They must be confident that some of their mid-level free agents and some guys that were already on the roster can play.

The cluster at wide receiver. The Panthers have loaded up their depth behind starters Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell. They brought in free agents Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. to compete with Kealoha Pilares, Armanti Edwards, David Gettis and Joe Adams. That should create some competition and competition usually prompts someone to step up their game.

I'll be back with more on the Panthers after they finish their morning practice and interview session.
Last offseason, we spent a lot of time talking about how Atlanta’s Matt Ryan had bulked up and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman had dropped more than 20 pounds.

This offseason, there’s another NFC South quarterback with a reshaped body. Carolina’s Cam Newton told the media Wednesday he has dropped 12 pounds since last season. Newton said he now weighs 243 pounds.

Newton
Newton
Newton said the coaching staff did not ask him to lose weight.

“It's just me challenging myself to have an edge going into the season,’’ Newton said.

I don’t think Newton was out of shape last season. But a little less weight might make him a little more mobile.

Newton’s body isn’t the only thing that’s smaller this offseason. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach in Cleveland and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was promoted. I’m not expecting major changes in Carolina’s offense, but Newton said Shula has simplified it.

“There was a lot of verbiage that was in the offense before, but I think Shula’s main focus has been to simplify things,’’ Newton said. “Call words that are just words rather than just minimizing the syllables of each and every play. When you know what you have to do, you execute.’’

So there’s less of Newton and less language in the playbook. But that could lead to the Panthers getting more out of Newton, which would be huge. If the Panthers are going to be playoff contenders, they need Newton to take some steps forward in his third season in the league.
PanthersElsa/Getty ImagesThe Panthers plan to feature a power running game and Cam Newton's pocket passing next season.
We haven’t heard much about Cam Newton lately.

Since early last season, it seems Newton has been overshadowed by a bunch of young quarterbacks. Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III started winning and took a lot of attention off Newton, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.

But it would be a huge mistake for anyone to overlook Newton. Call it bouncing back, breaking through or whatever you want, but I’m predicting a big 2013 season from the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers. Yeah, I’ll even step out on a limb and say he has a better 2013 season than Wilson, Kaepernick, Luck and RG III.

Why?

Several reasons pop to mind, but let’s start with this -- Newton has more all-around talent than any of those guys.

Luck can pass nicely, but opposing defenses don’t have to game plan for his running ability. Wilson, RG III and Kaepernick each have some throwing ability, but they aren’t pure pocket passers, and their big 2012 seasons came largely because of their mobility.

Newton is capable of more than any of those guys, because he’s as mobile as RG III, Kaepernick and Wilson. At the same time, he’s as good a pocket passer as Luck.

A lot of people think Newton slumped in 2012. But that’s not necessarily true. His numbers were comparable to his rookie season, but his visibility lessened because the Panthers didn’t take the leap many expected.

They went 7-9 and were largely overlooked.

But you can’t overlook Newton and the Panthers headed into the 2013 season, and that takes us back to Newton’s rare ability. He is so talented, I don’t think Carolina’s coaching staff really knew how to maximize his ability in his first two seasons.

For reasons that never have been explained and I sure as heck can’t figure out, the Carolina coaching staff didn’t take advantage fully of what Newton brings or what else was on the roster at the start of last season.

Although the Panthers had a talented (and very pricey) backfield with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, they barely used that trio at the start of last season. Instead, they featured Newton heavily in the read-option early last season.

In other words, they turned their quarterback into a running back.

Opposing defenses didn’t have to worry much about Newton’s passing, and that was one of the major reasons the Panthers got off to a 2-8 start.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireA physical running game led by Jonathan Stewart could help quarterback Cam Newton turn the Panthers into a contender next season.
That changed down the stretch. The Panthers got back to using a power running game, and they let Newton be a pocket passer. They won enough games to save coach Ron Rivera’s job.

Rivera and his staff took notice of what happened late in the season, and that is another reason I think Newton is in for a big season. Rivera has said he wants to rely more heavily on the power running game in 2013.

In other words, it sounds like the Panthers are going to let their running backs be running backs, and they’re going to let Newton be a quarterback. That sounds to me like a formula for success.

Carolina is going through a change. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula is taking over the play-calling duties.

Shula had a reputation for being too conservative when he was the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, and the head coach at the University of Alabama. But, like Newton, I think Shula is ready for a breakout season.

Part of the reason Shula was so conservative in previous stops was because he didn’t have big-time talent at the skill positions. He has that talent now with Newton, the running backs, receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen.

I still expect Shula to be a bit more of a traditionalist than Chudzinski, but I think that’s a good thing. He’s going to rely on that running game more, and that’s going to open up the passing game for Newton.

Newton threw for more than 7,900 yards in his first two seasons. He also rushed for more than 700 yards in each of his first two seasons.

Newton’s legs are a valuable asset, and the Panthers can’t ignore that. The Panthers can use the threat of Newton’s running skills to keep defenses off balance, but they also need to keep their offense balanced.

I think they need to adjust things a bit and take an approach similar to what they were using at the end of last season. Scrap the read-option, or at least cut way back on it. Let Newton use his legs to scramble and keep plays alive.

But, first and foremost, let Newton be a passer.

There aren’t many quarterbacks in the league with Newton’s arm strength. The Panthers need to play to that strength.

If they do, Newton won’t be overlooked anymore, and this team could be in the playoffs.
After spending the last two seasons as the quarterbacks coach, Mike Shula has stepped up to the role of offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. But it sounds like he also is prepared to be a psychologist of sorts.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton and Mike Shula
Mike McCarn/AP PhotoCam Newton and Mike Shula have been working together with the Panthers for two seasons now.
Shula said it’s important for third-year quarterback Cam Newton to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check.

"The more you can continue to stay on an even plane and lead the group of guys around you, the more effective you are going to be as a quarterback," Shula said.

In his first two seasons, Newton has drawn criticism from fans for showing his emotions when things haven’t gone well. Even wide receiver Steve Smith once called out Newton for pouting on the sidelines. Shula said Newton has to stay on a more even keel.

"Probably the biggest thing for him is maintaining that balance," Shula said. "Because everything around you during the football season is going to be up and down."

Shula has plenty of other things to worry about as he puts his stamp on the offense. But helping Newton with his poise is a big part of the job.

The good news is that Shula and Newton already have a good relationship. Now that Shula has a bigger title, he might have even more influence, and Newton might be more open to trying to control his emotions.

Panthers need to utilize RBs

April, 4, 2013
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DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan StewartAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart led the NFL's most expensive backfield last season.
It’s Trivia Thursday, so let’s jump straight to the question.

What NFC South unit in 2012 was the most overpriced and underutilized, and helped get a general manager fired?

The answer is the Carolina Panthers’ backfield. Yes, in 2012, the trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert was more useless and more expensive than even former Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards.

That’s saying a lot because Edwards, who the Falcons dumped midway through last season, will go down as one of the all-time busts in division history. The difference is the situation with Edwards, who was messing with locker room chemistry, moved past the point where it could be repaired.

Carolina’s backfield still has a shot at redemption. A very good shot. For that to happen, though, coach Ron Rivera and his staff need to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert be running backs, and let quarterback Cam Newton be a quarterback.

“That's something we have to work on," Rivera said when asked about his situation at running back during the recent NFL owners meetings. “We've been talking about that. We reviewed the season, looked at how things unfolded. We have to find a way to really be able to rotate those guys and make sure everybody's getting enough quality touches. We'll continue to try to develop it, because our running back position is loaded, and at the end of the year we had a lot of success with it. So, we've got to make sure we find the right formula."

The formula shouldn’t be that difficult to find, because the talent is there. Williams and Stewart are very good tailbacks (with first-round draft status and 1,000-yard seasons on their résumés) and Tolbert can make an impact at tailback and fullback. Rivera and his staff simply have to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run.

But that was a problem last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers used a league-high $15.3 million in salary-cap space on running backs. But Newton ended up leading the team in rushing, yards per rush, runs of 20 yards or more, and rushing touchdowns.

For reasons that never have been fully explained, the Panthers came out of the gate last year letting Newton run the read option and ignoring the power-running game. It would have been one thing if that was translating into wins, but it wasn’t.

The Panthers lost six of their first seven games, and general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October. It’s easy to look at the backfield and Carolina’s salary-cap situation and blame all the Panthers’ problems on Hurney.

But shouldn’t Hurney, Rivera and the rest of the coaching staff have been on the same page when Williams was given a huge contract coming out of the 2011 lockout, when Stewart was given a big extension last summer and when Tolbert was signed as a free agent from San Diego last offseason? Shouldn’t it have been automatic that all three would get plenty of touches?

That didn’t happen, and here’s another stat for you: The Panthers spent $12,179 per rushing yard by their running backs last season. Only Jacksonville ($12,402) spent more per yard, and the Jaguars finished 2-14.

The Panthers finished 7-9, but that’s only because they started to change their offense in the second half of the season. They won five of their final six games because they went back to the power-running game. Williams had 210 yards in the season finale against New Orleans.

Rivera and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula need to keep that in mind, or else they’ll end up following Hurney out the door. I’m not saying the Panthers need to go back to the John Fox days and bring back Nick Goings to run draw plays on third-and-long. But there needs to be a little balance to this offense.

I’m not saying the Panthers should completely scrap the read-option. Newton is a threat any time the Panthers even give a read-option look. But when Newton’s a threat too often, Williams, Stewart and Tolbert aren’t threats at all.

They’re way too talented to waste another season. Besides, Rivera, who barely survived last season, needs to win this year.

The way to do that is to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run. Newton can run a little from time to time to keep defenses off balance, but the guy has an incredible arm, and the Panthers need to let him focus on being a quarterback.

Let the running backs do the running, and everything else will fall into place.

Cam Newton endorses Shula promotion

February, 1, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- The recent promotion of Mike Shula from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator by the Carolina Panthers got its most important endorsement Friday.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Pat Yasinskas/ESPN.comPanthers QB Cam Newton says he's excited to see what wrinkles Mike Shula will bring to the offense.
“I don’t think there was a better person that could come in and take over,’’ quarterback Cam Newton said Friday after a Gatorade Sports Science Institute news conference to talk about nutrition. “I’m excited about taking the next steps in the process with him.’’

Don’t underestimate the importance of Newton’s opinion on Shula. It might have had a lot to do with the promotion after Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Newton, after all, is the franchise in Carolina. Coach Ron Ron Rivera ultimately made the decision on the hire. But I have little doubt that Newton’s thoughts mattered.

I asked Newton if he and Rivera talked during a process, during which Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur also were interviewed. Newton said he and Rivera chatted and shared thoughts.

Newton said he and Shula have talked multiple times since the promotion.

“I believe it will be similar (to Chudzinski’s scheme), but you always have to evolve,’’ Newton said. “You can’t stay the same. If you do, you’re going to get schemed up. I’m looking forward to (Shula’s) twist on the offense. I’m as curious as everyone else to see what we’re going to be as far as an identity.’’
In the end, the Carolina Panthers wound up selecting the right offensive coordinator.

Joseph Person reports that quarterbacks coach Mike Shula has been promoted to fill the offensive coordinator spot that came open when Rob Chudzinski was hired as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

The Panthers interviewed Pat Shurmur and Hue Jackson from the outside. But staying inside was the smartest thing they could have done.

Shula knows the Chudzinski offense and isn’t likely to stray from it. He also has a good relationship with quarterback Cam Newton, and that might be the most important dynamic, because Newton is the franchise.

I know Shula has his detractors from his days as a head coach at the University of Alabama and as offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. But those situations were dramatically different, and Shula was pretty much destined to fail.

At Alabama, he came into a program that was dealing with NCAA issues and still reeling from the Mike Price fiasco. In Tampa Bay, Shula was running the conservative offense that coach Tony Dungy demanded, and he didn’t have much talent to work with.

Getting this job is Shula’s first legitimate chance to succeed. He has a talented quarterback in Newton, an offensive line anchored by Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, a deep backfield, a top receiver in Steve Smith, and a solid tight end in Greg Olsen.

This time, Shula’s hands aren’t tied, and people might finally realize this guy is a good coach.

Panthers should hand offense to Shula

January, 11, 2013
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With Rob Chudzinski leaving to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, a lot of Carolina fans have been clamoring for Norv Turner to become the new offensive coordinator.

But that might not even be possible. There are reports out there that Turner is likely to join Chudzinski in Cleveland.

If the Panthers don’t get Turner, who is close with Carolina coach Ron Rivera, it might not be as catastrophic as Carolina fans think. Maybe the best guy for the job already is on staff.

I say the Panthers simply should promote quarterbacks coach Mike Shula.

He knows Chudzinski’s offense. He has a close relationship with franchise quarterback Cam Newton and, now in his mid-40s, Shula is more than ready for the job.

Shula has his detractors, who point to his time as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator and as the University of Alabama’s head coach. Those people say Shula got those jobs simply because he was the son of Hall of Fame coach Don Shula.

I don’t think that was the case either time, but I can see where that perception came from. That kind of talk is only natural when you’re the son of Don Shula. A lot of people said Shula was too young to be the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay back in the 1990s, and too young to be the head coach at Alabama.

I don’t buy into that either. I covered Shula in his Tampa Bay days, and he was mature and studious. He just wasn’t in a good situation. Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy didn’t want a flashy offense, and the Bucs didn’t have the personnel to run one.

Shula ran an offense that was heavy on the running game and he got labeled as conservative, but I think that was only because his hands were tied by Dungy and the personnel he had to work with. Shula eventually was fired.

Shula then went to work as quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins. But he was thrust back into the spotlight in 2003 when he was hired as Alabama’s coach. That came on the heels of the Mike Price fiasco, Dennis Franchione’s departure and NCAA sanctions. It was an impossible situation.

Shula lasted four seasons at Alabama. He then did a stint as the quarterbacks coach in Jacksonville before moving to Carolina in 2011.

There are a lot of people out there that say Shula is just fine as a quarterbacks coach, but shouldn’t be anything more.

I’m not one of those people. I think Shula can succeed as an offensive coordinator -- under the right circumstances.

And I think Shula is a natural fit as Carolina’s offensive coordinator. He would provide continuity for Newton, and that might be the best thing you can do for a young quarterback. The current Panthers have way more offensive weapons than the Bucs did when Shula was calling their plays, and I don’t think he’d be nearly as conservative.

Unlike Tampa Bay and Alabama, this job would be a good situation for Shula.

It would be a situation where a good coach finally would have a chance to thrive.

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