Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has had a couple of new toys to play with during training camp ... fidget spinners his sixth-grade daughter gave him when they were banned from her middle school.
Shula keeps one in his pocket every practice, along with pictures in his Wofford dorm room, to remind him of his family back home in the Charlotte area.
The fidget spinners aren’t the only toys Shula has in Spartanburg. Former general manager Dave Gettleman drafted him a couple of versatile, dynamic playmakers after the Panthers’ offense took a big step back in 2016 following their high-flying Super Bowl season.
Shula has been as impressed as everyone else with what first-round pick and former Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey has done at camp.
And though second-round pick Curtis Samuel, a wideout from Ohio State, has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, Shula is hopeful he and McCaffrey will spark an offense that slumped last season and lacked explosive plays.
“These guys haven’t played a snap yet,” Shula said Saturday. “But we feel like we’ve got guys that were productive in college and hopefully will be just as productive and more in the NFL.”
While McCaffrey and Samuel have become the fresh faces of the Panthers’ evolving offense, the man directing it is a 52-year-old father of three daughters who grew up in one of football’s most famous families.
And when the Panthers’ offense sagged last season under the weight of injuries to left tackle Michael Oher and center Ryan Kalil and a huge dip in production from Cam Newton, it was Shula who drew the bulk of the public wrath.
Shula says he doesn’t let the criticism bother him.
After all, he was Alabama’s coach for four years.
“I learned a long time ago, you win, people are going to say or write good things. You lose, people aren’t going to say or write good things,” Shula said while standing near the Jerry Richardson statue after Saturday’s practice at Wofford. “You don’t have enough time – either way – to focus on what other people are saying.
“If you do that, then I’d be cheating the head coach, the players, the other coaches. Because all of a sudden I’m occupied with what someone’s saying if we won or if we lost.”
A step back
During the Panthers’ Super Bowl run in 2015, they had the league’s highest-scoring offense (31.2 points per game) and were 11th in total offense (366.9 yards per game). Last year they were in the middle of the pack or worse in most offensive categories, including scoring (15th with 23.1 ppg) and total offense (21st, 343.7 ypg).
Tired of seeing Newton take a beating in and out of the pocket, Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked about re-shaping the offense to preserve his quarterback during the next phase of Newton’s career.
The Panthers are expected to employ fewer called runs with Newton while implementing more quick-hitting passes to get the ball out of his hands faster.
But Shula wasn’t about to overhaul an offense that was so successful in 2015. He hopes to follow the lead of division rival Atlanta, which boasted the league’s highest-scoring offense on the way to a Super Bowl appearance last season after finishing 21st in scoring in 2015.
“They weren’t lighting it up. They just kinda kept doing the same things, got better at it, made small tweaks,” Shula said. “They’ve got really good personnel and became more efficient. That’s how it goes.
“So if it needs stuff to be thrown out, if it needs stuff to be tweaked or executed better – obviously, with the coaches our No. 1 job is to make sure we’re giving our guys a chance and they know what to do so they can go play fast.”
Holding something back
The Panthers have installed most of their offense. But they haven’t shown all of it during the open camp practices or the exhibition opener – and don’t plan to.
“There’s some really good things and there’s some things that a lot of people haven’t seen, which is good,” Rivera said. “We’ll just keep developing the offense.”
Though Newton has not thrown in team drills for two weeks, he’s been involved in the installation periods. The Panthers also have had Newton make handoffs and pitches to work on timing while he continues his efforts to regain strength and flexibility in his shoulder.
In the meantime, backup Derek Anderson has taken most of the first-team repetitions.
Anderson, who’s played for three teams during a 12-year career, says Shula is the best coordinator he’s worked with in terms of listening to what his players are telling him about the defensive scheme and responding with in-game adjustments.
“We’ll go back and run plays that we haven’t even run in weeks,” Anderson said. “In ’15 what was so good was we made a lot of changes on the sidelines, communication at halftime. He stays the same. He’s always the same guy, tries to be positive.”
Shula might be the same guy, but this year he has some new gadgets. A restless Panthers fan base (and owner?) waits to see what he does with them.
“As coaches we all think we’re gurus, we can do as much as we want,” he said. “But you have to know your players, what their capability is, especially if they’re young. And not all of a sudden try to do too much, where they’re not good at anything.”