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The Early Returns On Mike Shula Are Not Good

The Panthers ran a slow offense against Seattle

The Panthers ran a slow offense against Seattle.

Tom Brady and the Patriots ran 89 plays in week one. Chip Kelly’s Eagles ran 53 plays in the first half. The Denver hurry-up offense picked up 510 yards, and would have run more than their 68 plays had Peyton Manning stopped throwing touchdowns and prematurely ending drives.

But if it seemed like week one was played at turbo speed, you probably didn’t watch the Seahawks-Panthers game. Carolina finished with a league-low 49 offensive plays. For those who didn’t closely monitor the coordinator situation in Carolina, here’s a bit of background. Rob Chudzinski was the Panthers offensive coordinator the past two seasons. His team’s inconsistent play and poor record drew ire from some fans, but the overall impressive nature of the Carolina offense landed him the top job in Cleveland. With head coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat, he simply promoted quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator. Here’s what my buddy and Footballguys.com co-writer Jason Wood had to say about the change back in June:

Mike Shula last called plays in the NFL in 1999, his final season coaching under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay. Since then, Shula is better known as the guy who preceded Nick Saban at the University of Alabama and less for his abilities as an NFL offensive difference maker. In spite of his limited recent experience, … it was his relationship with and tutelage of Cam Newton that made him the obvious choice for the OC position.

Schematically, Shula is keeping the foundation of Chudzinski’s offense in place, but in an effort to expedite the pace he has simplified the terminology. By doing so, Cam Newton can get in and out of the huddle far faster and the Panthers can try to dictate tempo in a way that was impossible a season ago. Cam Newton explained in a recent interview, “Twins Right, Key Left, 631 Smash M sounds completely different than Twins Right Tampa…It comes out of your mouth faster. You get in the huddle, it’s the same exact play.”

The early returns on the up-tempo offense are not good — how did the team run just 49 plays against Seattle? Carolina was one of the few teams to have success on the ground in week one — the Panthers rushed for 134 yards on 5.2 yards per carry, placing them in the top six in both metrics. And while Cam Newton didn’t have a great game, he completed 70% of his passes, which usually leads to lots of plays. How does a team that runs well and throws only seven incomplete passes score just 7 points and get limited to 49 plays? As it turns out, Mike Shula bears some of the blame.

Let’s take a look at the traditional boxscore:

First downs1817
Net pass yards300119
Total yards370253

The Panthers won the running battle, had a practical push in first downs, and avoided sacks and penalties. Carolina lost the turnover battle, but the glaring item on this boxscore is the discrepancy in passing yards. Let’s dig a little deeper and pull up the drive chart:

Carolina1115:00CAR 20905:1039Punt
Seattle1109:50SEA 5301:561Punt
Carolina2107:54CAR 35302:086Punt
Seattle2105:46SEA 25300:280Punt
Carolina3105:18CAR 20401:5518Punt
Seattle3103:23SEA 171508:4774Field Goal
Carolina4209:36CAR 201106:2380Touchdown
Seattle4203:13SEA 20902:3861Fumble
Carolina5200:35CAR 19100:357End of Half
Seattle5315:00SEA 20302:117Punt
Seattle6312:49CAR 49301:507Punt
Carolina6310:59CAR 10604:2324Punt
Seattle7306:36SEA 35904:1443Field Goal
Carolina7302:22CAR 20704:2424Punt
Seattle8412:58SEA 26602:4574Touchdown
Carolina8410:13CAR 20904:4872Fumble
Seattle9405:25SEA 81205:2567End of Game

In the first half, the Panthers got the ball first but were limited to just four real drives.1 Why? One of the reasons is the team’s glacial pace — the Panthers opening drive lasted over five minutes despite featuring just nine plays and 39 yards worth of action. Carolina routinely took about 40 seconds between snaps on the opening drive.

The second problem: the next two drives were three- and four-and-outs after Carolina failed to convert two third-and-longs.

The fourth drive was an 80-yard march … in every sense of the word … for a touchdown. Carolina slapped together only 11 plays in 6:36 worth of action. On average, all 11-play drives last year took 5:11, and only 10% of all 11-play drives took at least six minutes and thirty-six seconds.

To be fair, the down-tempo drives sandwiched around the unsuccessful drives weren’t the only problems: Carolina’s defense allowed a 15-play, 8:47 drive. And while the Panthers forced three-and-outs on the first two Seattle drives, it was this long drive that resulted in Carolina having only one real possession in the second quarter.

The second half was even worse. The Seahawks had the ball first and last (more on this in a minute), which resulted in Carolina getting just three drives in the second half, and just one fourth quarter drive.

After forcing a Seattle three-and-out to open the second half, punt returner Josh Thomas fumbled, costing the Panthers a possession and valuable field position: even after forcing another three-and-out, Cam Newton and company took over at their own 10-yard line. From there, the Panthers moved like molasses, taking up 4:23 of game time on a six-play drive. How slow is that? The average six-play drive last year took just 2:39, and only 2% of all such drives were as long as the Panthers’ third quarter drive.

Carolina’s sixth drive of the game began at their own 10 with 2:22 left in the third quarter. A holding penalty stunted the drive, and the Panthers punted with 12:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks responded with a short drive for the eventual game-winning touchdown: Seattle scored in under three minutes, as Russell Wilson connected on a deep pass to Jermaine Kearse for the touchdown.

Trailing 12-7, Carolina gained possession at their own 20, and a couple of 15-yard penalties by Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor had Carolina at the Seattle 43 with 8:23 remaining. Three runs — by DeAngelo Williams, Newton, and then Tolbert — produced another first down, giving Carolina 1st-and-10 at the Seattle 32. Williams then picked up eight yards on first down. But on the next play, Earl Thomas forced a Williams fumble, and Seattle took over at their own eight.

With five Marshawn Lynch runs and four aggressive Russell Wilson passes (credit Pete Carroll for coaching intelligently), the Seahawks were able to pick up four first downs, allowing Wilson to kneel on the ball after the two minute warning.

Shula and Newton discuss the best way to anger Alabama fans

Shula and Newton discuss the best way to anger Alabama fans.

So how does a team only score 7 points? Losing two fumbles is a start, but the slow pace was another culprit (after all, the Giants scored 31 points despite six turnovers). According to data compiled by Jim Armstrong, the Panthers finished dead last in offensive tempo in week one. Carolina averaged an incredible 35.7 seconds between plays, a full four seconds slower than the next slowest teams (Indianapolis and Cincinnati).

Shula’s hire raised some eyebrows, but the early returns indicate an extremely conservative offense. That adjective isn’t just limited to the team’s tempo: In 2012, Newton led the league by averaging 13.8 yards per completion. In week 1, he averaged a mediocre 7.8 yards per completion, a huge tradeoff just to boost his completion percentage. Carolina’s two longest plays went for only 27 and 16 yards, a far cry from the aggressive offense we’ve seen in recent years. The Seahawks have a great defense, so it’s important not to overreact to week one. How the Panthers play this weekend in Buffalo should be revealing.

  1. I’m discounting the fifth drive, which was set up when, with 40 seconds remaining, Charles Johnson strip-sacked Russell Wilson. The Panthers recovered, but elected to just run Mike Tolbert for one play and head into the locker room with a 7-3 lead, so that wasn’t a real drive. []
  • TC

    Nice analysis. How many plays did Seattle get off? Just curious if Carolina opponents might suffer slower fantasy weeks because of Carolina’s slow pace.

  • Ian

    “And while Cam Newton didn’t have a great game, he completed 70% of his passes, which usually leads to lots of plays.”

    I don’t see why. Both teams completed passes at a very high rate, which means that the clock kept running after the vast majority of pass plays.

    Another reason for the low score is that two of the turnovers the teams committed occurred in the opponents’ red zone. That meant that a lot of clock was chewed up with no payoff, and the opponent doesn’t have the great field position you typically get after turnovers.

  • raynman

    Interesting article. Just a couple things to point out…minor detail first, Josh Thomas wasn’t the punt returner in the play he’s credited with the fumble. He was running in to block someone and fell down right where the ball was going to hit. Ted Ginn was supposed to be returning it and called a fair catch, but Thomas got in the way.

    Aside from that, when looking at that data you referenced at Football Outsiders, I noticed that the teams directly above the Panthers in secs/play were in order Colts, Bengals, Saints, Titans, Bears , and Chiefs. Of that list, aside from the Panthers, the Bengals were the only ones who lost, losing to one of the other teams in that group.

    Now looking at those who were among the quickest, the Bills, Packers, Browns, Ravens, Giants, Redskins…the top 6 quickest, all of them lost.

    I think the tempo may have been somewhat of a contributing factor, and as a Panthers fan who is no fan of Shula, I think that this might be a bit over played here. Both teams moved quite slowly all game. The difference is the Panthers had the lead until the 4th quarter. The Seahawks first of two possessions in the 4th resulted in them scoring. The next possession of the Panthers had them driving down the field on 9 plays from their own 20 down to the Seahawks 8 yard line where Williams fumbled the ball. Had he not fumbled that ball, with the tempo and momentum going with them to that point on that drive, very likely would have resulted in a TD.

    The point is, as conservative as the offense may have been, until that last fumble what they were doing was working because they had just lost the lead and were in good position to gain it back.

    Also, discussing the lack of big passing plays from Cam, that wasn’t in the game plan because there were always people downfield. Why didn’t Cam go to them? Part of the reason has to do with Seattle’s secondary. It would have been pretty risky to play to their strength. The other reason was that one of Newton’s bigger issues the past couple years has been the short/intermediate game. He worked towards correcting that and also trying to train himself to be more efficient. Because that was his focus more recently, that was where his eyes were going. I do wish he had taken more shots downfield, esp. because those opportunties were there, but he didn’t. That wasn’t on Shula, that was on Newton.

    By the way, several of Newton’s passes were drops made by receivers who usually are very reliable. Greg Olsen had two big ones and another was by Lafell on a play that ended up being called back because of a penalty. He really only had one pass that could be considered bad. The other incompletions were largely due to Seattle’s DBs breaking up the pass. Newton, even though he only passed for 125 yards and just one TD, played well in that he played smart. He finished with a 97.2 QBR. The TD throw to Smith, according to Smith himself, he was the third read on that play. The point of that is that Cam is paying closer attention to trying to make the smarter throws, unfortunately for him (and i guess Shula), he was plagued by drops at bad times, two lost fumbles (one of which cost them a possession) and a stingy defense (one of the elite D’s in the league) that didn’t give him much. Could he have done more to win the game? It could be argued that he did everything he could and were it not for the mistakes of others, what he did would have been enough…which is the story for many of his losses during his career.

    Overall, it was a good write-up, but there were certain contexts that were left out that skewed the big picture.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks raynman — I did not know about the Thomas/Ginn situation.

      Newton averaged just five net yards per pass — that’s not a good performance, and the fact that the Panthers scored 7 points makes it look even worse. But I didn’t watch a second of the game, since I was at the Jets game which was playing at the same time. I think it will be an interesting situations to monitor, so I appreciate the contribution of someone who watched the game.

      • raynman

        Yes, just 5 yards a pass, but again it’s a mixture of what the seattle DBs were giving him and where his mind was focused. We all know he’s quite capable of doing some damage to secondaries on deep balls. I think it’s just a matter of him being so focused (maybe to a fault) on the area that he wasn’t so good at in the past. The number of passes thrown wasn’t much different than in previous years. What is different was where his eyes were. It wasn’t downfield. My hope is that his eyes now get a more complete picture of the whole field.

        I have no idea, though, if the conservative nature of this game was an abberation or not, but against the Bills, Rivera was asked about the up-tempo offense of the Bills on contrast with what his own offense did and he questioned the mindset of an up-tempo offense saying basically that unless you can sustain drives, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot because then rather than flying downfield quicker, they are flying off the field quicker and then the other offense just has to eat up clock and keep the defense on the field and the up-tempo offense off.

        I expect that strategy to be used this week against the Bills. Force Manuel to make quick, pressured mistakes that either result in turnovers or quick three and outs and then, I suspect, go at a snails pace again while the offense is on the field. That could work, and it could bite them in the butt. What I don’t expect, tho, is another game of 5 yard passes, esp. with the Bills secondary in the shape that they are in. Gilmore is out and Byrd is more than likely out. Also, the Panthers will have Hixon (who said he was actually healthy lsat week) and Armanti Edwards both active. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s more targets for Newton on the field and will likely open things up downfield. After the presser on Monday, Rivera said that they had missed some opportunities downfield that could have helped and from the sound of it, that may have been a focus of work done this week.

        We’ll see, tho.

  • Guru

    “It could be argued that he did everything he could and were it not for the mistakes of others, what he did would have been enough…which is the story for many of his losses during his career.”

    Precisely. Newton didn’t play a great game, but neither did Brady against the Bills and Jets (4.80 NY/A through those games), and yet the Patriots are 2-0. The intuitive counter-response, of course, would be that Brady is doing this while playing with misfits at WR and TE, but nobody was talking about the differences in supporting casts when Brady was throwing the ball to Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker; as opposed to a less stellar Panthers WR core led by an aging Steve Smith. Not to also mention the fact Newton played the elite Seahawks defense.

    The mesmerizing, intoxicating power of the media narrative (along with the Panthers’ struggles to win games) has made it easy to pick on Newton. Chase’s writeups help to reinforce the fact that a lot more goes on towards winning football games than what just takes place at QB.