Carolina Offense Still Hitting on Few Cylinders

Hello, folks. Been a little while! I'm posting to say the things I think all fans of the Carolina Panthers are worrying about - the lackluster offense we've seen through two games despite an infusion of talent at the skill positions. 

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I do think there are multiple dynamics at work here; not the least of it being Cam Newton's surgically-repaired rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Especially this last game against the Buffalo Bills, Cam showed off the missile launcher he has. I don't see anything wrong with his arm strength, but he's missed multiple (and I DO mean MULTIPLE) wide-open receivers so far in 2017. 

That much, I think we can attribute to being behind in his rehab. Well, not so much "behind" but, as he didn't have surgery until March 30th, a normal recovery but with a lot of rust still being shaken off. When Cam misses, he has always tended to miss "high," and that's precisely what we've been seeing. Thank goodness the schedule has been kind these first two games not to mention playing a weaker team in their home opener this past weekend, then this coming one at home against the Saints.

The defense has won both of the first two games, having given up only 3 points in each contest. This gives the offense time to get settled down and integrate all these new faces like Christian McCaffrey, Russell Shepard, and Damiere Byrd while those who remain without the proverbial "light bulb" having gone on yet (I'm talking about you, Funch) have a little more time to "get it."

In Funch's case, last week gave me some hope about him but it's going to take more than a decent week of production against a bad team to do it. In his favor, he had it against the Bills, whose Head Coach knows our team better than anyone else we'll face (including San Fran or Atlanta), as Sean McDermott was, of course, our Defensive Coordinator for a handful of seasons before 2017's full-on Head Coaching gig.

I think Cam will come around with time. I've been watching his footwork especially since the first snap of game one and, even on his misses, his footwork hasn't been that bad. Sure, he's had a couple of missed targets with poor footwork, but that seems more the exception than the rule, so in his case I really do think reps and practice with these new kids on the block will help and that Cam's performance will only get better, health willing, from here on out.

Historical Parallel and Two Degrees of Separation from the Olivehead

If the offense doesn't improve markedly by week four, let's just say the team isn't Six Degrees of Separation away from what I call "Olivadotti Syndrome" and a VERY interesting (if a bit lengthy to explain) parallel.

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Tom Olivadotti ("Olivehead" is what the fans called him, given all the draft picks he failed to mesh into a consistent, cohesive unit) was Don Shula's DC under much of Dan Marino's tenure, and the one individual I blame the most for Marino's failure to ever win a Super Bowl. The Miami Dolphins kept drafting defenders early and kept missing -- names like the vaunted Erik Kumerow and Joey Bosa's Dad, John, in the first round were common. Joey has already surpassed his father's career sack numbers, whose "career" lasted only 3 seasons (remember - a first-round pick!), and his story was rather typical of the drafting done by the Dolphins on the defensive side. Yet, these same people that talk down a Dan Marino are the same ones who repeat the phrase "defense wins championships." Kinda hard, then,  for ANY QB to "win championships" while his defense is consistently about 20th or worse (out of 30 teams instead of 32 for most of Marino's career). For the record, Marino-led Miami teams had one losing season during his 1988; Olivadotti's second season as Defensive Coordinator, and largely due to the potency of the offensive side of the ball as the team consistently ranked in the top-ten in yardage. Below, I included all seasons since Olivadotti's first so you can see the column headers easily:

defensive rankings for tom olivadotti 1987-1995

defensive rankings for tom olivadotti 1987-1995

Carolina won't have that problem, and if the offense doesn't get markedly more explosive by mid-season, we'll only have a single degree of separation from Tom Olivadotti's tenure in South Florida. Olivadotti --> Don Shula --> Mike Shula. Given the younger Shula's proximity to his father, I'd even say it's a half a degree if you want to split hairs. It's this personal history that I see repeating itself in Mike's career track thus far...only from different sides of the football.

Papa Don didn't fire Olivadotti, btw. 1995 was Don Shula's last before "retiring."

In fact, looking at the two, Mike's "career path" has been similar to The Olivehead's thus far; the Panthers have had an above-average offense ONCE under his tenure. He became DC in 2013 and, including the 2 games this season, the overall offensive rankings were: 18, 19, 1 (2015 - Cam's MVP season), 15, and this season so far ranking 22nd...against poor competition.

Cam (along with Marino) lost the Super Bowl that the two individuals I'm comparing here (Olivadotti and Mike Shula) had their best coaching successes in. Eerie, and I'm even giving Shula the benefit of the doubt by using points scored...remember Cam's "dunking on defenders?" That's Shula's answer to red-zone issues, and, while still an option, is not the primary one he was in 2015. Shula-led offenses in Carolina have been better than average only once in yardage, again, in 2015 when they were 11th. 

ALL other seasons under Shula, the offense hasn't ranked higher than 15th in points scored OR in yardage gained. 

Offensive rankings under mike shula

Offensive rankings under mike shula

Olivadotti was the DC in Miami from 1987-1995. Marino went to the Super Bowl in 1985 (the 1984 season, his second year in the NFL) after posting the then-greatest single season by a QB in NFL history and, curiously, before Olivehead was even hired. The lone really good year on defense (7th overall in yards allowed in 1990; 4th in points allowed) coincided with a more balanced offense (for the Marino years) and the squad went 12-4, and likely helped to keep him (Olivehead) around longer than he should have stayed. To save you from clicking/looking it up, the Dolphins' defensive rankings under Olivadotti were: 26, 26, 24, 7 (the 12-4 year), 25, 10 (not too bad - 'fins went 11-5), 20, 19, and 16th in his final season...and remember, Marino was a guy with a lot more career TD passes (420) than career sacks taken (270), so it wasn't as if Marino taking sacks was putting the defense in holes with a bunch of sack/fumbles. At least 26-27 other teams would have killed to have Dan Marino calling the signals.

So, summing up for Olivehead, that's 2 of 9 seasons being "above average" and I'm being kind with the "great" season just because I'm a nice guy. No wonder Marino aired it out so much - he played from behind and had a ton of 4th-quarter comebacks that the ignorant among us ignore in calling Marino a "choker." But, that's today's society for you: take a cursory look for the first thing that supports your position and hammer away at it without doing honest research and the phenomenon is at LEAST as pervasive in sporting fans' circles as it is in political ones...after all, "fan" is short for "fanatic" which is hardly overflowing with an unbiased nature.

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Mike Shula is at his own Career Crossroad

Mike Shula, while on the other side of the coordinating efforts, has had that "one great year," just as the Tom Olivadotti comparison shows, and that recent MVP season from Cam was as much a nod to Cam's rushing ability as anything. I really do think those 10 rushing TDs are what made the difference that year between Cam getting the award as opposed to the "no-threat to run" QBs that were in his midst like Brady and, that particular season, Carson Palmer.

I really am hoping that Shula puts things together in time for a massive stretch-run made possible mostly by our defense, but the offense does have to hold up their end of the bargain in the process, and my fear is that Shula isn't up to it AND he might NOT get replaced due to his recent success with Cam, and that the Head Honcho (whoever it may be - hopefully still not Hurney) will give him undue credit and hold on to him. That 2015 offense was driven by three factors: Cam's passing, Cam's rushing, and a great defense to keep the offensive playbook wide-open at pretty much all times. The Super Bowl exposed the deficiencies at the offensive tackle positions, both of which have been addressed, so Shula has nowhere to stand if the Panthers' offense ranks anywhere outside about the top-ten with the additions made. All Mike Shula did was unleash a veritable beast of an athlete on NFL defenses, and a beast that could only take so many hits before Father Time starts to say "enough, already!"

As for the lack of production from McCaffrey so far, again, it's partly on the OC. Sure, "CMC" is a rookie and I give him time to acclimate. Derek Barnett was my fave at 8th overall as he beat Reggie White's University of Tennessee career sacks record, but he's a Philadelphia Eagle now, so of course I want Christian to succeed. Thus far through two games, he has been underwhelming, but part of THAT is the fact that defenses are keying on stopping him above anyone else. Now, the team is without TE Greg Olsen for AT LEAST the next eight weeks, as he was put on Injured Reserve/designated to return just this week.

What all this long-windedness by Yours Truly means is that Mike Shula has a more difficult job in front of him now than he did just in week two as his own climb just got tougher. 

I've never been a "fan" of Shula's as an OC. The 2015 Super Bowl splayed wide open his lack of ability to adjust to what the better defenses can do to his plans as he was bailed out (15-1) largely by Cam's electric season as well as a shoestring catch by Greg Olsen on a 4th down in a game down the stretch. Did I mention having a good defense?

So, it's time for us to see what Mike Shula has. Does he have it in him to take an offensive unit that has been struggling, and now missing its most important non-QB offensive player to a top-ten season?

If the efforts against the lowly 49'ers and Bills are any sign, we're in for another long season once the college teams early on the schedule are done with.

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Lastly, the Professor and I were chatting on Facebook for a few minutes yesterday and he pointed out that Gary Barnidge is still out there, unsigned. If the Panthers can't/won't go get him about 6 pm today, I'll really have to wonder about any issues about Barnidge that may not be publicly known, but otherwise it would seem plain as day that he's the guy to go out and pick up to replace Olsen for as long as is necessary. Ed Dickson's certainly not up to the task, and Barnidge has shown flashes of Pro-Bowl production in the past, mainly in Cleveland of all places.

If Barnidge can produce in Cleveland, and we've lost Olsen, then what's the delay? I mean, if rookie TE Bucky Hodges were the response, I'd think he'd at least have been promoted from the practice squad, but another rookie -- FB "Tank" Armah -- is now on the 53-man roster. Perhaps he'll fill an H-back role, but we'll have to keep watching to see how things go there.

No, I think a non-playoff run this season could cause the Big Cat to step in, once again, and make some decisions. In hindsight, letting GM Dave Gettleman walk wasn't such a bad idea in that he was starting to make things difficult for the Panthers to acquire in-demand veterans, given the way he parted ways with four or five players - Smitty being the most infamous example - and with a poor showing by an offense that was really boosted in a big way in the off-season in getting low-priced free agents (like Shepard), Homecoming talent (Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn) and via the NFL Draft. Notice that NO "big free agents" were signed that didn't have some connection to the team in the past. 

Now, the chips are actually on the table and the Panthers have dodged the issue by being dealt some GREAT hands early. The defense can't hold EVERY team to three points, the team has lost the most important player on offense not named Newton, and the schedule can (and will) only get tougher after week three. Week four, playing on the home field of last season's Super Bowl Champions, should tell us all what we need to know. 

If the Panthers are losing games because of a difficulty in scoring, well, there are only so many boxes to check and Shula's job may be the next on the list..."history" shows quite an interesting parallel between his career path and that of one of his Dad's underlings, and if we go by that, look for yet another humdrum season from the offensive side of the ball. Hopefully, the Big Cat, Rivera, and whoever the GM is at season's end will see the real problem: Mike Shula is not the winner his father was.

 -- Ken Dye AKA The Commish (but gone from Twitter for my own reasons)