When he joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as offensive coordinator in 1996, Mike Shula was young and shy and came with an unflattering nickname.
S.O.D., which stands for son of Don. Yes, Mike’s father, Don, was a legendary coach and now he’s a Hall of Famer. On the field and off it, Shula often appeared scared. He was roundly criticized for conservative play calling.
And, then, there was that thing about his father always hanging over his head. The belief among the fans was that Shula got the job simply because of his last name. The belief among the fans was that coach Dungy hired Shula simply because of his last name.
But, these days, Shula, 51, is all grown up and isn’t being called any names. That’s because he’s running one of the league’s best offenses and could very well be on his way to a head coaching job next year. Last year, he helped the Panthers lead the league and was a quiet force behind quarterback Cam Newton winning the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. And Shula did all that without No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed last season with a knee injury.
This year, Benjamin is back, and that should mean the Panthers will be better on offense. So how did Shula go from being viewed as a buffoon who was in over his head to being considered an offensive guru?
It certainly wasn’t easy. To understand what his tenure was like in Tampa Bay, you have to look at Dungy and the front office. They kept Shula’s hands tied.
Dungy wanted a run-first, ball-control defense. Even if that wasn’t Shula’s preference he had no choice. The front office had been so busy working on building the foundation of a defense that would become great, that the offense got overlooked. He had Trent Dilfer at quarterback, and the passing game was terrible. Years later, Dilfer would admit that he didn’t work as hard as he should have, and he wasn’t as mature as he should have been.
Shula did the best he could with what he had, but that wasn’t very good. The fans were growing impatient and anyone who has followed the Buccaneers since the Glazers have owned the team knows that the family cares deeply about public perception and sometimes caves into it.
That’s what happened to Shula. By 1999, the Buccaneers had become regular playoff contenders. But the view from the fans was that the Buccaneers had a Super Bowl defense and a Pop Warner offense and the Glazers were hearing every bit of the criticism.
The Tampa Bay coaching staff was selected to coach in the Pro Bowl. Shula made the trip to Hawaii with his co-workers but left much earlier than they did. That’s because the Glazers got on a conference call with Dungy and told him to fire Shula. At first, Dungy refused, but the Glazers played hardball and told their head coach that if he didn’t fire Shula, Dungy would be out of a job. Dungy relented and fired Shula.
Shula ended up spending three years with the Miami Dolphins as the quarterback coach before he was hired by the University of Alabama, his alma mater, as the head coach. His four-year stint in Alabama was filled with the same criticism he got when he was with the Buccaneers. He coached quarterbacks for the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2007 through 2010.
In 2011, he got what would turn out to be the luckiest break of his career. He joined the Carolina Panthers to coach quarterbacks. He did that for two seasons. But when Rob Chudzinski left to become a head coach, Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator.
This time, he was ready and the job wasn’t too big for him. He was allowed to run the offense his way, and that’s much different from the Tampa Bay and Alabama days. That offense is working well because Shula has horses that he never had before.
Start with Newton, who has the league’s most rounded skill set of all the quarterbacks in the league. Yeah, Newton would do well with any coordinator. But he’s excelling with Shula because he’s allowed to do what he does best. Then, look at a supporting cast that includes Benjamin, tight end Greg Olson and running back Jonathan Stewart.
For the first time in his career, Shula has an offense with talent. That could lead to another first. If Shula keeps Carolina’s production up, he could end up being an NFL head coach for the first time.