SEATTLE -- By any measure, the Carolina Panthers' offense was a disappointment in 2012. What was expected to be a potent run/pass combination became a relative debacle in which far too much was placed on Cam Newton's shoulders following his record-breaking rookie season of 2011. The offensive balance was lost, and it took half a season for the Panthers to set things right. Carolina moved from dead last in the NFL in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency metrics in 2010, to fourth in '11, and down to 10th in '12. Carolina's response to a 7-9 season was to fire general mamager Marty Hurney, nearly fire head coach Ron Rivera and replace offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski (now the Cleveland Browns' head coach) with former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula.
Panthers receiver Steve Smith conducted a conference call on Wednesday morning with the Seattle media in preparation for the Panthers' Sunday opener with the Seattle Seahawks. When I asked Smith how things might be different under Shula, he went in a different direction than I expected -- throwing Chudzinski under the bus.
"I think it was really a power move by the former offensive coordinator [Chudzinski] -- he was really positioning himself and trying to show, 'Hey I'm capable,'" Smith said. "I think he was applying for a head coaching job, and our offense kind of suffered because of that. At times, we got kind of cute and did things that weren't necessarily us. Underutilizing Mike Tolbert -- all kinds of different things. We're out of that, the past is in the past, and we're moving forward. Coach Shula's going to change things up, and that's what's happened so far."
The relative underuse of Tolbert was one of the more curious things about the Panthers' offense. Carolina signed the former San Diego Chargers' red-zone star -- the perfect kind of bruising, bullish back for the Panthers' smash-mouth running style -- to a four-year, $8.4 million contract in March 2012, and inexplicably let his workload diminish. Tolbert still scored seven rushing touchdowns, but he carried the ball just 23 times in the red zone in 2012, as opposed to 59 carries in '11, and 69 carries in '10, when he set a career high with 11 rushing scores. It was the best of many examples of how Chudzinski had gone out of sync with his own personnel -- for whatever reason.
So, are things different with Shula?
"I can't really say how much, but it's different. Just the little important things -- over-verbiage and some other things [from last year] that seem small, but we're focusing more on the details. That part is very, very important, and I think it's the difference."
When I talked with Newton about those differences in May, he said some of the same things about increased communication, without any of the other concerns.
"Coach Chudzinski was a key to our success," Newton told me then. "He obviously moved onward and upward, and Coach Shula is going to pick it up and make a success on his own by putting the offense in the best positions possible. So for us, we want to take what we've started here and make it easier for us to communicate, hone in on our communication skills, and make everyone play faster." According to Steve Smith, everyone's already playing happier, and there was nowhere to go but up.