Mike Shula proving to be right choice

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Shula hemmed and hawed to practically every question involving the efficiency of his quarterback and offense, giving a lot of "I don't know" type answers. He deflected most of the attention away from what he has done in his first season as offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers and toward the players -- on both sides of the ball.

"I don't know if I brought anything to the table, other than as a staff we were hoping to keep things very similar to what we had built," Shula said. "We felt we had done a lot of good things at the end of the year."

That, in a nutshell, is why Shula was promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator.

Head coach Ron Rivera liked the direction the offense was headed at the end of last season when the Panthers won five of their last six games. He liked that the running game had become more prominent, better fitting the style and attitude he wanted.

He could have gone outside to hire a replacement for Rob Chudzinski, who left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. But his fear was an outsider's ideas might push aside much of what had been built.

"I didn't want that," Rivera said. "I wanted to keep the continuity. And Mike gave us the best opportunity."

So Shula was the right choice. He was the only choice. His style that sometimes is criticized for being too conservative was just what quarterback Cam Newton needed to take his game to the next level.

That has helped take the Panthers (4-3), winners of three straight games and four of their last five heading into Sunday's game against Atlanta, to the next level.

Shula saw that potential. When he made his pitch to Rivera he came simply with a playbook documenting the best of what Carolina did at the end of last season and how he would add to that.

"Mike's presentation was tremendous," Rivera said. "He did a heck of a job of showing what our offense was capable of."

Since then, Shula has been doing just what he promised. He's taken the best from an offense that averaged 30.5 points and 183.7 yards rushing the last four games of 2012 and done away with much of what didn't work during the first 12 when Carolina averaged 19.5 points and 112.7 yards rushing.

Newton has reached a comfort level that has allowed him to average an NFL-best 130.3 passer rating over the last three games, completing 77.3 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and no interceptions.

"The thing with Shula that has been different is probably holding everybody to a standard," Newton said.

More than one player noted that. But another key to Shula's success -- and maybe more significant -- has been giving players the freedom to voice an opinion and actually building the play-calling around those opinions.

"I love the way he listens to guys that are on the field," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "He will listen to in-the-game reports, and he'll ask directly [for input] at halftime and in the game. But the part that is phenomenal is when we go in the next series, he doesn't just listen to us and disregard us. He actually implements it and puts it in the game."

Best example: On fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 2-yard line Shula changed the play to one Smith suggested. The result was a 2-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Smith.

"Some of our biggest plays this year have come by making adjustments in the game," Smith said.

Shula also has changed some of the terminology. Not a lot, but enough that Newton doesn't go to the huddle, in his words, stuttering out the plays like he sometimes did under Chudzinski.

"He has done a good job cutting out some of the verbiage, cutting out some of the fringe plays and really focused in on what our core specialty is," tight end Greg Olsen said.

That core begins with the running game. It's not complicated or fancy. It's simply a continuation of what the Panthers did at the end of last season.

And now he gets another toy to play with in running back Jonathan Stewart, the team's second all-time leading rusher who will come off the physically unable to perform list Saturday.

So when Shula hems and haws on taking credit, it's because he really does believe the success is just a continuation of what was started last year.

"I'm not trying to sidestep," he said. "I just think we tried to get back to last year and just take the good stuff and just kind of build on that, try to fine tune the offense."