A Tale of Two Minds: Mike Shula vs. Norv Turner
Hello Panther fans, Huddlers and non-Huddlers alike! FAIR WARNING: THIS POST IS LOOOOONG. As in, maybe one of the longest ever posted on the Huddle, not joking.
As soon as we received the joyous news that Mike Shula was being relieved of his duties and would be replaced by the storied Norv Turner, I got the idea to compare the careers of the two men. This task seemed easy on its face, but as I began to dive into stats, it became a very daunting task. I pressed through, however, to give you all a smorgasbord of food for thought. I began by asking myself what the major indicators of an offense’s prowess are and settled on the following categories:
First Down percentage (first downs achieved divided by overall offensive plays run)
Passing Yards per game
Rushing Yards per game
Points per game
Time of Possession
Total Big Plays (passing and rushing plays of 20+ yards)
Final Record, and
Season Result (Playoff finish, if any)
I am most proud, specifically, of the “Big Plays” statistic. Its not an original thought, but it required extensive work to compile because, for some reason, the total number of big plays an offense successfully achieved was not readily available anywhere. NFL.com listed plays of 20+ and 40+ yards in separate columns on both their passing and rushing stat pages for each year. But this required cycling through both the passing page and the rushing page for each year between 1991 and 2017. Unfortunately, there was no easier way. I looked. Lol. But my friends, I gladly did this for the integrity of my analysis. How can you judge an offense without talking about its big play capability? You can’t.
I come prepared with charts and stats and discussion of team rosters and ownership and anything else that has come to my mind in the process. My goal was to be as in depth as possible to paint as accurate a picture of each offense as possible. This way, Panthers fans have an idea what we are leaving behind in Mike Shula, and what we are to expect with Norv Turner. So, lets dive in, shall we? First, a bit of history.
Sixty-five-year-old Norval Eugene Turner began his coaching career as a twenty-three-year-old graduate assistant for Oregon’s football program in 1975. He was hired on the following year at USC as wide receivers coach under the incoming John Robinson regime. He went on to coach defensive backs and quarterbacks until 1983. Robinson brought on Ted Tollner as offensive coordinator in 1982, and Tollner was promoted to Head Coach the following year when Robinson left for the Los Angeles Rams. Turner was then promoted to offensive coordinator in 1984 by Tollner. Turner’s familiarity with success started early since under these two head coaches, the Trojans attended bowl games in 7 out of 10 seasons. USC won 6 of those 7 bowl games and was selected to be the 1978 National Champion by the Coaches Poll. They were not uncontested however, as Bear Bryant’s Alabama team took the AP Poll that year. Robinson and Tollner themselves were offensive minds: Robinson served as USC’s offensive coordinator from 1972 to 1974 before he was promoted to Head Coach, and Tollner served as San Diego State’s offensive coordinator from 1973 to 1980. One other item of note: John Robinson is a College Football Hall of Fame coach (inducted in 2010), and Turner began his coaching career under his tutelage.
In 1985, Turner’s old friend John Robinson coaxed him away from the college game to coach for the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams as wide receivers coach. This would be a permanent move for Turner, unlike Robinson who returned to college football in 1993. Under Robinson in the NFL, Turner coached in two NFC Championship games and helped lead the Rams to a playoff berth in 4 out of 6 seasons, including one Division Championship in Turner’s first year. This was no small feat, as the Rams were in the same division as the decade’s dominant team, the 49ers. In 1991, NFL and College Football Halls of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson hired Turner away from the Rams to be the offensive coordinator for the next decade’s dominant team: the Dallas Cowboys.
Jimmy Johnson was no stranger to success at this point in his illustrious career. He had turned around an inconsistent Oklahoma State program and had directly led Miami to a National Championship in 1987. The Hurricanes also won the National Championship under Dennis Erickson the year after Johnson’s departure, so it could be argued that Johnson had a hand in that title as well via recruiting. Johnson’s tenure in Miami had been the most prolific the school had seen in its existence to date and included two undefeated seasons.
By the time Norv Turner replaced none other than David Shula (brother to Mike and son of the legend himself, Don) as offensive coordinator in Dallas, Johnson already had the Cowboys on the rise. Turner’s first gig as an NFL offensive coordinator went swimmingly, earning a playoff berth his first season followed by back-to-back Super Bowl Championships. All was not well in paradise, however. Amidst turmoil between Jerry Jones and Johnson, Turner took his leave to become Head Coach of the Washington Redskins in 1994.
Turner’s early encounters with success under the likes of Robinson and Johnson for nearly two decades had to have made him confident in his own ability to lead a team to success as well. I’m sure many pundits, fans, players, and underling coaches felt the same as Turner shaped his 1994 Redskins team. Unfortunately for Turner, he would not find sustained success again for 13 years, and then only for a few years before another long drought. Turner did well as Head Coach of the San Diego Chargers from 2007 to 2009 but fell off afterward and was eventually fired after the 2012 season. He was hired as the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 under Mike Zimmer and was beginning to turn their offense around when he suddenly left the team after seven games in 2016. He left the Vikings with a 23-16 record.
Turner probably does not deserve all the blame for the lack of success following his departure from the Cowboys. Those same Cowboys remained a force in the NFC East for the rest of the 90’s, returning to the playoffs 4 more times out of 5 seasons and winning another Super Bowl in 1995. After finding little success with the Redskins, Turner tried his hand as offensive coordinator with the Chargers in 2001 before Head Coach Mike Riley was fired and his staff replaced. Turner was then hired on with the Dolphins under Dave Wannstedt (his colleague on the defensive side of the ball under Jimmy Johnson in Dallas) for a couple years before Al Davis gave him a better deal on the West Coast with the Raiders in 2004. Davis, however, was not known for his patience and his Raiders were the definition of League cellar-dwellers in the mid-2000s. Turner was fired after the 2005 season and was subsequently hired by the 49ers as offensive coordinator for the 2006 season. It seemed that Turner could not get over his desire to be a head coach, because when San Diego called in 2007, Turner answered. After being fired six seasons later, Turner went back to offensive coordinator and another dysfunctional team: the 2013 Cleveland Browns under the leadership of first time Head Coach Rob Chudzinski, recently departed from our very own Panthers. This experiment lasted only a year before Turner left for greener, and more stable, pastures in Minnesota.
The Chargers and Redskins aside, this list of teams tends to earn Turner my sympathy. He obviously wanted to be a Head Coach but simply didn’t find the success he’s longed for in such a leadership role, save for his tenure in San Diego. Turner knows what success tastes like. He found it with a talented Cowboys roster that brought him to the pinnacle of his young career. He found it with a talented Chargers roster where as a Head Coach, he still called the offensive plays on the field. He was beginning to find it with an up-and-coming Minnesota roster before seeming to lose his passion for coaching. Are we seeing a common thread here? When Norv Turner has a talented roster and complete control of the playcalling, success has usually followed. He has said that he would only come back to coaching for the right situation, so let’s hope whatever passion he lost in 2016 has been rekindled since he chose to come back to coach the Carolina Panthers and their Cam Newton-led offense.
When your father is one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time, your name commands respect. Mike Shula was born during his father’s tenure as Head Coach of the Baltimore Colts, but his formative memories are probably from when his father was Head Coach of the Miami Dolphins. Mike Shula was 7 and a half years old when his dad Don didn’t lose a game at all in the 1972 season and post-season, winning Super Bowl VII. Mike watched as dear old Dad went back and won the Big Game again the next year too. Surely this made an impression on little Mike and inspired him to follow in his father’s footsteps to be an NFL coach. By the time Don Shula retired in 1995, he had become the NFL’s all-time winningest Head Coach, and Mike was there to see it all.
In 1984, Mike started at quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide, one year removed from Bear Bryant’s retirement. After 3 seasons, Head Coach Ray Perkins moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers amongst backlash from Alabama alumni for his lackluster performance at the school. Perkins had followed in the footsteps of Bryant and was unable to replicate Bryant’s success, but it also helped that Tampa was offering him a sizeable contract. It matters that Perkins went to Tampa Bay, because he drafted his young quarterback Mike from back at Alabama to try to build a roster for the 1987 Buccaneers. Mike’s professional playing career was short lived however, as he moved from playing to coaching the following year. Tampa Bay retained him as an offensive assistant and he continued there until 1991. Under Perkins, Shula did not have the same caliber of success that Norv Turner had experienced under John Robinson and Jimmy Johnson. Perkins was an offensive minded coach, trying his hand in a few different places before Alabama, but he didn’t have any real success until after Mike Shula had left his circle for good. As for Mike, dear old Dad hired him on in Miami as a coaches’ assistant in 1991 after Perkins and his staff were purged by the Bucs that offseason. The Dolphins were mediocre in 1991, but in 1992 they went 11-5 and advanced to the conference title game. They did not win however, being beat by the snakebit Buffalo Bills (who went on to lose their third straight Super Bowl (holy sh*t)). Following this defeat, Mike left Don for Chicago to be the Bears’ tight ends coach under Dave Wannstedt. The Bears missed the playoffs in Shula’s first year, lost in the divisional round in 1994, and failed again to make the playoffs in 1995. Interesting fact: Mike Shula is 1-0 against his father, winning with the Bears in 1994.
With his father retiring, Tampa Bay calling again, and Wannstedt’s staff in Chicago being purged by the brass, Mike Shula went back to the Buccaneers in 1996 to take control of an offense as a coach for the first time in his career. It seemed like a good situation. First time Head Coach Tony Dungy needed an offensive coordinator to lead his new team. Who better than the son of the legendary Don Shula? The kid had seen a few winning seasons and playoff berths by this point, so he surely seemed like he had high upside. Shula did not live up to these expectations. His offense did not rise out of the doldrums over the next four seasons. The team did earn two playoff berths including an appearance in the 1999 NFC Championship Game against the St. Louis Rams, but one would be hard pressed to say that Shula helped the team in that effort. Dungy obviously felt that way, relieving Shula of duty following the loss to the Rams in the conference championship. Dungy was not an offensively-minded coach. He had played and coached defense only before his stint in Tampa Bay. This is probably why Dungy was comfortable giving Shula a chance in the first place, and why he stuck with Shula for so long. He just didn't know better. The Buccaneers’ offense did not get much better after Shula left, however, and Dungy himself was fired two seasons later after the team’s third straight playoff appearance, and second straight one-and-done.
Shula returned to Miami for the 2000 season as quarterbacks coach for a familiar face: Head Coach Dave Wannstedt, who had also worked with Norv Turner in Dallas under Jimmy Johnson from ’91 to ’93. Johnson had actually hired Wannstedt to be his defensive coordinator in Miami in 1999 and, when Johnson retired, Wannstedt succeeded him following the 2000 postseason. Shula stayed on with Miami until Alabama coaxed him away for the 2003 season. Interesting fact… the careers of Mike Shula and Norv Turner crossed paths in 2002. As you may remember from earlier, Turner was hired by Miami in 2002 as offensive coordinator. Thus, Turner and Shula actually worked with each other for a year. How did the Dolphins do that season? They went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. The Dolphins had reached the playoffs each of Shula’s first two years back in Miami, winning the AFC East in 2000 and earning a wild card berth in 2001. Then, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey left for a head coaching gig at Georgia Tech in 2002, and Turner was hired as his replacement. Turner helped the Dolphins reach a 10-6 record in 2003, but the team still missed the playoffs and, as was discussed, Turner left after that season to be head coach of the Raiders.
One other note, Mike Shula worked under offensive mind Chan Gailey for two seasons. Gailey’s longest tenures with any teams were 5 years each with the Denver Broncos (between 1985 and 1990) and Georgia Tech (from 2002 to 2007). There was also a four-year stint in the 90’s with the Steelers, where Pittsburgh made the playoffs every year. Gailey has been a sought-after commodity for many teams (he changed teams 14 times in his coaching career), but has never really stuck anywhere but Denver, Pittsburgh, and GT. By the time he and Mike Shula met, Gailey had been a part of four Super Bowl teams (all lost the big game) and one Division II Championship team in college (Troy). His teams rarely missed the playoffs or bowl games, and this pattern continued until 2008 with the Kansas City Chiefs. Gailey didn’t find much success after his time at Georgia Tech and has retired, most recently coaching the New York Jets in 2016. Regardless of the anticlimactic finish to Gailey’s career, Mike Shula can claim Gailey’s respected influence in his own coaching heritage.
Returning to Shula, his tenure in Alabama was nothing to write home about. The 2005 Tide did make and win the Cotton Bowl, but the other three seasons were very lackluster. 2003 was a lost year, marred by NCAA penalties levied due to the actions of former Head Coach Mike Price. 2004 was over after a promising 3-0 start due to injuries that continued all season, and in 2006 the team collapsed after another promising 3-0 start to finish 6-6. Alabama did not retain Shula that offseason and instead hired a 56-year-old Championship-winning coach named Nick Saban, who would go on to win 5 of his 6 total National Championships with the Tide (a feat only equaled by the aforementioned Bear Bryant). Shula was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars as quarterbacks coach, and spent his time there developing David Garrard into one of the better passers in the league. In 2011, in anticipation of the 1st Overall Draft Selection, the Carolina Panthers hired Mike Shula as their quarterbacks coach and we all know the story of Mr. Shula from there.
Mike Shula and Norv Turner can both claim legendary influence in their coaching heritage. And yet, both men have struggled to sustain success in the unforgiving NFL. Turner has been a part of 18 seasons with a postseason appearance, with a stellar 3 for 3 record in League/NCAA championships. Shula has been a part of 14 seasons with a postseason appearance, with only one championship appearance and no championship wins. Turner’s NFL teams have gone one-and-done in the playoffs 4 times out of 18, while Shula’s have gone one-and-done 3 times out of 14. That said, Mike Shula has also only been coaching for 30 years to Turner’s 42. Shula has also only had direct control of an NFL offense for 9 total seasons, of which his teams made the playoffs 6 times. Turner has had direct control of an NFL offense for 24 of the past 27 seasons, with only 8 playoff appearances to show for it. Turner also has two Super Bowl wins out of two played, to Shula’s winless single appearance in football’s biggest game. Their head-to-head record? They are 4-4 against each other in the NFL. If you take into account only the games where both men had control of offensive playcalling, Turner has a 3-2 edge. Shula won in 1996 and in the 1999 Divisional Round as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against Head Coach Norv Turner and the Washington Redskins. Turner won against Shula in the 1998 regular season. In 2007, Turner’s San Diego Chargers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars with Mike Shula as the Jags’ QB coach. Turner would exact revenge while Shula was still in Jacksonville in 2010. Then Shula’s Panthers would notch another win against the Chargers in 2012, before Shula became Carolina’s OC. Turner would have a recent surge with the Minnesota Vikings though, winning as OC against Carolina with Shula at OC in both 2014 and 2016. Next year will see another matchup of the two men, as Carolina and the New York Giants (Shula’s new employer) will meet in the 2018 season.
But is all this anecdotal? Is history always doomed to repeat itself? Let’s take a look at some data to get a better picture of what each man’s offensive scheme looks like on the field.
In the following chapter, I will finally get to the charts I promised everyone after the two exhaustive history lessons I made you endure. I will include brief commentary about each chart, but won’t bore you with a bunch of analysis. My intention was to let the stats speak for themselves, so I will just point out certain things that caught my eye while working on this. I appreciate you all sticking with me this long. I hope what comes next won’t disappoint you. Note: in each of the charts below, the red and yellow dots signify seasons that Turner’s and Shula’s teams have made the playoffs (yellow) and won their division (red).
Perhaps the most indicative measure of team success is overall wins:
But the problem with this all-important statistic is that it is only valuable for overall team success. You can’t use overall wins to accurately measure offensive prowess. How would you compare the 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 1999 Washington Redskins? The Buccaneers literally had one of the worst offenses in the league that season, while the Redskins had one of the best. Yet the Buccaneers won one more game than the Redskins did and went farther in the playoffs. Why? Well because the 1999 Buccaneers had a historic defense and the Redskins weren’t as historic on the defensive side. Interestingly, the two teams played in the Divisional Round that postseason and it was the Buccaneers who bounced the Redskins from the playoffs. In other words, Mike Shula’s team bounced Norv Turner’s team that year.
So, what is a good indicator of offensive prowess? How about Points Scored:
Seems like a good indicator at first. Notice How nearly all of Norv Turner’s playoff seasons have come when his offense was in the top 7? The outlier is 2015, when the Vikings held all but four of their opponents to 20 points per game or less. Those four opponents? The Packers, Seahawks, Cardinals, and eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos. All had great defenses, stifled the Vikings, and ended up beating them. Also, interesting to note is how all but one of Mike Shula’s playoff seasons came when his offense was outside the top 10 in points scored per game. Just for fun, let’s take a glance at the actual numbers for points per game:
In the chart above, the green line shows the League Leader in points per game. The gray line is the league average. Notice how Turner’s offenses have generally been near or above the league average. Also notice how Mike Shula’s have been generally at or below average except for 2015. If Shula’s 2015 offense had even just resembled the rest of his tenure with Carolina, the trend would be very unimpressive in this area. I am reminded of a line I read on Wikipedia about Shula’s tenure in Alabama: “The Tide struggled the rest of the year, as the offense could not consistently move the ball once inside the red zone.” It was like I was reading an analysis of the Panthers’ offense for most of Shula’s tenure. I would have liked to follow this with a chart about red zone percentage for Turner and Shula, but I could not find the stats. If anyone knows where to find them, feel free to post and I’ll put something together.
Let’s take a look at first down stats instead, since that’s about as close as I can get to red zone percentage at the moment.
I know, there’s a lot going on in this chart. The top series corresponds to the left-hand vertical axis, and the bottom series corresponds to the right-hand vertical axis. You’ll notice that both Shula and Turner have generally lead offenses that were average in efficiency and average in total first downs. It should also be noted, however, that Mike Shula has only come close to the league lead in either category once (2015) whereas Turner has flirted with the upper echelon of offensive efficiency multiple times. A few statistical quirks to point out here: 1) you’ll notice that the 1999 Redskins were both the league leader in total first downs and first down percentage, the only time either coach achieved both in the same season. 2) There was a virtual tie between the 1992 Dallas Cowboys and the league leader in first down percentage, but the Cowboys were behind by .2% or something like that. It was hard to represent in the table, so I simply changed one of the values so that they were tied exactly. 3) A statistical oddity occurred in 2010 in the first down percentage series. Turner’s San Diego Chargers were actually more efficient than the League leader that season. This may not make sense at first, but it does when you consider that the “League Leader” series there is actually based on the leader in total first downs. The league leader in first downs in 2010 simply had a lower ratio of first downs relative to their overall plays run than did Turner’s Chargers. It just takes up too much room in the chart to label it as “First down percentage of League Leader in Total First Downs” so my apologies. Lol.
Next let’s take a look at Passing and Rushing Stats. First, Passing:
And the rankings for both passing yards and QBR:
It becomes pretty obvious that Turner and passing offenses go well together. He’s also had a few good quarterbacks to work with: Troy Aikman, Phillip Rivers, Brad Johnson, and Teddy Bridgewater. In his non-playoff years Turner has worked with the following quarterbacks: Heath Shuler, John Friesz, Gus Frerotte, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Green, Jeff George, Doug Flutie, Jay Fiedler, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon, Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Cassell. He also missed the playoffs a few times with Rivers, Johnson, and Bridgewater. Still… the pattern is obviously there. When Turner has a good quarterback to work with and time to install his offense, his offenses tend to flourish in the passing game. Shula, on the other hand, had to work with Trent Dilfer and Shaun King in Tampa Bay. Not an easy task, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that he has had Cam Newton for the past 5 years and has only put together one real playoff run. When Turner had that level of talent (Aikman and Rivers), he put together 6 playoff runs with at least one win per postseason (four of the six included multiple playoff wins and two obviously included Super Bowl victories). It’s quite the indictment that Shula has had Cam Newton for five 5 seasons and never ranked higher than 19th in total passing yards, with Cam’s QBR only entering the top 10 once (and not even in the same season, I might add). These charts seem to show Shula as middling at best in the passing category and Turner as something of a quarterback whisperer when he has an elite talent to work with and time enough to truly sink his concepts into that QB’s mind. But offense isn’t all passing. Let’s take a look at rushing stats:
This is the first set of stats so far that shows Shula clearly better at an offensive category, but I would argue not by much. The reason Shula looks so much better is because of Turner’s inconsistent running attacks year to year. Turner’s run games have wavered between the extremes a lot. Below is the list of RB’s Turner has worked with since 1991. The years in red are losing seasons:
You’ll notice that, of the 25 seasons listed, Turner only had 4 losing seasons with a high-profile running back. Those would be 1995 and 1998 with the Redskins and Terry Allen/rookie Stephen Davis (yes that Stephen Davis), 2001 with rookie LaDainian Tomlinson, and 2006 with Frank Gore. As you can see, Shula has only had one season where he didn’t have a premier back to lead his rushing attack (Alstott was a rookie in 1996). Yet with a greater overall caliber of backs than Turner had to work with, Shula had almost as many losing seasons. Although both men run a version of Air Coryell, it’s obvious that Shula’s is more run-centric and Turner’s is more pass-centric. This ought to bode well for our gunslinger, running quarterback here in Carolina. But it also can’t be understated that Turner’s offense also requires a premier all-purpose running back to function as well. It remains to be seen if Christian McCaffrey can function well in the trenches as a powerback. Perhaps with the right blocking and alittle coaching he could. It will show us a lot of Turner’s opinion of CMC if he convinces Rivera and Hurney to draft another RB this year.
Before we move on, let’s take a look at the RYPG rankings for Shula and Turner:
Neither coordinator has ever reached the top of the League in rushing yards per game, but both have reached second place (Turner with Emmitt Smith and Ricky Williams, Shula with the combo of Cam, Stewart, and Tolbert). Turner, interestingly, has been at the very bottom a few times (2004 with the Raiders, and 2016 after the Vikings lost Adrian Peterson). Turner was also 2nd to last in 2009 with an attack led by LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles. I couldn’t find any articles explaining this. The Chargers went 13-3 that year and, when I looked at Philip Rivers’ stats that year, I found that the Chargers had an exceptional passing season that year. Tomlinson was out for two games that season, but his production still took a precipitous drop. The next season, he was playing for the Jets instead so I am thinking this was when Tomlinson started to hit his old age wall. Sproles had his best season in San Diego that year, which makes the anomaly even more bewildering. It seems like Tomlinson hit his wall and Sproles wasn’t able to completely make up the difference, but it was not that big of a deal because Rivers had such a great season. I didn’t check, but I’d be willing to bet that the San Diego defense was legit that year too, which probably enabled them to have a great season despite the huge drop in rushing production. The rest of Turner’s rankings are indicative of his tenure, full of inconsistency.
Here comes the part that, to be honest, I’ve personally been waiting to get to in this article: big plays. This was a difficult stat compilation to put together, and so I am super proud of the two following graphs.
In the first graph, the thing that stands out most to me is that Turner knows how to get big plays out of his offenses. They’ve never led the league in big plays but, aside from an anomalous 2012 season, Turner’s offenses have always been close to the league average in overall amount of big plays, or well above. On the other hand, Shula’s offenses have normally been well below average, only exceeding the league average one time (and not even by that much). That one season just so happened to be Shula’s best season as a playcaller: 2015. Even more telling is the ranking graph. Turners offenses have been ranked 13th or better in 15 of his 26 seasons. By comparison, Shula has only been above 13th one time. Guess when… yep! 2015. Turner’s average league rank for big plays has been 12.58, whereas Shula’s average rank has been 24.11. There’s really no comparison.
As you’ve probably noticed in many of these graphs, Shula’s stats are highly inflated by both his fewer number of seasons, and his 15-win season with the Panthers. Conversely, you’ll notice that Turner’s stats are depressed by the instability he has suffered through in his career. I believe the instability Turner has gone through has been largely self-inflicted. After so much success early in his career both as an assistant coach and as OC for the Cowboys, he surely thought that he’d be able to parlay the lessons and experiences he’d had into more success as a head coach. It didn’t work out with the Redskins, and he went back to an OC role with the Dolphins. But by that point, I think pride may have got the better of Turner. I’d be willing to bet he craved to find success as an HC. It didn’t work out with the Raiders either, and as many good seasons as the Chargers had under Turner, the offense steadily seemed to get worse under him, truthfully. Turner’s best work has seemed to come when he didn’t have to concern himself with the whole team and instead focus on just crafting the offense into a juggernaut. He has also seemed to do well when given an OC post on a team that already has a great core of players to build around. Finally, Turner also seems to do well when given more than a season to do this focused work on a great core of offensive players. Shula has simply not proven himself to be more than a below-average playcaller, though he has done well as a quarterbacks coach. I find it interesting that both men have kept trying to succeed at higher levels, instead of being content with success in a lower position. But what does this mean for the upcoming 2018 season? And is there a single way to predict how good an offense is going to be?
Buried in the metadata, I noticed that the biggest indicator of overall offensive performance was… inconclusive. It depends on your definitions and perspective. The category that seemed to have the most effect on overall team performance was 1st Down Percentage. Teams that have a high first down percentage generally win more games, and teams that do not achieve first downs very well, do not generally win many games. That may seem like a no brainer, and it is. But the same argument can be made for any offensive category. On the other hand, the category that seemed to help the team the most was time of possession. These two questions (which category had the most effect and which category helped the most) seem like the same thing, but the data suggests otherwise. Basically, an offensive category may have a huge effect on the team’s overall win total, but that effect might be helpful or hurtful. Even categories that don’t have a high effectiveness can be helpful or hurtful to the team overall. Maybe the better way to think about it is that each category effects team performance to some extent. The two questions we have to answer are how effective they are and whether the effect on the team is positive or negative.
Bear with me as we explore the data sets and then at the end, I’ll explain my methodology. The data sets are color coded because I was trying to draw correlations between the individual categories and the win totals for each coach in each season. As I did with the graphs, I’ll comment whatever comes to my mind with each image. Let’s start with 1st Down Percentage.
Just in case the legend isn’t clear, the percentage category is divided into entries that are greater than .5% below the league average for that particular season, entries that are within .5% below average, entries within .5% above average, entries greater than .5% above average, and entries within .5% of the league 1st down % leader. You’ll notice that Turner was extremely efficient with Dallas and SD, and his win totals reflected it, especially in Dallas. Shula was fairly efficient in Carolina but was terrible in Tampa. You’ll notice that for both coaches, the colors of the 1st down percent generally match the colors of the win totals or are somewhere close. Also, the black team names are head coach positions and the red ones are offensive coordinator positions.
The other categories aren’t nearly as consistent as this one. I do have a semi-scientific method for calculating which was the most accurate, but I’ll share that later. One more interesting note… though 1st Down Percentage did rank #1 in “Most Effect”, it was near the bottom in its helpfulness to a team. I want to address this for the sake of the integrity of my methods here. I realize what I just said… that moving the chains is effective for winning games but is also not very helpful to the team overall in winning those games. That’s stupid and I feel bad even saying it. Its just what my stats tell me. Based on my method, having a high 1st Down % is actually hurtful to the team, while simultaneously being the most indicative of a good offense. The best speculation I have for this is that perhaps 1st Down % effectiveness can be thought of as a bell-curve. There’s an ideal % somewhere that gives you the maximum effectiveness on offense without wearing out your defense by constantly keeping them on the field. Once your 1st Down % surpasses that ideal range, your win totals actually decrease because your defense is constantly tired and giving up tons of points. I can’t prove this with more stats, nor do I want to do the work to see if I can, but I believe it makes sense given the data. How about something alittle more cut and dry: passing yards and QBR?
The biggest thing that stands out to me here is how much better Turner is than Shula with passing offense. Turner consistently had average to above average passing offenses, many times with QBs that could only muster below average QBR numbers. What encourages me though is how Turner did with the couple elite QBs he had: Aikman and Rivers. His offenses under those quarterbacks were stellar. Cam Newton is most definitely an elite quarterback with a huge arm. I look forward to seeing Cam’s arm and Turner’s playcalling in tandem. Shula on the other hand, was consistently miserable at passing offense. Even with a supremely talented QB like Cam.
Passing yards per game was consistently low on the totem pole as far as both helpfulness and effectiveness. We have an interesting dichotomy here. QBR is indicative of a good offense, being pretty effective at predicting win totals. QBR in and of itself is only average in its helpfulness to the team. This tells me more about the methods I’m using here. For QBR, the best way to think about the category is that good teams generally have efficient QBs, but efficient QBs don’t automatically guarantee their team a good record. Correlation, not causation. I think many of these stats are like that. There may be a few that I could say cause teams to win more, but most of them are only corollary in the vacuum of this analysis. The best offenses seem to do many of these things right. In other words, the best offenses are balanced and prioritized.
Also, passing yards per game is a terrible indicator of overall wins. Its dead last among the seven categories I considered. It’s actually kinda hurtful to a team, probably for the same reason that 1st Down % is hurtful. The quicker your offense gets off the field, the more time your defense is on the field. Not good. A lot of passing yards makes for exciting offense, but its not a great way to help your team win games week-to-week. Now rushing yards on the other hand…
As we discussed with this category in the graph section, Shula is clearly more successful with rushing offense. This is not to say that Turner hasn’t seen success either, as he certainly has. But it seems that Turner’s running games are inconsistently good, whereas Shula’s are consistently good. Something else you may notice, it seems that Turner’s teams win more games when his passing offense succeeds. Shula certainly had more success in Carolina when his rushing offense succeeded but was more inconsistent with Tampa Bay. It’s also pretty obvious by now that passing offense is not Shula’s forte. His offenses require a clock-chewing, wear-you-down rushing attack to win games. Turner’s offenses certainly benefit from an all-purpose back that can chew clock and wear down a defense, but he has successful seasons without that advantage as well. Rushing yards per game had an average overall effect on wins, but proved helpful to offenses in their pursuit of wins. Related to rushing and passing stats is time of possession…
I didn’t include this stat in my graphs because it didn’t seem to have any correlation with how well either coach did with racking up wins. That was just a deduction based on how inconsistent the stat looked. I didn’t realize until I actually crunched numbers that time of possession is the most helpful thing an offense can do for it’s team. Keeping the ball from the other team is crucially important. In the rankings of which category had the most effect overall on a team, TOP was middle of the road. Just to remind you, a category that has a high effect on overall wins isn’t necessarily a category that is very helpful to a team. They often go hand in hand, but sometimes a category generally holds a team back in and of itself (1st Down % being a good example) but has a high effect on the team. Other times a category really helps a team in and of itself but doesn’t have a high effect overall. This case would be TOP. When teams can keep the ball from their opponents, it really seems to help them. But if they can’t, it doesn’t seem to hurt them all that much if they can do other categories well. And many times, keeping the ball away from your opponent doesn’t help at all if you can’t perform well in other categories, not the least of which is point scoring. Panthers fans know this all too well. How many times did we see our talent-packed offense dominate their way down the field, only to get held out of the endzone and settle for a field goal? High TOP, low PPG, and we struggled to win games. All under Shula, and the stats bear it out. TOP had the least to do with Shula’s teams’ success, even though it technically ranked as the most helpful. PPG was his most indicative stat, with a perfect score in my semi-scientific grading system. In other words, for all the talk of the Panthers needing to keep the ball away from their opponents (and it did help when they could), the thing they needed to do most under Shula is score points. When they scored a lot of points, they won a lot of games. This is probably due to their defensive prowess. When the Panthers rain points on other teams, and stifle them with a consistently good defense, its really hard to win against the Panthers. As for Turner, TOP was high on his list of effectiveness. It should be noted here that Turner’s offenses only had one category that wasn’t helpful to his teams (four of the seven for Shula actually hurt his teams): 1st Down %, and that one was the category that had Turner’s highest effectiveness score (a perfect score, I might add). In other words, Turner’s offenses almost invariably helped Turner’s teams win games. This compares well to Shula in that over half the time, Shula’s offenses hurt his teams (this is not new info to Panthers fans, but its nice to see it born out in statistics). Points per game has been mentioned a lot in this TOP conversation, and that’s where I’d like to go next.
Points per game certainly took me by surprise. There is definitely a correlation to wins, with Turner’s two best seasons and Shula’s best season all being in the top-2 of the PPG rankings. But take a look at the block of green while Turner was in San Diego. He only posted more than 10 wins in two of the five seasons his team was in the top-5 of the PPG rankings. That was almost counter intuitive to me when I first saw it. I’ve always thought teams that score more points win more games. At least for Turner, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Obviously, winning is not just an offensive thing. Defense plays a key role too. Scoring a lot of points is great but if the defense can’t stop a wet paper bag, its all for naught. The same goes if there is offensive inconsistency where some weeks the team scores truckloads of points and some weeks where they struggle to score 20. The latter was the case for Turner and Shula. Most of their teams had solid defenses, but in reviewing the scores each season for each coach, I noticed that generally their offenses were very hot and cold. When they were hot, they were white-hot. When they were cold, their offenses were, quite literally, frozen. Points per game still ranked #2 in “Most Effect” and “Most Helpful”, but the inconsistency in the data bothers me. As a general rule I think that teams who score more points do win more games, but the measure is not a trustworthy stat in and of itself. Teams need to score a lot of points, but without taking a bunch of defensive stats into consideration, the more important thing is to score more points than the other team, not necessarily just a lot of points in general, and certainly not all in one or a few games. Maybe the best way to think about it is that the more points your offense can score, the less likely another offense can keep up with you. But in the modern NFL, that isn’t a guarantee season-to-season or even week-to-week. If you think points per game is overhyped, take a look at big plays:
Big plays are an exciting and essential part of any offense. But they aren’t an end-all-be-all. At least not for these two coaches. Shula was terrible at getting big plays, which I’m assuming correlates with his inability to produce an adequate passing game. Turner was generally pretty good at producing big plays but look how good his offense was at producing big plays in Washington with very few wins to show for it. The same can be said for his tenure in San Diego. As great as those offenses could be, and as many big plays as they had, the Chargers still only won more than 10 games in two seasons of Turner’s tenure. Big plays serve their function, just like a grinding running game does, and are certainly exciting for the fans but aren’t really indicative of winning more often.
Just wanted to add a compilation chart so y’all could see all the categories together. The thing that stands out to me the most is the nearly solid green first few rows for Turner. Y’all may have noticed this as we’ve gone through the graphs and now the tables, but the Cowboys could almost do no wrong on offense in the early 90’s. Turner had a few damn good years in San Diego as well. Shula, for all the criticism, is statistically better than we might have expected. His passing offenses are terrible but were he to figure that part out, he might actually be an adequate offensive coordinator.
If anyone notices anything I’ve left out when discussing the data, feel free to point it out. With a project as extensive as this one, its easy to miss things in the data that would be interesting to talk about. I do want to point out one more set of general stats: Turner’s offenses have averaged a first down percentage of 30.2, 219.6 passing yards per game, an 82.9 QBR, 110.9 rushing yards per game, 22.3 points per game, almost exactly 30 minutes of time of possession per game, 13th in big play ranking, and just over 8 wins per season. Shula, on the other hand, has averaged a first down percentage of 29.5, 188.6 passing yards per game, an 80.1 QBR, 123.0 rushing yards per game, 21.1 points per game, 31.6 minutes of time of possession per game, a 22nd ranking in big plays, and just under 10 wins per season. Turner beats Shula in First Down %, PYPG, QBR, PPG, and Big Plays. Shula beats Turner in RYPG, TOP, and wins per season.
Based on some analysis that I’ll outline in a minute, I do believe 1st Down Percentage is the most accurate indicator of how much an offense contributes to its teams win total. Arranged from the category that had the most to do with team success to the category that had the least to do with it, the list comes out like so:
Most Effect: 1st Down %, PPG, QBR, RYPG, TOP, Big Plays, PYPG
Most Helpful: TOP, RYPG, PPG, QBR, Big Plays, 1st Down %, PYPG
I broke it down between the two coaches instead of averaging them together, and Turner’s list differed from Shula’s significantly. Here they be:
Turner Effectiveness: 1st Down %, TOP, RYPG, QBR, PYPG, PPG, Big Plays
Shula Effectiveness: PPG, QBR, 1st Down %, Big Plays, RYPG, PYPG, TOP
Allow me to explain. Turner’s teams won the most games when their offenses had a high 1st Down %. Big Plays had the least to do with Turner’s teams’ success. For Shula, his teams won the most games when their offenses scored a lot of points every game, and time of possession had the least to do with Shula’s success. Those last two facts piss me off because what did the Panthers preach at us for all of Shula’s tenure? “We need to keep the ball away from the other team” No, we needed to run up the damn score and let our defense feast, but I digress. With Turner’s offense, the Panthers need to focus on long, efficient drives where the pass is set up by the run and Cam takes what the defense gives him with a sprinkling of chunk plays. In other words, Turner should run the kind of offense Shula was trying to run. Shula should have been made to adjust his offense. That may unsettle some people that our overall philosophy shouldn’t change very much, but I truly think that Turner’s offense is what we’ve been trying, and failing, to achieve the whole time with Shula. With the mastermind himself at the helm, dis may get guud. Interesting note I want to discuss:
Turner Helpfulness: Big Plays, PPG, PYPG, QBR, RYPG, TOP, 1st Down %
Shula Helpfulness: TOP, RYPG, PPG, QBR, 1st Down %, Big Plays, PYPG
You’ll notice that Turner’s list is the exact opposite order from the “Effectiveness” list above. I mentioned this earlier, but I want to spend more time on it: Turner didn’t have a single category where his offense held the team back. This may make alittle more sense when I go over my methodology and show some numbers, but for just another minute, take my word for it. What the list above shows is still that 1st Down % was the greatest correlation to offensive success in Turner’s scheme, but that the other categories were increasingly helpful to the team if the offense could get them right. So, practically speaking, Big Plays had little effect on Turner’s teams overall, but when they happened, they were a boon. Remember the bell-curve I mentioned earlier for 1st Down %? Yeah, Turner hits the sweet spot in the bell-curve on average. As for Shula, it doesn’t work the same way for him. He had categories that hurt his teams overall, therefore the data literally reads differently for him. As mentioned before, the biggest correlation to success in Shula’s scheme was points per game. When they scored a lot of points, they usually won. TOP had very little effect on offensive success overall, but when Shula’s offense could keep the ball from the other team, it was a boon for them. Conversely, when Shula’s offenses had a lot of passing yards, it seemed to be a sign that things weren’t working and the win totals reflected that.
The following section is stat-geek stuff that I’m sure wont interest everyone. I just want to explain my methods, so if you aren’t interested, just go ahead and skip to my conclusion. However, I do encourage you to read through it because I have a treat for you at the end if you do. I was able to draw comparisons by assigning arbitrary values to each color in the legends of the tables above like so:
Red: 0, Orange: 1, Yellow: 2, Light Green: 3, Green: 4
Then I recorded, for each category under each coach, the difference between the stat and the final record for each season. You can find the result in the image below. Notice the single digit values to the right of the final record for each season. You’ll also notice the average below the final value.
Those average values are how I decided which categories are most indicative of each coach’s offenses. Each individual value shows, specifically, how much the efforts of the offense contributed to the win total that season for that coach. Negative values indicate that the offense outperformed the rest of the team and contributed less to the overall win total than the defense and special teams. Positive values show the opposite: that the team as a whole succeeded despite the offense in that particular area. Inherent in this value too is the fact that it only reflects one offensive stat category at a time. Its possible that other offensive measurements had more or less to do with the win total that season, but that’s what I was trying to figure out, remember? One more thing to note, a zero is actually a perfect score here. It means that, for that season, that offensive category contributed heavily to the win total, or that it did not hinder the rest of the team and was not hindered by the rest of the team.
To put this in practical terms, look at the example above. Norv Turner’s offenses’ 1st Down %, on average, had a lot to do with the success of the teams as a whole. You’ll notice that, in this category, Turner scored a perfect 0 average. Shula’s offenses, on the other hand, held their teams back more often than they helped them. His .444 average shows me this. Also, you can now see the method that helped me draw the conclusion that I did about which category is most indicative of an offense’s performance. I just took the two averages for each coach and averaged the averages. To use real numbers, I took Turner’s 0 score in the example above and averaged it with Shula’s .444 score to get an overall value of .222 for 1st Down %. All the values are listed below. Bear in mind that the “Average” category is technically the average of the averages for that category from Turner and Shula. You’ll also notice another set of averages that might be of interest: the average of each category specific to each coach. It’s the value below each coach’s table. If my amateur statistical analysis skills are to be trusted, those two values definitively show that Turner is the better overall coach. Specifically, they show that Turner’s offenses help their teams on average, and Shula’s offenses slightly hurt their teams. But we kinda figured that didn’t we?
Now for the treat. The last thing I have to offer is a comparison of these two coaches against Bill Bellichick, arguably the most successful NFL Coach of all time. I had this idea while I was putting the metadata together, but honestly wondered if it would be worth the effort. I didn’t actually decide to do it until I finished writing the previous paragraph lol. The thing we need to keep in mind about Bellichick is that he is not an offensive coach. Well… he is offensive, but not in terms of football offense… anyhoo…. Bellichick is a defensive coach, so his successes on offense probably have more to do with making smart decisions about coordinators and what players to trust with snaps.
Based on the numbers, Norv is the best offensive coach of the three. I suppose that’s not surprising, but there’s also no question that Bellichek is the better coach overall. Having Tom Brady has helped, and one can only speculate what Tom Brady and Norv Turner would have done together. But still, its interesting to see how our new offensive coordinator compares in his trade with one of the all-time great coaches. Below I’ll add the data tables I had for Turner and Shula, only with Bellichek added. I won’t be adding any charts or analysis here. This is for your viewing pleasure lol. I’ll let the stats speak for themselves.
Panthers fans know all too well what we had with Shula. His apologists had thinned almost to the point of nonexistence by the time Carolina released him in January. At times, Shula flashed and had moments of brilliance. But those moments were so few and far between that they could never inspire confidence in the players and fans. Turner has shined on football’s biggest stage, he has failed to epic proportions, and he has been inconsistent. But when he has succeeded, it has been with an established, seasoned quarterback with a rocket launcher arm, an all-purpose running back, and complete, focused control of the offense. The situation Turner's entering is, I daresay, the closest he’s been to his tenure in Dallas he has ever gotten. The stats prove that he is the better coordinator, that his offenses generally help the teams he coaches for, and that his offense will be a better, more productive, and perhaps more exciting version of the one we’ve already been witness to in Carolina. Will he be perfect? No. Will he be the greatest coordinator to have ever coached an offense? Certainly not. But the potential is there for him to be the greatest offensive coordinator the Panthers have ever had. The potential is there for this offense to return to 2011-2012 form, or perhaps even better. Ron Rivera would do well to heed Turner’s talent requests this offseason and allow Turner to run his offense without micromanagement. Norv knows what he is doing. Rivera needs to focus on working with Eric Washington to get the defense back to its 2013-2015 form. Because most of the pieces are already in place for Turner, I see the potential for his Carolina offense to take off immediately. That said, I think the 2019 season will be when we will truly see our offense come into its own. We need to find that grinding power back to complement CMC. We need to ensure our offensive line can continue to protect Cam adequately. Personally, I’m comfortable with our WR corps, but many are not, and it seems the Panthers are not. I’m okay with this. Competition is always good. I just hope if the Panthers are going to take a WR in the draft, that it would not be done at the expense of a more pressing need like S, DE, OL, CB, or even TE. Obviously, this is all just my opinion. The Panthers will do what they are going to do. Regardless, we should see an immediate bump in production on offense since Turner is much more experienced and actually knows how to make adjustments to an offensive gameplan at halftime. Considering all the stats, Turner’s experience, his ability to adjust, and the seeming talent fit of the Panther’s offense to Turner’s scheme, I can predict with confidence that Panthers fans will be extremely happy come season’s end with Turner’s performance in revamping the Carolina offense.
Thank you all for giving me your time. I put literal months of work into this project and in some ways, I feel it is still lacking. But I did the best I knew to do. I apologize for any confusion in the metadata section, as I’m only an amateur data analyst. As I said before, if anyone has any suggestions for other research topics, I’d be glad to look into it. Lemme know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do. Most of all, love you guys and gals.
Wikipedia for historical information