CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Steve Smith was certain Rob Chudzinski wouldn’t be calling plays for the Panthers this season.
Like many of his teammates, Smith thought someone would offer Carolina’s offensive coordinator a head coaching job during the offseason. Chudzinski did interview with Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and St. Louis, but was never was offered job.
Now he’s back with Carolina – and his players say they’re selfishly thrilled.
“He’s an innovator,” Smith said. “His offense is always evolving and he doesn’t allow you to get comfortable. You just can’t get comfortable, which is great.”
Tight end Greg Olsen, one of the many players who thrived under Chudzinski, called him “one of the top offensive minds in the league” and said he was stunned when he didn’t get an offer.
“Believe me, we feel fortunate he didn’t get any of those jobs,” Olsen said.
Despite a shortened offseason in 2011, Chudzinski helped pumped life back into a stagnant offense.
Check that, a wretched offense.
The Panthers were last in the NFL in virtually every major statistical category – points scored, total offense and passing offense – two years ago under the highly conservative offense run by former coordinator Jeff Davidson. They improved to fifth in points scored and seventh in total offense last season under Chudzinski.
The Panthers were able to make the transition from a run-first offense to a “big chunk” offense featuring a vertical passing game despite having a shortened offseason.
Quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was instrumental in getting rookie Cam Newton to quickly understand how to read NFL defenses. The former Heisman Trophy winner threw for a rookie record 4,051 yards and score 35 touchdowns – 21 passing and 14 rushing.
Smith joined Newton at the Pro Bowl, enjoying his third-most productive season with 79 receptions for 1,394 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.
Carolina’s running game started slow, but came on strong as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 1,587 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
That success has led to budding optimism.
If Chudzinski can do what he did last season in such a short amount of time, what can he do this year with a full offseason?
Chudzinski is cautiously optimistic, but has stressed to his players that past success is irrelevant.
Each year, he said, offers different challenges.
Gone are receiver Legedu Naanee and tight end Shockey, but the Panthers picked up versatile fullback Mike Tolbert and will get receiver David Gettis and tight end Gary Barnidge back from injuries.
But before the Panthers take a step forward, Chudzinski is ready to take a step back.
“It’s nice to actually have an offseason and be able to go back to basics,” Chudzinski said. “That’s kind of what we’ve focused on is a lot of things we’ve had to throw in and put in quickly last year, now you get a chance to take a step back and reteach it step-by-step. I think it’s been beneficial to everybody to be able to do that.”
Not that the Panthers weren’t able to adapt last year.
Sure, they finished 6-10, but it was the defense and special teams that struggled and cost them games.
“His flexibility, his versatility and what he can do from parts that he’s able to work into his existing philosophy,” Olsen said. “There’s not a lot of guys like that around the league that are willing to make some changes and put a few wrinkles in.”
Those wrinkles included, among other things, an across-the-grain throwback pass from Naanee to Newton, who came 2 yards from scoring his first receiving touchdown and a few college option plays run by Newton and Williams.
But the one that sticks in everyone’s mind and displayed Chudzinski’s guts was the one his players dubbed “the annexation of Puerto Rico,” a reference to similar trick play run in the 1994 kids’ movie Little Giants.
Leading 14-0 and faced with a second-and-6 at the 7-yard line, Houston’s defense was focused on stopping Newton, who’d already run for 13 touchdowns at that point in the season.
With his offensive line standing straight up, providing a picket fence of sorts, Newton stepped up center and quickly snapped the ball and spun out to the right. What most Texans defenders didn’t see was Newton stick the ball between back of fullback Richie Brockel’s legs. Brockel, who’d lined up over right guard, took off to the left side of the field while everyone else rolled to the right as a decoy. He scored to give Carolina a 21-0 lead in a play that would make highlight reels nationwide.
“When we put that play in, I never thought in a million years that play was going to work, let alone get a touchdown,” wide receiver Brandon LaFell said at the time.
Now the question is what will Chudzinski do this year for an encore.
“I don’t know, I’m going to have to watch a few more movies to see if I can figure one out,” Chudzinski said with a laugh.
The players certainly can’t wait to find out.
But they also seem to realize they’ll need to cherish this time they have with him because it’s not going to be long before someone comes knocking on his door and steals him away.
“It’s good to have him back, but eventually we all know he’s going to move on,” Smith said. “With any good coordinator, they move on – unlike our prior [coordinators] here who just kind of lingered. I think that just shows you how good he is.”