Rob Chudzinski calls a better game than he talks.
The Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator – a sought-after head-coaching candidate this past offseason after directing Carolina’s offensive resurgence – speaks in generalities when discussing
what his innovative scheme might look like in year two with Cam Newton at the controls.
The man known in NFL circles as “Chud” talks about improving techniques and fundamentals, finding complements to packages that were successful last year and staying ahead of defensive coordinators who have had an offseason to study Newton and Chudzinski’s multi-layered attack.
“That’s one of the things we’ve stressed with our guys. Every year’s a new season and you have to start from scratch,” Chudzinski said during a recent interview. “You start at the bottom and you have to climb the mountain to get to where you want to be.”
Chudzinski wants to be where just about every assistant coach at any level wants to be – in the office with the nice view, plush carpet and HEAD COACH nameplate on the door.
Chudzinski nearly got there last winter, when he interviewed with Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and St. Louis after the Panthers jumped from last in the league in offense to seventh in his first season. Ultimately, Chudzinski lost out to Mike Mularkey, Greg Schiano and Jeff Fisher, respectively.
They were Chudzinski’s first interviews for a head-coaching position; Panthers coach Ron Rivera said they won’t be his last.
In the meantime, Chudzinski – referred to as a “genius” by one of his Panthers players and a “grinder” by another – has work to do on this August afternoon. Glancing at his watch less than 10 minutes into a scheduled interview, Chudzinski tells a reporter he has to get going.
The Panthers are more than two weeks away from their first regular-season game. But Chudzinski has practice tape to watch, opponents to study and a playbook to cram more plays into.
Effort and intelligence
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen breaks coaches into two categories: those who outwork their opponents and those who outthink them. Then there’s Chudzinski.
“There’s usually two kinds of guys. The grinder, who guts his way through because he just outworks everyone. And then there’s just the smart guy, who just naturally has a mind for putting things together and anticipating defenses and tendencies,” Olsen said. “Chud is the combination of both.”
Olsen, who, like Chudzinski, is a former University of Miami tight end, said Chudzinski sees things during games and has a knack for calling the right play against different defensive alignments. But it’s more than having a high football IQ.
“He has the mind to call and anticipate what a coverage is going to be. And we happen to get the perfect call,” Olsen said. “Well, it’s not by accident. It’s because he studies and puts the time in to get all his studies and reports on his piece of paper for gameday because of the hours he puts in.
“It’s rare you find a guy that has both of those qualities.”
Chudzinski worked his way up the coaching ladder rung by rung. He advanced from graduate assistant to tight ends coach to offensive coordinator during 10 years at his alma mater.
He was Miami’s coordinator under in 2001 when the Hurricanes won the national championship. The next season Miami set school records for points, total yards and rushing touchdowns.
Chudzinski followed Butch Davis to Cleveland in 2004, and went to San Diego the following season after the Browns fired Davis. When Chudzinski returned as the Browns’ coordinator under Romeo Crennel in 2007, he looked to be on the fast track to a head-coaching job.
With quarterback Derek Anderson, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and two other offensive players earning Pro Bowl berths, the Browns went 10-6 and finished eighth in total offense and scoring.
But Cleveland bottomed out the next year amid injuries to several key players, including Anderson, who is Newton’s backup with the Panthers. Crennel was fired and Chudzinski accepted the tight ends position in San Diego, reuniting with Norv Turner and Rivera, the Chargers’ defensive coordinator.
When the Panthers hired Rivera in 2011, his first choice to run the offense was Chudzinski.
‘Sky is the limit’
With Rivera’s background as a defensive coach, he wanted someone who could oversee the offense while Rivera was on the defensive field. Rivera has given Chudzinski nearly full autonomy.
During the season, the two meet early in the week to go over the offensive game plan. If Chudzinski has a couple of new or trick plays he’s considering using, he has Rivera look at them during walkthroughs before practice.
Rivera said he has yet to veto a Chudzinski call.
“With Chud, there are no lines. It’s just go out and do it, which I think is great,” Rivera said. “He has a progression of learning and the way he teaches things. He starts with simple, basic things and from there the sky is the limit.”
After struggling with accuracy during the preseason, Newton flourished in Chudzinski’s system, a mix of the zone-read package similar to what Newton ran at Auburn and a vertical stretch passing attack that Chudzinski developed in Cleveland and San Diego.
The scheme played to Newton’s strengths as a runner and passer. He broke Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record, scored more rushing touchdowns in a single season than any quarterback in history and became the first player to throw for 4,000 yards and run for 500 in a season.
But it wasn’t just Newton.
Steve Smith produced his first 1,000-yard receiving season since 2008, and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart teamed with Newton to become the first trio in league history to rush for 700 yards each.
As a team, the Panthers led the league in plays of 20 yards or more (90), and scored 48 touchdowns a year after finishing with a franchise low of 17 in John Fox’s final season. The Panthers’ leap from 32nd to seventh in total offense was the biggest one-year improvement since St. Louis improved 26 spots in 1999.
“He’s really just a genius,” Stewart said of Chudzinski. “He spends a lot of time with the offense trying to create ways for players to be successful. That’s what a good offensive coordinator and coach is all about. He does a good job of explaining what he wants, and what he expects out of us individually and collectively.”
Stewart believes the Panthers only scratched the surface last season of what they can do offensively. Without OTAs and minicamp, the Panthers arrived in Spartanburg following the lockout with three weeks to install a new offense.
The learning curve was steep.
“To be honest, it took probably until Week 8 or Week 9 to really grasp the whole offense,” wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. “Going out there and being comfortable, knowing where to line up and not thinking about what I’ve got to do at the line of scrimmage, but knowing exactly what I need to do in the huddle.”
Chudzinski said the Panthers should benefit from having a true offseason “to go back to the basics, re-install things and get better at the core of what we’re doing.”
The Panthers will add to what they’re doing, as well. Asked at training camp if the playbook was thicker this year, Stewart smiled and nodded.
Time will come
Chudzinski only needs to walk down the hall in the coaches offices at Bank of America Stadium to find a great resource on the process of becoming a head coach. Rivera interviewed for nine NFL head coaching positions before the Panthers hired him.
Before his first interview last winter, Chudzinski talked to Rivera about what to expect.
“We talked about the things he needed to be prepared for, the questions he’ll get, all those kinds of things,” Rivera said. “Believe me, I was very happy that he got the opportunity. I was torn that he got the opportunity. And I know he’s going to get that opportunity again. He’s a dynamic person.”
The knock on some coordinators is that they’re Xs-and-Os guys who lack the attributes needed to be a successful head coach, namely leadership ability and communication and organizational skills.
Rivera said that’s not the case with Chudzinski.
“He’s dynamic, a sharp guy. He thinks outside the box. And I know his time’s coming,” Rivera said. “The big key is it’s got to be the right situation, the right fit. You don’t take jobs to take jobs. I’ve learned that over the last few years.”
Panthers offensive quality control Scott Turner spends as much time with Chudzinski as anyone on the staff, and sits next to him in the press box when Chudzinski is calling plays. Turner, son of Chargers coach Norv Turner, said Chudzinski has the makeup to be a head coach.
“Chud’s got the ability to do whatever he wants in this profession,” Turner said. “I’ve been very impressed working for him and seeing what he does. I don’t think there’s any limitations on his coaching career.”
But on this muggy August day, as players file past him on their way to the stadium after practice, Chudzinski has other things on his mind.
“It was a great experience. I was very flattered to have the opportunity to do that and be able to talk and meet a number of people at those organizations that I talked with,” he said. “Obviously, if the opportunity ever comes, great. But I’m enjoying every minute of this and being with this group of guys and coming to work every day.”
And with that, Chudzinski goes back to work, ducking into a stadium door and heading upstairs to his office. There is tape to watch, plays to draw and defensive coordinators around the league trying to stop him.