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Cam Newton, Carolina Panther offense must get untracked in Baltimore

Carolina Panthers at Baltimore Ravens, Thursday 8 p.m. WCCB, ESPN

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

In terms of the Carolina Panthers’ four exhibitions, Thursday night’s game at Baltimore will be the most entertaining, the most widely seen and the most important.

That’s like being the world’s fastest turtle – it’s not much to brag about. We are still more than two weeks away from games that count. The third exhibition is the one NFL teams traditionally decide to make their dress rehearsal, with the starters playing well into the second half. But that’s all it is – a glorified scrimmage – no matter how much ESPN’s national telecast tries to drum it up.

Nevertheless, what I’m most interested in Thursday is whether the offense can locate the end zone against the reigning Super Bowl champions. In eight possessions so far, quarterback Cam Newton has led only one touchdown drive – and that was an 18-yarder after the defense presented a gift-wrapped turnover. Golfers occasionally make putts from 18 yards, or 54 feet, so the distance isn’t much unless you traversed it with a putter.

The other seven possessions led by Newton in the first two exhibitions have been disappointing by some measure: four punts, two field goals and, worst of all, one interception taken back for a touchdown.

There is no cavalry coming. I can’t imagine gimpy running back Jonathan Stewart will be ready to play Sept.8 in the regular-season opener against Seattle – he may be out for weeks or months. The rest of the offense is fairly intact for a sport in which there is no such thing as 100 percent of the players being 100 percent.

So, simply put, the Panthers have what they have, and they have to score more.

“That’s been a focus this week,” Newton said. “We play for getting down into situations where we can score points – and by points, I mean six points. It just takes a little bit of focus on my part where I’m putting he ball in places where my guys can have a chance.”

Newton had a couple of overthrows last week at Philadelphia in a 14-9 exhibition loss that looked worse than the score. He also didn’t have enough protection. He has obviously been told not to scramble much, if at all, in the preseason.

So Newton has barely used one of his primary weapons – his legs. And that’s significant.

If you’ve never seen it, the statue of Newton on Auburn’s campus in honor of his Heisman Trophy win shows him not throwing the ball, but running it. He’s best on the move as a dual threat. But that’s also dangerous, and the Panthers are wisely limiting the number of hits Newton takes in these ultimately meaningless games.

Still, grooves are carved in the preseason – good ones and bad ones.

“A lot of guys think you need to get into a winning habit,” center Ryan Kalil said. “So we need to win.”

“We’re not showing up just to show up,” coach Ron Rivera echoed.

“This is going to be as game-like as any preseason game that we play,” Newton said.

The Ravens, without linebacker Ray Lewis but still formidable, will provide the right sort of opponent. Thursday should be a fun night.

If the Panthers don’t score an offensive touchdown with Newton in the game, it will also be a worrisome one.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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