On their second offensive possession Sunday against the Giants, the Panthers faced a third and long and the prospect of opening a must-have game with consecutive three and outs.
But on third and 13 from the Panthers’ 38, quarterback Cam Newton took a shotgun snap, scrambled up the middle and dived for a 14-yard gain and a first down.
Nine plays later, fullback Mike Tolbert scored on a 2-yard run and the Panthers were on their way to a 38-0 victory – the most lopsided win in franchise history.
Newton’s teammates and coaches credited that scramble – and Newton’s running against the Giants – for igniting an offense that was in start-and-stop mode in losses to Seattle and Buffalo to start the season.
Including the scramble, Newton ran four times for 40 yards on the Panthers’ opening, 59-yard touchdown drive. Besides breaking a sweat and moving the first-down chains, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the early runs helped Newton get in the flow of the game.
“I think for him there’s a thing about him being involved, whether it’s completing passes early, getting rhythm early. Running helps getting him in the rhythm early,” Rivera said. “I think as you look at those things we’ve got to make sure we’re putting him early into the position to have success. That can equate to a lot of good things.”
Against the Giants, it equated to a balanced attack that saw the Panthers run for 194 yards and throw for 208. Newton accounted for four of the five touchdowns, including three through the air.
Newton ran for 741 yards last season to become the first quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Donovan McNabb in 2000.
New offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s commitment to a more traditional rushing attack was made in part to take some of the pressure off Newton, who reached 1,500 rushing yards faster than any quarterback in NFL history.
Newton was asked Tuesday whether part of him wanted to be known as more than a running quarterback.
“There’s a part of me that wants to be known as a winner,” Newton said. “So whatever I have to do to get that – throwing, running, passing, blocking, catching – I’m all for it.”
Newton is the only player in NFL history to pass for 8,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, and run for 1,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first 35 games. But his record is 14-21 during that span and he has yet to lead the Panthers to the playoffs.
He called win over the Giants “just a step,” and said he’s not looking too far down the schedule.
“We’re not going to say (we’re) going on a run or anything. Our main focus is trying to become 2-2. Nothing more, nothing less,” Newton said. “Of course, we have our goals this year. But our main focus now is going to Arizona and taking care of business to become 2-2.”
While Shula does not rely as much on the zone read as his predecessor, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, it remains an important piece of the playbook.
“I think that if you can make a team account for the quarterback, it should make the rest of your runs better,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “I think Cam is very, very good at it, as good or better than any of the other guys that are running it, in my opinion. I can’t see that we would stop doing that.”
The Panthers used a lot of their “ride read option” against the Giants. The play involves Newton putting the ball in the gut of running back DeAngelo Williams, riding him through the mesh point and then either handing it to Williams or pulling it out and running the ball himself, depending on how the defensive end plays it.
Both Newton (seven rushes for 45 yards) and Williams (23-120) ended up with season highs in rushing against the Giants.
“Sometimes it’s really just a threat, the possibility that it may happen that could open up some of the things,” Rivera said. “He starts that ride read and that defensive end is looking right at him, and he thinks he’s going to pull it so he steps outside to get Cam and all of sudden he hands it to DeAngelo. DeAngelo makes one cut and it’s 15 yards. That’s the thing that I think is important about him more than anything else.”
Gross said Newton’s runs also have a demoralizing effect on a defense.
“It causes frustration to defensive linemen, I know that,” Gross said. “We were disappointed when Eli Manning ran for a first down, so you imagine how upset the other team is when they let Cam Newton do it. Something they probably talk about all week is not letting No. 1 get out of the pocket, and when he does it’s, I would say, disappointing to them.”
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