After Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was banged around and knocked down in the opener at Denver, much of the talk before Sunday’s game against San Francisco focused on whether the officials would do a better job of protecting him.
It turned out Newton received protection from a more traditional source – his teammates.
With the NFL and NFL Players Association investigating the Panthers’ handling of Newton during the loss to the Broncos, the Panthers’ offensive linemen made sure there would be no controversy involving their quarterback this week.
Newton attempted 40 passes and was sacked only once in the Panthers’ 46-27 victory at Bank of America Stadium. And that sack could be filed in the category Newton described as “brain farts.”
It came on the second play of the fourth quarter, when Newton got a little too cute dancing around would-be tacklers and a little too loose with the football, allowing linebacker Gerald Hodges to knock it loose for a fumble. Even then, Newton wasn’t hit on the play.
Unofficially Newton was hit three or four times in the pocket, a far cry from the pounding he took in Denver that prompted two investigations and public outcry about whether the tight end-like Newton is treated differently than other quarterbacks.
No wonder Newton showed up to his news conference wearing a smile – along with his carnival barker’s hat.
“Our offensive line did an unbelievable job with just holding firm and being stout up front,” Newton said.
A different day
There were a few things that worked in the Panthers’ favor in keeping Cam upright.
It helped that they were playing at home, where Newton could use his normal cadence rather than the silent snap counts the Panthers relied on in the din of Mile High. Newton said that let the line and the entire offense play with a better tempo.
Secondly, the 49ers’ 3-4 defense might be similar to Denver in scheme. But San Francisco’s defensive personnel does not remotely resemble the Broncos’.
That is to say, there were no Von Millers breathing down Newton’s neck – and no Darian Stewarts or Brandon Marshalls going high on him, either.
The offensive line deserves credit for the clean pockets Newton enjoyed most of the day.
“We always try to do our best to protect him. It’s a hard thing to do in this league. We’re facing really good defensive fronts,” center Ryan Kalil said. “I thought we did a good job for the most part identifying some of the blitzes and pressures and then winning our one-on-one battles.”
Protection breeds production
Given protection, Newton turned in one of his most prolific passing games.
He completed 24-of-40 passes for 353 yards and four touchdowns. It was the fourth-highest passing total of his career, and the most since Week 4 of his rookie season.
Newton also moved past Jake Delhomme into the top spot in two Panthers passing categories – career touchdowns (122) and 300-yard passing games (12).
Someone mentioned the records to Newton afterward. He smiled and said he wanted to win games.
“That’s it,” he added. “And along the way, obviously, you can’t win football games without scoring points.”
Newton’s performance also helped the Panthers achieve another milestone. Sunday was the first time in the franchise’s 22 years that Carolina had a 300-yard passer, two 100-yard receivers (Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen) and a 100-yard rusher (Fozzy Whittaker).
Coach Ron Rivera said the success started up front.
“I thought they did a great job,” he said. “We had over 500 yards of total offense so we obviously did something well.”
‘A positive on his longevity’
The 529 yards and 46 points were both the third-most in a regular-season game in team history.
More important than the stats and records was the fact that Newton wasn’t answering questions about helmet-to-helmet hits and concussion protocol late Sunday afternoon.
Asked about the protection Newton received, Whittaker said: “That’s a positive on his longevity – not just for this season, but his life in the long run.”
Whittaker might have been the beneficiary of the so-called Cam Newton Effect, which refers to the heightened awareness of big hits and potential concussions resulting from Newton’s experience in Denver.
Panthers trainers and doctors evaluated Whittaker for a concussion in the first half after he fumbled during a collision. Whittaker groused a bit on the sideline, but said later he was grateful that the medical staff checked (and cleared) him.
“In the heat of the moment, you’re kind of lit up – ‘I want to get back on the field,’ ” Whittaker said. “But in the longevity, it’s definitely going to make a difference.”
Having a healthy and protected Newton on Sunday made all the difference.