While the Carolina Panthers were finishing up their morning walkthrough Thursday, a TV inside Wofford’s student center was tuned to an ESPN program featuring two analysts discussing whether tweaking the team’s offense made the most of quarterback Cam Newton’s unique skill set.
About an hour later, Newton – wearing a straw hat and madras shorts – sat down in the media room and offered his perspective on the Panthers’ plans to run Newton less to preserve the tread on his 28-year-old body.
Newton’s take: He’s fine with fewer called runs out of the zone read or other sets. But if it’s third-and-7 and the pocket breaks down and there’s a running lane, he’s going to take off – surgically repaired shoulder, ankle and all.
Or as Newton perfectly put it in his Cam-like way: “That’s my edge. You going to expect a lion not to roar?”
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(Running is) my edge. You going to expect a lion not to roar?
Quarterback Cam Newton on an evolving Panthers offense
Newton has roared to some prolific rushing numbers through his first six seasons.
His 689 carries are by the far the most of any quarterback, and his 48 touchdown runs are the most by a quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
Since the Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011, only one player – Bills running back LeSean McCoy – has more rushing touchdowns.
But all those runs and subsequent hits have come with a cost. Newton had ankle surgery following the 2013 season and underwent surgery in March on a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.
Newton also sustained his first known concussion last season when Atlanta when he slowed up and showboated before reaching the end zone.
The dramatic dip in Newton’s production from his 2015 MVP season, combined with the wear and tear on his body, convinced the Panthers coaching staff to evolve their offense – Ron Rivera’s phrasing – to protect their $103.8 million quarterback.
“He’s not as young and nimble as he used to be,” Rivera said in January. “We have to be smart about that and think about other ways to use him. ... You can’t sit there and expect us to run 20 zone reads and then expect him to carry the ball say 10 out of 20 times.”
Help on the way
To take some of the load off Newton, the Panthers drafted two fast, versatile athletes with their first two picks – Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel.
The idea is to get the ball out of Newton’s hands faster on quick-hitting underneath throws and expose him to less of a pounding in the pocket with fewer of the slow-developing, deep patterns that take took advantage of Newton’s arm strength.
The other half of the shift in offensive philosophy – as Rivera noted in January – is to have Newton hand the ball off more often and keep it less.
At least on designed runs.
As Newton made clear Thursday during his first press conference since a Week 17 loss at Tampa Bay on Jan. 1, he’s not ready to give up a facet of his game that has made him a beast to defend since his Heisman Trophy- and national championship-winning season at Auburn.
“You’ve got to really ask yourself that, like I couldn’t imagine talking to (Tom) Brady or Aaron (Rodgers) or Matt Ryan or (Drew) Brees and saying, ‘Hey, you going to stay in the pocket all day like that?’” Newton said. “That’s where you feel comfortable at. In my career over the whole body of work, the things that have put me at an advantage most times is having that ability to run.”
‘A couple kids in’
Newton showed more self-awareness Thursday than he’s displayed at times in the past, especially when he discussed not over-doing it in his return from shoulder surgery.
Newton said at this stage in his life and career – “a couple kids in” – he has begun to feel what he called “the little throbs.”
He felt plenty of not-so little throbs last season, beginning with the illegal took he hits in Week 1 at Denver and continuing through that season-ending loss at Tampa, when he played hurt to show teammates he was a gamer.
There’s no question scaling back on the zone reads and quarterback sneaks is the right move for Newton’s longevity. But is it the right call for the Panthers’ 2017 season?
That’s what Newton’s concerned about, and he said he’s willing to go along with this new-look offense if it results in more Ws.
“Do I have weapons? Absolutely. But it’s still going to be on me and in me to focus on getting those different outlets the ball (at) the right time,” he said. “But as far as designed or called runs, I could care less. I want to win in the worst way. Straight up. We owe it to owe our fans, we owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our overall process.”