Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw two passes the entire preseason.
Both were reflective of what head coach Ron Rivera had in mind when he first talked about evolving the offense near the end of last season.
Until the third exhibition at Jacksonville, when Newton made his only appearance of the preseason, the only hints at what the offensive changes might look like came in the form of phrases (“Quick-hitting passes designed to get the ball out of Newton’s hands faster”) and announcements (“With the eighth pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers select Christian McCaffrey.”)
And while offensive coordinator Mike Shula wasn’t going to unveil his new wrinkles in an exhibition, Newton’s two throws vs. the Jaguars at least gave fans a glimpse into what the Panthers hope to see as Newton, 28, moves into the second phase of his career:
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▪ Second-and-6 from Jaguars 26: Newton takes a shotgun snap, looks for his two receivers to the right side of the formation, then checks down to McCaffrey in the middle of the field for a 12-yard catch-and-run. Ball was out in fewer than three seconds. A defender brushed Newton as he released.
▪ Third-and-6 from Jaguars 9: Again in the shotgun, Newton sees a blitz and man coverage on his receivers, hits Kelvin Benjamin on a rub route for the touchdown. Ball was out in fewer than 1.5 seconds, before defensive end Yannick Ngakoue could get to Newton.
That’s an extremely small sample size, but demonstrated precisely the kinds of fast decisions and quick reads and releases the Panthers coaches want to see from Newton, Version 2.0.
“When you talk about getting the ball out quick, that doesn’t mean it’s nothing but dink-and-dunks,” quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey said. “There are downfield options you can take advantage of and still be decisive with your decision-making process and get the ball out, and then still work through your reads and find an underneath option if that (downfield) option isn’t there.”
Newton checked both those boxes with his only two preseason throws, but there are many more tests to come as defenses ramp up their disguised coverages, stunts and intricate blitzes once the games start to count.
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There will still be times when Newton takes deep pass sets and launches 60-yard bombs.
“We’re also not going to forget who we are. And we’re a team that’s been very good throwing the ball down the field,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We’re not going to all of a sudden play the game in a box.”
But Rivera doesn’t want Newton sitting in the pocket getting clobbered like he did during a difficult 2016 season that included a phone conversation with Roger Goodell in which Newton lobbied for the same protections from officials that other quarterbacks enjoy.
To that end, the Panthers figure to employ more play-action passes and rollouts to slow down opposing rushers. Likewise, expect to see fewer zone-read option runs with Newton and more screen plays and draws to McCaffrey and quick hitches and bubble screens to rookie wideout Curtis Samuel.
“Dorsey’s really been harping on us (about) understanding where your outlets are,” backup quarterback Derek Anderson said. “If things are cloudy or if it’s kind of messy, boom – get it to your outlets. Make those guys make plays for you.”
Plays in space
And it’s not just the new guys. Olsen says running backs Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker have shown they’re capable of making plays in space (or in Stewart’s case, running defenders over).
“If teams are dropping really deep and getting deep in their zones, and we’ve got McCaffrey and Stew and Fozzy underneath to get the ball to, that’s just good football sense to get them the ball in space,” Olsen said. “You saw Christian catch a little check-down and get 12 yards (vs. the Jaguars). When those play are there, we’ve got to make them.”
The Panthers are not the first team to tweak their offense to take some of the wear and tear off its quarterback as he got older. Rivera points to what the Steelers did with Ben Roethlisberger – surrounding him with dynamic playmakers such as Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and having him get rid of the ball quicker – as a good example of what the Panthers hope to accomplish with Newton.
They took the first step last spring when former GM Dave Gettleman doubled down on versatile playmakers by taking McCaffrey and Samuel with the first two draft picks.
While McCaffrey looks like a star in the making, no one’s yet comparing him and Samuel with Bell and Brown. And for all the new skill-position additions (slot WR Russell Shepard signed as a free agent), the success or failure of this grand experiment will still fall on Newton and his surgically repaired throwing shoulder.
“Do I have weapons? Absolutely,” Newton said during training camp. “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.”
If this were any other quarterback who’d won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, been named the league’s MVP and played in a Super Bowl, no one would question his ability to succeed in a revamped system.
But Newton still has his share of critics, many of whom question whether the strong-armed QB possesses the accuracy and touch to make the underneath and intermediate throws.
To be fair, Newton offered up plenty of ammunition last season with an NFL-low completion percentage (52.9) and a career-worst passer rating (75.8).
But count Dorsey among those who are confident that Newton owns the arm – and brains – to make the reads and the throws in the next phase of his career, one that could well define him as a quarterback.
“He’s got the ability to do anything on a football field from an athletic standpoint, but also from a quick, mind standpoint,” Dorsey said. “He sees the field very well. He’s got great instincts for the game, great vision. And he’s got the physical ability to make any throw on the field.”