It’s amazing what a full-ish week of practice and a more active presence in the running game did for Cam Newton’s rhythm.
The Panthers quarterback was coming off one of the worst games of his career last week against New Orleans, and had shown little evidence that he was on the verge of correcting things before taking on the defending champion Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
But Newton shook off an early interception and found his groove, accounting for four touchdowns and outplaying New England quarterback Tom Brady in a 33-30 victory that Newton called a breakthrough game for the Panthers’ offense.
“Let’s be honest. I seen the pick-ems,” Newton said. “It wasn’t favorable for us.”
Things didn’t start favorably on Sunday, either.
A promising opening drive stalled out in the red zone again as the Panthers settled for a Graham Gano field goal. On the next series, Newton forced a deep throw to Damiere Byrd into double coverage, and was intercepted by Malcolm Butler.
But then Newton rattled off a streak of 10 consecutive completions, started making better decisions and looked more like the player who was the league MVP in 2015 than the one who came into the game as the NFL’s 29th-lowest rated starting quarterback.
Newton was still limited during practice last week as the Panthers continue to manage his activity following shoulder surgery. But he was more involved than he’d been before the Saints game, and those practice reps were key for a new-look offense that hadn’t yet found its footing.
“It just takes time. Anything great – this offense isn’t cereal or instant grits. This a full-on entree,” Newton said. “And we have to prepare that way and knowing moving forward we’ve got impact players, playmakers, that when you give them opportunities to make plays they will do it.”
Newton gave shout-outs to his offensive line for its solid protection (two sacks) and wide receiver Devin Funchess for his “big-boy catches.”
Funchess caught seven passes for 70 yards and had the first two-touchdown game of his career. Funchess was fighting cramps on the final drive, but came up with a big, 5-yard reception on third-and-3 to help set up Graham Gano’s game-winning field goal.
After his interception – which he equated to a punt – Newton did a better job going through his reads and finding the holes in the NFL’s worst-ranked pass defense. Newton threaded several long passes to tight end Ed Dickson and wideout Kelvin Benjamin, but also was on point with most of the “layups” to Christian McCaffrey that Newton had been missing the first few weeks.
“Just moving the ball forward with the little check-downs is very key for us,” Newton said. “As long as that defense is out there with the players we’ve got, something’s bound to happen good for us. That’s what my mentality has to be.”
Newton completed 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 130.8, the second highest of his career on the road. His 75.9 completion percentage was the sixth-best of his career.
Newton moved past Jake Delhomme as the Panthers’ winningest quarterback (54 victories) and improved to 2-0 against Brady.
“He knew he was playing one of the all-time great quarterbacks in the league,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He wanted to show that he could play with that guy, and he really did.”
Newton also was a factor in the run game for the first time this season. He picked up a couple of key first downs on quarterback draws and put the Panthers up by two touchdowns with a 7-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
Newton paused after the score – the 50th rushing TD of his career – and raised his left fist in a salute to black power. He then proceeded with his customary Superman celebration.
The Panthers don’t want Newton 2.0 running the ball 10 to 15 times a day (he had eight carries for 44 yards Sunday). But Rivera agreed that when Newton is more involved in the run game, it seems to help him get in the flow overall.
Dickson saw it, too.
“He gets energy when he runs the ball,” Dickson said. “He’s a different guy. They call him Superman for a reason, and at times we think he can’t lose or he can’t get hurt.”
Newton played hurt at the end of last season and he’s still dealing with soreness in his shoulder.
But he looked a lot healthier Sunday, when offensive coordinator Mike Shula threw the full Newton package at New England after holding back during the season’s first month.
“We know what he’s capable of and it’s been very reserved the first couple of weeks,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “I feel like the play-calling hasn’t been aggressive, but we opened up the playbook and it showed.”
“You could see it in his performance,” Davis said. “He was juiced and went out and played like Cam.”