Cam Newton can’t help himself sometimes.
The Carolina Panthers’ seventh-year quarterback will be watching an NFL game on TV – or the quarterback on the other sideline – and will experience a little passing-stats envy.
That was the case last week when he caught part of Ben Roethlisberger’s 500-yard game against Baltimore. And it might happen again Sunday when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers makes his long-anticipated return against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium (1 p.m., FOX).
But the feeling seldom lingers long for Newton, who knows the Panthers’ offense isn’t built for him to put up big numbers like the ones Big Ben accumulated for the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.
“Oftentimes I still find myself looking around the league and looking at other quarterbacks’ production and saying, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ or, ‘I can do this if that was a given opportunity,’” Newton said this week.
“I’m looking at Ben Roethlisberger the other night, had a monster game. He threw the ball 66 times. No facade – 66. And I’m looking and I’m saying to myself, ‘that’s not me.’ Taking nothing against the Pittsburgh Steelers because they are an unbelievable team and very fun to watch. But for me it’s like, we have to run the football. That’s our niche as an offense.”
It’s also Newton’s niche as a quarterback.
As much as some critics want to put Newton in a pocket-passer box, that’s not his strong suit. Even during his MVP season of 2015, Newton has never had textbook mechanics and has typically struggled with his accuracy.
But Newton has accomplished things in the run game that no other quarterback – and in some cases, no running back – has ever pulled off. And while the narrative surrounding Newton before this season centered on giving him more quick outlets to reduce the pounding he takes, Newton is well aware of what makes him unique.
As he famously said before the season, “Do you expect a lion not to roar?”
“I can get just as sore in the pocket as I can outside the pocket,” Newton said this week. “I’m just trying to put as much pressure on the defense and give them certain things that a lot of other quarterbacks can’t give them. At the end of the day, my job and responsibility is to win football games.”
Newton has done that, too.
Newton passed Jake Delhomme this season as the Panthers’ winningest quarterback, with a 60-44-1 record as a starter. Since Newton entered the league as the No. 1 pick in 2011, only six teams have a better winning percentage than the Panthers’ .573 clip.
“Whatever game plan we’ve got going in, I always have the (ability) to be able to run the football, me personally,” Newton said. “I’m just in it to win football games. I’ve never really been in it for statistical purposes. I know why I play this game.”
When Newton airs it out ...
While Roethlisberger’s 66 pass attempts against the Ravens were a career high, a heavy passing load is nothing new for him. Roethlisberger has had five games this season in which he’s thrown 40 or more passes.
Newton has had 11 games in his career with at least 40 passes – and the Panthers are 3-7-1 in those games.
One of them came in a Week 6 loss to Philadelphia, when the Eagles shut down running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey and Newton was forced to air it out 52 times.
Newton also rushed 11 times for 71 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles, the start of a stretch during which Newton led the Panthers in rushing four games in a row.
In a season that began with the Panthers limiting Newton’s runs following offseason shoulder surgery, he’s now averaging 5.85 yards a carry and is on pace to finish with 720 rushing yards, which would be the second-most of his career.
“Early in the season Cam wasn’t carrying the ball as much,” said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the former Panthers coach. “Now you have to look, he has 100 carries and he’s averaging 5.9 yards a carry, which is pretty phenomenal for a quarterback.”
Newton’s average has been boosted by a pair of long runs – a 69-yarder against Miami and a 62-yard gain last week that set up the game-winning score against Minnesota. He’s the first quarterback in NFL history with two runs of more than 60 yards in a season.
‘Not a lot of guys that can do it’
On the zone-read run against the Vikings, Newton faked the handoff to Stewart, kept the ball around the left end and put a move on Andrew Sendejo that left the Vikings safety frozen.
Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson thinks Seattle’s Russell Wilson is the only quarterback who could’ve made that same run, and maybe Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor.
“There’s just not a lot of guys that can do it,” Anderson said. “There’s not a lot of safeties that make that play, either.”
Newton has scored at least five rushing touchdowns every season he’s been in the NFL. He’s the only player – running back or otherwise – to do so over that span.
Capers said Newton’s versatility and improv skills are concerning in both the run and pass games.
“You’ve got to play every down, and he can come out of there for a big play at any point in time. And they’ll do it a lot of different ways,” Capers told Green Bay reporters.
“You’ll see at times where the coverage will be good, and he’ll buy time and the next thing you know somebody uncovers and he hits them down the field.”
That scenario unfolded in the third quarter against the Vikings when Newton avoided a sack, stepped back and threw across his body to hit Devin Funchess for an 18-yard touchdown.
It was exactly how not to do it.
As offensive coordinator Mike Shula put it: “Sometimes you have with him, more so than other guys I’ve been around, you’re like, ‘No! What were – oh, great job.’”
Ammo for the critics
Newton’s passing stats this season are more in line with last season’s low numbers than his MVP season of 2015.
He’s on pace for his fewest passing yards for a full season, and he’s near the bottom of the league in yardage, completion percentage and passer rating. Of Newton’s 25 worst passer-rating games, seven have come this season.
That’s provided plenty of ammunition for observers such as Fox Sports 1 personality Colin Cowherd, a frequent Newton critic who this week reiterated his stance on Newton’s “limited” passing skills.
The analytics site Pro Football Focus has Newton as its 25th-rated quarterback, below Bears rookie Mitchell Trubisky and Colts QB Jacoby Brissett. The PFF rankings do not appear to factor in rushing numbers.
“I don’t think he cares,” Anderson said. “Is he going to work at trying to throw the ball better from the pocket? Yeah. But I think he also knows he has an ability that not many guys in this league have. It’s running the football.”
The Panthers’ plan to evolve their offense has had its desired effect.
The addition of McCaffrey, who’s 67 catches are the most ever by a Panthers running back, has given Newton a reliable check-down outlet. Newton’s 60.0 completion percentage is a big bump from last year’s career-low 52.9 percentage and would tie for the second-best mark in Newton’s career.
With Newton completing more passes, the Panthers have held the ball longer – they’re second behind Philadelphia in time of possession – and kept their defense off the field.
“That’s the Panthers’ nature as long as I’ve been here – just to run the football and control the game,” Newton said. “So the human part of me takes over sometimes and say it’s cool statistically to throw for 300 yards and this, that and the third. But the unselfish me says, you know what? You’re winning football games. I could care less what my statistics say.”
‘The idea is to move the ball’
Greg Olsen, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl tight end, can’t believe critiques of Newton’s passing ability are still a thing.
“We’ve kind of beaten this topic to death for seven years,” Olsen said. “He’s got a unique skill set. We want to get yards. We want to score points. And it doesn’t matter if it’s him rushing for 100, throwing for 300, whatever combination of the two.
“The idea is to move the ball efficiently (and) score points. There’s no rule on how that has to be done.”
How it was done against the Vikings was this: Two big plays in the run game (Stewart also had a 60-yard gain), control the clock and limit the mistakes.
The Panthers knocked off one of the NFC’s best teams and snapped the Vikings’ eight-game winning streak with Newton throwing for 137 yards, which tied for the fourth-fewest of his career.
When a reporter referred to Newton’s passing stats as “pedestrian numbers,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera called them “effective numbers.”
“We want to make sure the decisions we’re making are good decisions that were effective when we do throw the ball,” he added.
The victory over Minnesota improved Newton’s record to 4-1 in games when he’s thrown for 140 yards or fewer. He’s 9-8 when passing for 300 yards or more.
“I say it all the time, I’ve had games where I’ve thrown for 300-plus, 400-plus yards and we lose and I feel bad,” Newton said. “But I’ve had other games – just like this past week, 135, whatever it was – it wasn’t knocking the statistics off the roof. And I felt good.”
2015 MVP season: Cam Newton’s outlier?
Cam Newton’s numbers since 2014, including his MVP season of 2015 and the 2017 season through 11 games (with career bests in BOLD):