When Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton arrived from Auburn as the No. 1 pick in 2011, he brought with him a zone-read rushing wrinkle that had never been used in the NFL.
Newton and former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski were credited with establishing the read-option blueprint that athletic quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III followed.
But as defenses adjust and Newton gets older, the zone read is slowly becoming a relic in the Carolina offense.
Prepare to hear a lot about the evolution of the Panthers’ offense this offseason as head coach Ron Rivera and his staff seek solutions after the worst statistical season of Newton’s six-year career.
But in at least one respect, that process already has begun.
Over the Panthers’ final seven games, Newton had only 33 carries – by far his fewest rushing attempts over that long a span.
Part of that decline can be chalked up to Newton and the Panthers wanting to protect his sore throwing shoulder. But Rivera intimated it also had something to do with the fact that the zone read wasn’t working as well anymore.
“There are some things that we used to be able to do that we’re not as effective at,” Rivera said last week. “I think it’s because of how we’re changing. A part of it – a big part of it – does start with our quarterback.”
The Panthers face no greater offseason task than changing their offense to benefit Newton, whose career-worst 75.8 passer rating was the lowest by a reigning league MVP since Steve McNair’s 73.1 mark in 2004.
And while Newton sounded a little defensive about the idea of an offseason overhaul – “I don’t know what evolve means,” he said after the Week 17 loss at Tampa Bay – he also doesn’t want to endure another 6-10 season.
“We just gotta get (back) to winning football games,” he said. “So if that’s what it’s going to take, then I’m for it.”
A longevity issue
Evolving the offense isn’t only about making it more productive. It’s also about improving Newton’s longevity.
No quarterback has had as many rushing attempts within his first six seasons as Newton (689). All those carries – not to mention the 221 sacks he’s taken and hits he’s absorbed after releasing the ball – have taken a toll.
Newton had ankle surgery after the 2014 season. He sustained his first concussion at Atlanta this season and missed a game. He played the latter part of this season with a shoulder injury that the Panthers say will not require offseason surgery.
The 6-5, 260-pound Newton has never been a speed-burner in the mold of Griffin or Michael Vick, Newton’s childhood football idol.
Still, Newton looked more lumbering in 2016 than in past seasons.
“He’s not as young and nimble as he used to be,” Rivera said. “We have to be smart about that. We have to think about other ways to use him, other ways to use his athleticism.”
Minimizing the hits
Former NFL quarterback Mark Brunell was considered a running quarterback during his prime years with Jacksonville. But Brunell, whose final NFL season coincided with Newton’s rookie year of 2011, said offenses were different in the 1990s and 2000s.
“When I played there really weren’t any called running plays (for quarterbacks). There were no RPOs (run-pass options) or zone-reads,” Brunell said. “When I ran it was because nothing was open and that was more of a scramble than anything else.”
Newton will turn 28 in May, still relatively young by quarterback standards.
“Cam is 28, he’s not 37,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said.
But if the Panthers want Newton to be effective into his mid- to late-30s, Brunell said minimizing the hits he takes is smart.
“You’ve got to protect these guys’ bodies. The older they get, it’s harder to recover. You become more injury-prone the older you get,” Brunell said in a phone interview from his home in Jacksonville.
“So it needs to be at least part of the thought process that as Cam gets older, you’ve got limit those because he’s not the same player he was three or four years ago when he was young.
“It’s not like he’s a 12- or 13-year guy. But every year it makes a difference.”
Rivera and Gettleman expressed confidence that offensive coordinator Mike Shula is the right coach to handle the transformation of Cam and the offense.
It’s not as simple as scrapping the zone read, some portion of which is probably worth keeping if only to give defensive coordinators something else to prepare for each week.
But if the Panthers aren’t going to be using as many called runs for Newton, they’re going to need another way to keep defenses honest. Rivera pointed to “hard play-action” passes, in which Newton really sells the handoff fake before looking for his receiving targets.
The Panthers also will look to add more quick-hitting passes and move Newton out of the pocket on rollouts and bootlegs.
Expect the Panthers to continue to utilize Newton as a runner in short-yardage and goal-line situations, not to mention the times he’ll scramble from the pocket.
“He still has a unique skill set. We’ve just got to find the best way to utilize it now,” Rivera said. “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 those 20 times.
“But he still has the ability to get outside the pocket. He still has the ability to use play-action, (bootleg) action ... because he’s athletic and he’s strong-armed.”
The rollout game
The Panthers haven’t done much in the way or rollout passes with Newton, who’s been more of a pocket passer. And while Newton is often criticized for holding the ball too long, a good chunk of the passes in Shula’s playbook are slow-developing plays.
Brunell says Newton could thrive in the rollout game.
“It’s relatively easy I think, especially for a guy as athletic as Cam,” Brunell said. “Cam should have no problem rolling out and throwing on the run. I would imagine he would do quite well with that.”
Newton, who finished with career lows in passer rating and completion percentage (52.9), says he tries to “stay in my lane” in matters related to scheme and play-calling.
Gotta get away
Newton has left little doubt that he needs a break from football, a game he said last weekend he had a “love-hate” relationship with. Newton had previously mentioned wanting to take a sabbatical, a topic he returned to following the loss in Tampa.
“A lot of guys want to get away from the game and we’re going to do that,” Newton said. “We just have to focus on putting a better product on the field next year.”
That focus will fall squarely on Newton’s broad shoulders.
Newton needs to embrace the changes that await him when he returns from his sabbatical in March. No less than his future – and those of his head coach and a lot of other people in the organization – could be riding on it.
The Panthers’ Cam Newton has more rushing attempts within his first six seasons than any other quarterback. The top-10 rushing quarterbacks (by carries) within their first six seasons:
Source: Pro Football Reference
*–First five professional seasons