Greg Olsen: Panthers running game 'still goes through Stew,' more fine-tuning ahead
The Panthers’ new-look offense featured a lot of fancy new wrinkles with rookie running back Christian McCaffrey early and a heavy dose of smash-mouth, Jonathan Stewart runs late.
In between, Cam Newton had his downs-and-ups – in that order – and in the end Carolina had a 23-3 victory Sunday against San Francisco at Levi’s Stadium.
Asked what pleased him most from his debut game, McCaffrey said: “I like getting a win.”
For all the bells and whistles inspired by McCaffrey and installed by Mike Shula, here’s what Panthers coach Ron Rivera and others liked most about the win: the last offensive series when Carolina’s players took the ball and went home.
The Panthers started at their 1-yard line and proceeded to burn the final eight minutes, 48 seconds with seven Stewart runs, three McCaffrey carries and three Newton kneeldowns.
“When you can run the ball when you have to run the ball – when everyone knows you’re running the ball –that says a lot about what you’ve got on your team,” Stewart said.
The way the Panthers salted the win away made up for an uneven performance by Newton and the offense as a whole.
“I don’t think we were great collectively. We had our moments,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “I think we were out of sync a little bit, early especially.”
But the final clock-killing, 48-yard drive had Olsen feeling a little better about the day.
“Probably our brightest moment was that (drive) there at the end. ... To burn eight-and-a-half (minutes), in this league, that’s hard to do from your 1-yard line.”
Playing his first-regular season game after offseason shoulder surgery, Newton showed obvious rust. Among his first-half overthrows was one to a wide-open Ed Dickson in the end zone.
But Newton delivered a pair of touchdown strikes – including a 40-yarder to Russell Shepard that Newton audibled to – and completed all six of his second-half passes.
Newton was asked to produce during and after the game: He was unavailable to the media afterward because he was called to take a random drug test.
And despite seeing a potential touchdown pass sail over his head, Dickson said he hasn’t lost confidence in Newton, who finished 14-for-25 passing for 171 yards with an interception.
“When you miss a lot of valuable time in camp, it’s going to take a little bit,” Dickson said. “He’s our guy, though. When he’s on, he’s on.”
Shula, the Panthers’ offensive play-caller, was like the kid at Christmas who gets a remote-control helicopter and plays with it all day, leaving the books, sweaters and other gifts under the tree for another day.
McCaffrey had 11 touches for 54 yards in the first half, when Shula lined him up everywhere but quarterback.
On the Panthers’ first offensive snap of 2017, McCaffrey was lined up offset in the backfield with Stewart. McCaffrey also came in motion several times as Shula tried to set up some misdirection.
Not everything McCaffrey touched turned to highlight gold.
A first-half counter was too slow to develop and was stuffed at the line. A sweet, 21-yard punt return was nullified by a holding penalty by Ben Jacobs.
And when McCaffrey reversed fields on a fourth-quarter run, cornerback Rashard Robinson stripped him and recover the fumble.
But late in the first half, McCaffrey rewarded Shula for his decision to keep feeding him, and reinforced precisely why the Panthers drafted him No. 8 last spring.
On third-and-15 after a false start penalty, McCaffrey caught a check-down from Newton just a couple yards past the line of scrimmage. He made a move, used a burst and squirted 16 yards for the first down.
McCaffrey was not Newton’s first option on the play. But he’s the kind of outlet receiver – with game-breaking skills – Newton hasn’t had in past seasons.
McCaffrey credited wideout Devin Funchess for helping spring him.
“Funch and the other receivers did a great job blocking downfield and gave me a little seam,” he said. “I knew I had to make a play if we wanted to put points on the board before the half.”
Two plays after McCaffrey picked up the first down, Newton found Kelvin Benjamin for a 25-yard completion. Two plays after that, Graham Gano’s 36-yard field goal put the Panthers up 13-0 at the break.
That was more than enough with the way the Panthers’ defense was playing.
Rivera said Stewart and McCaffrey complemented each other in much the way the Panthers envisioned.
“We know that he and Jonathan have to be balanced,” Rivera said. “I hope when it’s all said and done they’re both sitting somewhere around 14 to 18 touches apiece.”
Stewart finished with 20 touches, McCaffrey had 21 (including three punt returns).
Stewart was asked if Sunday was evidence of the start of a good backfield pairing.
“It was successful,” he said. “So if it was successful, that’s evidence, right?”
Or at least a promising start.