Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was talking about “Panther football” on Wednesday, and how exciting it is playing when he and his teammates are clicking.
Then he described what it looks like when they’re not.
“And when we’re not, it’s just a lethargic team that’s out there that’s emotionless, and that has to change,” Newton said. “We have to give ourselves reasons to celebrate and be enthusiastic while out there on the football team. And when you do that, that’s contagious.”
The solution is pretty simple, at least on paper: More big plays.
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Newton and his offensive teammates were big-play machines in road victories at New England and Detroit. But those plays have dried up the past two weeks in losses to Philadelphia and Chicago – where Kelvin Benjamin’s 37-yard catch was the only play longer than 20 yards.
The Panthers’ lack of a consistent deep threat following the departure of Ted Ginn Jr. has been well documented.
But they’re not cranking out long gains in the run game, either. The Panthers have only one rushing play longer than 16 yards this season, and it was by a receiver – rookie Curtis Samuel’s 31-yard reverse against New Orleans.
The Panthers drafted Stanford do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey No. 8 overall to add a home-run threat as a runner, receiver and returner. But McCaffrey has been picking up most of his yards in short gains, rather than tearing off big chunks.
McCaffrey’s longest rush was an 11-yarder at San Francisco in Week 1. And while McCaffrey will likely break Jonathan Stewart’s single-season receptions record by a Panthers back in just his eighth game, only two of his 44 catches have gone for 20 or more yards.
“You’ve got to be patient. The big plays will come. You’ve got to let the game kind of come to you,” McCaffrey said. “You can’t press. You can’t try to make something crazy happen when nothing’s there. You’ve just got to keep pushing.”
Newton’s 11 big-play passes (of 25 yards-plus) are tied for 13th among NFL quarterbacks. That’s the same total as Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett and two fewer than Texans rookie DeShaun Watson.
And seven of them came in two games – the rousing wins against the Patriots and Lions.
But since then most of the big plays have been supplied by opposing defenses. The Eagles intercepted Newton three times, and Bears rookie safety Eddie Jackson scored on fumble and interception returns covering 75 and 76 yards, respectively.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera defended Newton, pointing out that the Jackson’s pick six ricocheted off a defender’s hand and the fumble came on an option pitch dropped by Samuel.
But Newton wasn’t feeding the bad-bounces narrative.
“It is what it is. But nobody cares. Nobody cares about my feelings. Nobody cares if the ball popped up in the air and got tipped or what have you,” Newton said. “It’s just on us to make sure that when we have opportunities to make plays and do things we know we’re capable of doing, we’ve just got to do it.”
While starting wideouts Devin Funchess and Benjamin are more possession-type receivers, both are tall and athletic enough to go up and make plays on jump balls – as Benjamin did at Chicago.
And Samuel has the speed to stretch a secondary.
Early in the season offensive coordinator Mike Shula wasn’t calling those plays because Newton was coming off shoulder surgery. Whether the deep shots are being called at a greater rate is unclear, but Newton isn’t throwing many of them.
Some of that is not having time to throw: Newton has been sacked 22 times through seven games and is on pace for 50 this season, which would shatter his previous high of 43 in 2013.
Other times Newton has held the ball too long, not seen open receivers or overthrown it.
“It takes all 11 guys on the team to make a big play. And I think we have had a lot of great plays,” McCaffrey said.
“Sometimes a 1-yard gain for a first down on third-and-1 is a big play. People take that for granted. It might not be a 70-yard touchdown. But you’ve got to play winning football and sometimes that stuff is going to help the team win.”
Moving the chains is important. But to Newton’s point, most 1-yard runs aren’t going to energize the crowd and help the Panthers shake off their lethargy the way a 60-yard bomb would.
“I think there are some things that can spark and light something up, whether it’s a big return or a big play, big defensive play, that just helps catapult it. And that’s one of the things that we have lacked,” Rivera said.
“We haven’t had the big plays. We’ve missed some opportunities to create big plays. And unfortunately we’ve given up a couple big plays in the last couple of weeks that have hurt us.”