When Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took off from the pocket toward the end zone late in the first half Sunday, everyone on the Panthers’ sideline sensed what was coming next.
That included teammates, coaches and a medical staff that had to wince as Newton leaped from the 3-yard line and extended his surgically repaired shoulder toward the goal line.
“I think the whole (coaches) box and sideline knew that once he got to the 8-yard line that he was going airborne,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Somebody said a couple of trainers were anticipating it on (Newton’s) way down. I mean, that was not a designed run.”
Newton’s 9-yard touchdown against Atlanta was just the latest – and most daring – example of what’s become increasingly clear: The Panthers might have talked about exposing Newton to less pounding with fewer called runs this season, but sometimes No. 1 is not going to take no for an answer.
“It’s Cam, man. He already thinks he’s Superman,” defensive back Captain Munnerlyn said. “I knew he was going to take off.”
Newton’s rushing numbers have taken off in recent weeks as the Panthers’ traditional run game bogged down and Newton and the coaching staff became more comfortable with his progress from offseason shoulder surgery.
After averaging 5.8 carries a game over the first five weeks, Newton has averaged 10 rushes the last four games. He’s led the Panthers in rushing four games in a row, capped by a season-high, 86-yard rushing effort in the 20-17 win against the Falcons.
Of Newton’s nine carries vs. Atlanta, seven came on designed runs and two were scrambles, including a head-first touchdown dive.
With linebacker Deion Jones wrapped around his legs, Newton extended the ball past the goal line and dunked it off the helmet of cornerback Desmond Trufant, who gave Newton a forearm shiver on his way down.
“I saw the opening and took full advantage of it, I’ve just got to protect the ball throughout the fall,” Newton said. “But this was one of those games that I wasn’t caring about body, ligaments or whatever. I’m just trying to win a football game.”
The Panthers (6-3) beat a division rival for the second week in a row to keep pace with New Orleans (6-2), which knocked off Tampa Bay for its sixth consecutive victory.
Newton and rookie Christian McCaffrey (15 carries for 66 yards, both career highs) spearheaded a 201-yard ground attack on a day when veteran Jonathan Stewart lost two fumbles for the first time in his career.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he’s OK with Newton running as long as Shula does so judiciously and Newton is smart about sliding and going out of bounds to avoid big collisions.
“The only one that was a little on the exciting side (vs. the Falcons) is when he leaped to get the touchdown,” Rivera said. “That was, uh, a little too much. But I ain’t going to stop him.”
Actually, while the Panthers never said they were going to stop Newton from running, the premise behind the evolve-the-offense talk was to limit Newton’s exposure to the type of debilitating hits he took during a 2016 season that saw him miss a start with his first known concussion and play the final few games with a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.
The Panthers were cautious with Newton early on, shutting him down for 12 days at training camp and playing him only one series during the preseason. When the regular season started, Shula wasn’t calling many runs or deep passes for Newton – at least initially.
Shula said the Panthers continue to walk a fine line with the 6-5, 245-pound Newton, whose size and running skills help make him unique.
“He probably would want to run it more. I don’t want to ask him. I know the answer,” Shula said, laughing. “It is part of his game. So to take that away, I think you’re taking a piece of him and a piece of his game away. That’s a delicate balance.”
Through nine games, Newton is averaging 7.7 rushes per game and is on pace for 123 carries this season, which would be the fourth-highest total of his career.
Newton ran for 359 yards on 90 carries last season, both of which were career lows. He’s only 19 yards away from eclipsing that total this year.
During Fox’s broadcast Sunday, former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said Newton was playing injured. Rivera said it was more a case of Newton still working his way back from surgery.
But if a concussion last year or ankle surgery a few years ago didn’t get Newton to change his game, no one should be surprised he’s back running again eight months after shoulder surgery.
After all, Newton said as much during the preseason when he famously asked: “You going to expect a lion not to roar?”
“I’ve been playing like this for a long time,” Newton said following Sunday’s win. “I trust in my preparation, I trust in my body, I trust in the things I put in my body that I’m going to be 100 percent come game time.”