When former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels watched the Carolina Panthers play the New Orleans Saints in an NFC wild-card game last weekend, he was struck by the differences between the two quarterbacks.
Rosenfels wasn’t talking about the production of the Panthers’ Cam Newton and the Saints’ Drew Brees, but the way each dropped back in the pocket.
He saw an urgency in Brees, while Newton’s drops were slower and more deliberate.
As much anything related to Norv Turner’s scheme and play-calling, Rosenfels believes the Panthers’ newly hired offensive coordinator will create a greater sense of urgency in Newton.
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“Cam has twice the talent of a Drew Brees – stronger arm, physically, just a lot of those skills. But it doesn’t feel like to me that he brings that same energy that his teammates can feed off,” Rosenfels said.
“It’s not necessarily X’s-and-O’s. But maybe Norv can help him bring that type of tenacity and energy to not only make Cam better and take less hits, but make his teammates around him better.”
Much has been made this week about the familiarity and comfort level Panthers coach Ron Rivera has with Turner, the veteran NFL coach who was hired Friday to replace the ousted Mike Shula.
But the professional relationship that Turner forges with Newton ultimately will determine whether the decision to hire a 65-year-old coach who was out of the league last season was a good one.
Rivera said he expects Turner – whose son Scott will be the Panthers’ new quarterbacks coach – to take Newton’s performance to “another level.”
Rosenfels, who was with Miami for two seasons when Turner was the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator, said Turner will hold Newton accountable.
“Norv’s demanding. He feels strongly about his offense. He feels strongly about the plays he has designed over the years, helped design, and the way he sees the game,” Rosenfels said. “And he wants that offense to run smooth and be very precise, and that starts with the quarterback being very precise.
“He puts the most pressure on the quarterback more than any other position, without a doubt.”
Aikman to Rivers and beyond
Turner’s quarterback success stories date to the early 1990s, when as Dallas’ offensive coordinator he helped a young Troy Aikman develop into an All-Pro passer. The Cowboys won two Super Bowls during Turner’s three years on Jimmy Johnson’s staff, which helped Turner land his first head-coaching job, with Washington.
“Look at the quarterbacks he’s had. Look at the guys he’s helped develop, starting with Troy Aikman,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the Observer. “And you sit there and you look at Philip Rivers. Look at the success they had with Teddy Bridgewater before Teddy got hurt.”
Rivera was on Turner’s San Diego staff early in Rivers’ career. The former N.C. State quarterback appreciated Turner’s straightforward approach when they would discuss the passing game.
“I remember early conversations where it was, ‘I don’t know. Look out there. The guy’s open. Just throw the ball,” Rivers told Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback for a video piece on Turner last year.
“People make it way too complicated. There are some common-sense elements to it,” Turner said in the same video. “There are progressions, but sometimes common sense overrides the progressions.”
‘He’s changed and evolved’
Former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski also was on Turner’s Chargers staff. When Rivera was hired by the Panthers in 2011, Chudzinski came with him to Charlotte and brought Turner’s offensive scheme.
Chudzinski, who hired Turner as his offensive coordinator when Chudzinski went to Cleveland as the Browns’ head coach, said Turner’s system has evolved over the years.
“You look at his career. Four decades worth of coaching and how the game has changed and how he’s changed his offense and evolved,” Chudzinski said. “You’re talking about one of the premiere play-callers in the history of the game. He’s been fabulous throughout that time.”
Turner’s system features a heavy dose of downfield passes – and Newton’s career started with back-to-back, 400-yard games under Chudzinski running Turner’s system. But Turner also incorporated the zone read in Cleveland and with Bridgewater in Minnesota.
But it’s not as if Turner ignores his running backs.
His system produced the NFL’s leading rusher six times, with Emmitt Smith (1991-93), Ricky Williams (2002), LaDainian Tomlinson (2007) and Adrian Peterson (2015).
“He’s had a tremendous amount of success running the football. Look what he did with Emmitt when he was at Dallas. Look at what he did with L.T. (and the Chargers’) Michael Turner,” Rivera said. “He’s had some tools and some weapons. I want to see us a little more true to that style of football.”
Asked to expand, Rivera said: “Physical up front, grinding the ball, a little bit more individual matchups.”
A Sproles-like role for McCaffrey?
Rosenfels, the former quarterback who now does a daily Vikings podcast, expects Turner to try to create 1-on-1 matchups for running back Christian McCaffrey in much the way Turner did for Darren Sproles in San Diego.
And to be fair, Rosenfels said Shula also put McCaffrey in space and tried to get him favorable matchups during McCaffrey’s rookie season.
But after the Panthers’ offense in general – and Newton in particular – backslid the past two seasons, Rivera thought it was time for a change and fired Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey last week.
Former NFL defensive back Ronde Barber thinks Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart, assuming he’s back next season, also provide Turner weapons to work with.
“The team has all the components he likes – namely a tough runner, a vertical tight end and a good scatback,” said Barber, a Fox analyst. “He was the first to unleash Sproles in that role.”
Defined by Cam
But Turner’s tenure with Carolina likely will be defined by how Newton performs.
“He’s coached all different types of quarterbacks. He’s made a ton of successful quarterbacks,” Chudzinski said. “He just has a way of taking things that are complex and simplifying them and making the game easy. Letting guys go out and play, not be robots and let them do what they do best.”
In Newton’s case, Rosenfels believes that’s going to involve a lot of vertical passes to take advantage of Newton’s strong arm, which were a staple of Chudzinski’s attack during the quarterback’s first two seasons.
“Norv’s core belief is he would like to push the ball downfield. I don’t think Norv is trying to set a record for 75 percent completion percentage. He also doesn’t want it to be a 50 percent completion percentage,” Rosenfels said. “He thinks you have to attack a defense and put a defense on its heels by pushing the envelope down the field.”