“It’s that wheel route! It’s that wheel route!”
Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews bellowed the call and pointed at Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey. It was last December at Bank of America Stadium.
McCaffrey was lined up in the backfield as Newton prepared to take the snap. Newton heard Matthews’ yell, and his smile flashed wide under his visor.
“Oh, you’ve been watching film, huh?” he cackled at Matthews. “That’s cool. Watch this!”
And he switched it up on Matthews, hitting McCaffrey on an angle-route across the middle for a 7-yard touchdown.
That gleefully confident version of Newton is one the Panthers know well. But he spent the majority of a frustrating and inconsistent 2017 season rehabilitating a surgically repaired throwing shoulder, and constantly had to make adjustments in games and in practice to stave off further damage.
Meanwhile, Carolina’s offense stalled for a second consecutive season. But in that moment against Green Bay in the final stretch of the season, Newton was clearly finally feeling like his normal self.
And it was that Newton who showed up to training camp this fall, ready to take control of an offense Carolina has seen before, with a few new twists.
‘The New Normal’
In 2017, head coach Ron Rivera often used the phrase “the new normal.” But nothing felt normal about it.
After his surgery, Newton was not able to throw overhand in live action from February to the final game of the preseason. He spent most of the season on a “pitch count” in practice, and the staff took extra precaution with him in games early in the season, even limiting his designed runs.
There was more pain after games, and it lingered throughout the following week of practice.
“There were so many times last year where you felt like maybe he was back,” Rivera said. “But you have to be so careful with it. We never really stopped that way of what we were doing, what we called ‘the new normal.’ ”
But this offseason was different. Newton had his healthiest spring and summer in years, and let everybody know how good he was feeling courtesy of the early morning workout videos and short motivational pep talks posted to his Instagram stories.
“It was very big for me making the proper steps this offseason knowing that I’m full go,” said Newton. “My body feels great. I feel great. And I always got to mention to (linebacker Thomas Davis) that I even look great.”
Throughout training camp, Newton coaxed Rivera to keep the music on during practice.
He kept the energy up, talked smack and played to the crowd. His juice permeated throughout the team, on both sides of the ball.
“You see him out here with the confidence. ... You see the confidence, you see the energy level way up right now,” Rivera said.
But revitalizing an offense that has floundered in inconsistency for two years takes more than a confident, healthy quarterback. So Rivera hired new offensive coordinator Norv Turner in January in an attempt to get the Panthers humming again.
Newton playfully referred to himself by his nickname when he said last month that Turner is “(Ace) Boogie approved.”
Turner and Newton both have the same goals: Increase Newton’s completion percentage to a consistent 65-70 each game. Play fast, play efficiently.
“I think a lot of it is that (Newton) sees and gets what Norv is trying to do offensively and what it can mean for us a football team,” Rivera said. “And what it can mean for him individually.”
But their appreciation of details is where they instantly discovered commonality.
‘He doesn’t miss anything’
Immediately upon meeting Jarius Wright, the free-agent receiver the Panthers signed this spring, Newton noticed that Wright’s thumb bent backward at an odd angle.
Now, Wright’s nickname is “Janky-thumb.”
“That’s one thing about Cam, he doesn’t miss anything,” laughed Scott Turner, Norv’s son and the Panthers’ quarterbacks coach. “He’s so engaged with everything that you can’t get anything by him.”
That quality makes Newton a great match for Norv Turner, a former receivers coach who has been said to cuss out wideouts for cutting off a route even a few inches too early or too late.
The two first bonded over details as they installed Turner’s system. But their relationship has developed into mutual appreciation for each others’ energy and personalities.
“(Norv Turner and I have) encouraged Cam to be himself,” Scott Turner said. “And just go out there and be him, you know? Play the game he likes to play and have fun doing it.”
Newton even mimics Turner’s “I love it” catchphrase, much to the delight of his teammates and the two Turners.
But they give as good as they get.
After Newton got a black eye following a tumble in Carolina’s preseason game against New England, both Turners playfully dramatized the effect the shiner had on Newton’s looks.
“Norv? That’s my guy,” said Newton. “It’s funny because you guys’ stereotype of Norv is kind of how I thought Norv would be, and it’s completely opposite. Norv is very mild-mannered, (a) jokester that I wasn’t expecting. ...
“But he comes to the side. ...”
The fact that Turner’s system is a familiar one also helped Newton and the entire offense get into an early rhythm as the Panthers installed it during training camp.
Turner is the original architect of the offense former Panthers coordinator Rob Chudzinski ran in Newton’s outstanding rookie season. Then Mike Shula ran five years of variations of that same offense, including Newton’s 2015 MVP campaign and the Panthers’ Super Bowl run. But they both borrowed from Turner.
“Now we’ve basically got the guy who it was modeled from running it now,” Rivera said. “So I’m excited about the potential of what we can do and what we can be if we can stay healthy.”
Carolina overhauled its receivers room this spring, too, to include playmakers for Newton who are ideal in Turner’s offense.
Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel are complementary to each other on the field while still possessing some identical baseline qualities: They’re fast, they can separate consistently from defensive backs and they can create yards after the catch.
These qualities match an offense that relies on precise route-running, the creation of layers in the intermediate part of the field and the presentation of checkdown options to Newton.
The deep balls Newton and his battleship-cannon arm have long been known for are still often the primary look. But what Turner wants to do is give Newton multiple targets with which to adjust if the play isn’t there.
”We talk a lot about if the picture is fuzzy, you don’t like the primary target down the field, then get the ball out of your hand,” said Scott Turner. “A lot of times those are underneath routes, whether it’s receivers, tight ends or backs.
“(Newton has) really taken ownership of that and bought in. ... It doesn’t always have to be a big throw downfield.
“Those are going to come, and we know it’s a big part of his game. But when it’s not there, those underneath throws can really get you a (strategic) down and distance, allow the ball to move down the field. It takes the stress off the offensive line and it takes hits off him.”
The new ‘new normal’
Against New England, Carolina rolled out its most updated iteration of its “new” offense.
McCaffrey, who Rivera said at the start of training camp could ultimately get 25-30 touches per game, had 11 in the first quarter.
Feeding McCaffrey early and often allowed Carolina to play fast and forced the Patriots’ defense to account for him on every snap, which eventually freed up others.
Newton targeted seven different receivers by halftime. He stretched the field twice with Devin Funchess and Curtis Samuel for 28 yards apiece (another deep ball meant for Torrey Smith fell incomplete).
Other than poor red zone efficiency, the Panthers seemed to be in control at the line of scrimmage, on the ground and in the air. By the time the first team jogged off the field at halftime, Carolina had 203 yards of offense and no turnovers.
Newton finished the half 11 of 17 for 142 yards. And his completion percentage for the preseason sat firmly at 68.4 — right where he and Turner both want to be.
If this is the new “new normal,” the Panthers will take it.