When new Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner met quarterback Cam Newton, there was an immediate understanding between the two about one major facet of Newton’s game.
He would still be utilized as a rushing threat, Newton said after Carolina’s 16-8 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the season-opener.
“It was as simple as ....”
Newton, at the podium after the game, tucked his chin in a little and launched into a gravelly voiced Turner impression.
“’Hey baby,’” he cracked, “’I’m-a let you be you now, baby.’”
“I said, ‘OK, Coach.’”
“’All right now. Just let it go out there today, baby.’”
It’s seems laughable for anyone to question whether Newton should continue to use his legs, though coaches did limit his carries and designed runs early last season to keep him from taking the harder “running back” hits after offseason shoulder surgery in 2017.
But in case anybody needed to be reminded, Newton showed right away on Sunday why his ability as a runner is such a game-changing threat. He broke off a huge 29-yard rumble in the first quarter during which he threw Dallas safety Jeff Heath to the ground, and the crowd lit up — as did Newton’s teammates. He led both teams in rushing by halftime and finished with a team-high 58 rushing yards and a touchdown.
That never gets old, said veteran center Ryan Kalil.
“It helps us out tremendously,” he said. “He’s a special player, and he’s someone you have to account for. It adds another element to our offense. ... He can make guys miss, he can extend a play.”
Newton had the energy going early. He wore cleats with silver-starred sheriff’s badges painted on them during pregame warmups on Sunday, a sly nod and perhaps a reminder to the Cowboys whose waterin’ hole Bank of America Stadium is.
“You missed the spurs,” joked head coach Ron Rivera after the game.
Despite the spaghetti-Western storylines, there wasn’t much all-out gunslinging between the two teams in Sunday’s low-scoring game.
Newton was 17 for 26 with 161 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions (a 65.3 completion percentage.
But Newton and Turner worked pretty efficiently on Sunday, throwing a lot of looks out at the Cowboys defense.
“It’s still early, (but) I felt extremely comfortable with what (Turner) was doing,” said Newton. “I understood the game plan going into it, and it’s still kind of give-and-take, knowing how he calls, just the preparation process through this week. ... We felt good, and we just want to keep getting better.”
Newton had four carries in the first quarter, including the 29-yard long. He finished the half with 64 yards on seven carries and a touchdown, which led both teams in rushing at time.
Rivera said that when he and Turner watch Newton’s own energy prior to games, at times they might adjust the early calls (in correlation with defensive looks) to capitalize on the momentum-shifts Newton can get with his legs.
“Yes and no, some of it depends on the circumstances,” Rivera said. “Norv just felt, watching him during warmups, Norv just felt that he probably had to get him going earlier, which he did. Once he got his rhythm, we moved the ball well.”
Newton set up the offense in the red zone late in the quarter, but running back Christian McCaffrey was stripped by defensive tackle Daniel Ross at the 5-yard line and the Cowboys recovered.
Carolina went back to McCaffrey in the second quarter and he fared much better, rumbling for 18 yards on two carries. Newton faked a slick handoff to McCaffrey that fooled defensive end DaMarcus Lawrence, and then Newton ran it in himself.
Newton stayed true to the “cowboy” theme when he celebrated, pretending to ride a pony through the corner of the end zone before the first “Sunday Giveaway” of the year to a child in the stands.
“I thought about that today,” he laughed. “I said, ‘What am I going to do when I score? I’m big on energy. I’m big on feeding the world energy
“I was doing my body prayer today, something that is very dear to me, I was like, ‘Man, I gotta think about something I gotta do,” and that’s the only thing I thought of.”
The Panthers settled for a 27-yard field goal to end the half, for a 10-0 lead. Aside from Newton’s score, they struggled in the red zone throughout the bulk of the first three quarters.
“We did a lot of good things, but we just have to stay on rhythm,” Newton said. “That’s when we’re at our best, those methodical, long drives from throwing the ball and running the ball. Keeping the defense off-balance, and you saw flashes of that today. And then also there were lulls that we can’t allow ourselves to keep getting in, but I’m just excited to have a good team win today, much-needed.”
Late in the third quarter, the Panthers started to come alive again. Newton targeted six different receivers and three backs took carries.
The Panthers even tossed out a triple-option play to get McCaffrey the ball on a pitch for a 15-yard gain.
Second-year fullback Alex Armah even got a handoff, and punched in a 1-yard score — his first NFL touchdown.
Newton usually directs players to mirror his “Sunday Giveaway” tradition, but Armah held onto the ball tightly as he celebrated with teammates.
“I scored and I was like, ‘Where’s Cam?’” Armah joked. “’I’m keeping this one.’”
The Panthers lost tight end Greg Olsen to a foot injury in the first half. Then, they lost starting right tackle Daryl Williams to a knee injury in the fourth quarter. Newton tried to create a spark by weaving a 12-yard pass to Devin Funchess in traffic. But was he sacked for a 7-yard loss on third down and the Panthers had to punt.
Prescott got hot in the fourth quarter, and Elliott scored a rushing touchdown after which Prescott ran in the two-point conversion.
But Carolina’s defense stepped up hugely to put the game away. After maintaining consistent pressure throughout the game, defensive end Mario Addison popped loose on third down and seven to strip-sack Prescott, and nickelback Captain Munnerlyn recovered the ball.
Nobody celebrated that moment, or the energy it brought, harder than Newton.
“Man, those guys wreak havoc, a lot of havoc,” he said. “I’m just happy for those guys and I’m happy for us as a team...
“Winning at home is very pivotal in the National Football League. ... Playing in the Bank, it was electrifying. And we just have to keep feeding it energy.”