The most eye-opening statistic from the first two games of this young Carolina Panthers season? It’s not Christian McCaffrey’s mind-boggling 20 receptions, good for second-most in the league, or the team’s NFL-best mark of 5.4 yards per rushing attempt.
Rather, it pertains to 29-year-old quarterback Cam Newton — and how different he’s looked compared to years past.
In all of Newton’s previous seven NFL seasons, including 2015, when he won Most Valuable Player and led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance, his completion percentage has hovered around 60 percent. Never — never — has he come close to 65 percent.
Until this year, that is.
And now he’s skyrocketed to 69 percent?
At face value, the credit might seem to go to new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who preached the importance of a more efficient Newton all offseason. And while Turner’s schemes, spurred by the heavy and regular usage of McCaffrey, have helped Newton complete more passes, there’s more to it than that.
“I just know I have to be on my best, not behavior, but playing at my best,” Newton said. “Putting this team in the best situations possible, and understanding trust is the main thing.”
‘That was the idea when we drafted Christian’
When the Panthers drafted McCaffrey in the first round of the 2017 draft, they did it with a vision.
“That was the idea when we drafted Christian, was to find that guy that Cam could get the ball to in a tight situation like that,” coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday. “And not necessarily always a check-down — part of it is he’s the primary route-runner. Again, part of it is looking to see what your matchups are, looking to see whether they’re in man or whether they’re in zone, and then go from there.”
When opposing coverage on receivers downfield is tight, McCaffrey is nearby as a safe fallback option. But there are also plays designed to feed McCaffrey, usually by running receivers deep downfield to open space for McCaffrey underneath.
Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose team will visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, said the addition of McCaffrey is the biggest change to this Carolina offense since the teams last met, in 2014.
“I think the one difference from four years ago is Christian McCaffrey gives them a different style of back than they had back then,” Lewis said, “and so now you have another outlet for Cam as a receiver, as an open-field runner, and so forth.
“That’s been a bigger part of what they’re doing, no doubt.”
Going through the progressions
McCaffrey has made Carolina’s offense more dynamic as a whole, but he isn’t the sole reason for Newton’s rising completion percentage.
“Everybody points to how many touches Christian had coming out of the backfield,” Rivera said. “Well a big part of the reason was because Cam went through his progressions. He was patient, he went through his reads, he didn’t try to force balls in, and he threw check-downs when he needed to — and that was huge.”
McCaffrey’s presence gives Newton an option to check down to, but Newton’s ability to find the running back also warrants praise.
“It’s taking what the defense gives me, simple and plain,” Newton said. “I really could care less who catches the ball, (Christian) has just been the recipient end on a lot of catches, and good for him. But me knowing him, he could care less either. Right now, we’re just trying to find ways to win football games.”
Of Newton’s 49 completed passes this season — and two games is a small sample size — almost 40 percent have gone to McCaffrey. That’s impressive, but might not continue.
If Newton continually dumps the ball off to McCaffrey 10-15 times a game, receiver Torrey Smith explained, eventually opposing defenses will stop dropping as deep to allow that. Once they do, more space will be open for those receivers to make plays of their own.
That’s why Cam Newton going through his reads correctly matters more than who has been on the receiving end.
‘I understand who I am’
So, why exactly is Newton going through those progressions more consistently this season?
Part of it is knowing he always has McCaffrey. Part of it is Turner’s playcalling.
But the larger, more encompassing part, is trust.
“It’s a little bit of everything, but when you do trust the protection, when you do believe in not just the players but the scheme ... there is a little bit of trust that’s involved in it,” Rivera said. “That’s a big part of it. Then who you’re throwing to — the guys are running their routes hard, they’re getting to where they need to be quickly, and presenting good targets for the quarterback.
“Then you’re going to have success and you’re going to be able to protect your quarterback, and he’s going to be able to get through his progressions and not always have to try and force it to your first or second guy (or) take off running.
“But if you can get all the way to your third or fourth option, that’s pretty doggone good.”
Newton’s 32 completions against Atlanta were his most in any career game, and the 71.1 percent completion percentage he posted was his career-best in games with more than 35 attempts.
So the early returns on Newton are looking up. And for the Panthers to advance to the postseason this year, that’s essential. Rivera knows it, Turner knows it, and most of all, Newton knows it.
“I know my worth to this team, I understand who I am, and when it comes to player performance, I have to be on my best each and every play really,” Newton said. “No matter what it is, I can’t put the ball in jeopardy.
“(I have to) trust that guys around me are going to do their job, and I have to trust them that whatever read that the read takes me, get the ball out of your hands and (let them) be them.”