Scott Fowler

Panthers QB Cam Newton turns from so-so to special when he reaches this magic number

No NFL quarterback had ever scored 50 career rushing touchdowns until Sunday, when Cam Newton bulled his way over the goal line from 7 yards out against New England.

That fourth-quarter play was one of Newton’s best against the Patriots in the Panthers’ 33-30 upset victory. It was predicated on Newton fooling the defense with a fake handoff to Christian McCaffrey on a zone read, only to pull the ball back and do his Sherman tank impression straight up the middle.

It also illustrated why – for all the hand-wringing about Newton and how often he gets hit as a quarterback – that the Panthers (3-1) still must use him as a runner enough to keep the threat of him running alive on every single play.

I think back to what Cameron Jordan, the outspoken defensive end from New Orleans, said after Newton had a horrible three-interception game against the Saints eight days ago.

“Clearly he’s trying to be more of a pocket passer and I’m OK with it,” Jordan said with a smirk. “Perfectly fine with it.”

See, other teams want Newton in the pocket.

He’s not bad there, either, but he’s no Tom Brady. So other teams want Newton confined to a small space where they don’t have to contend with third-down scrambles or zone reads or designed quarterback draws when they have to bring down a 6-foot-5, 240-pounder coming full speed.

It is the same thing the Panthers always hope for when they play someone like Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who is smaller and more elusive than Newton but who gets the same sorts of results. “Just stay still, Russell!” they want to yell.

Sunday was the first time in four games this season that Newton was a serious factor in Carolina’s running game. He rushed eight times for 44 yards, and on three of those runs he either converted a third down into a first down or he scored a TD.

It was no coincidence that the Panthers scored four TDs against the Patriots after managing only three in their previous three games combined.

Yes, it helped that the defense they were going against was New England – clearly the worst in the NFL at this point. But Newton can do that sort of thing against anybody when he gets hot, and on Sunday we finally all got to remember what it looks like when he gets hot.

The running helps Newton find his groove. And, in his seventh year in the NFL, he finally looks like he understands how to do a baseball slide, too. The Panthers have to keep using him exactly like they did on Sunday, despite the risk. They must trust Newton to be smart on running plays while understanding that he actually throws the ball better, not worse, after a couple of them work.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Sunday that Newton running the ball “does help him get more into a rhythm.”

At the same time, Rivera said, the quarterback must be used “judiciously.”

“It’s not like we want to give him 10 to 15 carries,” Rivera said.

Cam’s magic number? Eight

The magic number of carries for Newton, in fact, turns out to be eight. If he has eight or more rushes in an NFL game (excluding kill-the-clock kneel-down plays), ESPN Stats and Info has figured out that his record is 22-9-1. When he rushes the ball seven or fewer times, Newton is 32-33.

In other words, those ESPN numbers show that Newton wins 70.3 percent of the time with eight or more carries and 49.2 percent when he doesn’t. On Sunday, he had exactly eight carries.

In training camp in late July, Newton bristled a little when asked about the way the Panthers wanted to “evolve” the offense (which was Rivera’s word originally and was seized upon by the press). He said him running an offense without ever being able to run the ball would be like a lion living life without ever unleashing its roar.

“That’s my edge,” Newton said.

And it is. Newton has also said that he feels like he gets hurt more often in the pocket than he does running down the field, in part because he can’t anticipate hits as well when his eyes are downfield and rushers are circling in from his flanks.

In those cases, Newton is more like the hunted – a stationary quarterback target. When he runs, he feels more like a hunter – a lion in full pursuit.

‘When Cam was ready’

So a balance must be struck each week. Running Newton in between the 20s on first and second downs doesn’t make sense very often. He doesn’t have the sort of speed to break a 60-yard run anymore. But he can still pick up 13 yards on a third-and-7 quarterback draw, as he did Sunday. And near the goal line he remains a devastating weapon. Those are the times Newton must roar.

Sunday it all worked, as Newton threw for three touchdowns and 316 yards as well as running the ball effectively behind an offensive line that also had its best game off the season. The quarterback carried the ball three times on Carolina’s final drive, which set up Graham Gano’s 48-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired.

Rivera said part of the reason he and offensive coordinator Mike Shula wanted Newton to run more against New England was that the quarterback – who has had shoulder and ankle problems already this season – seemed healthy enough to do it.

“A lot of it hinged on when Cam was ready to go,” Rivera said.

But now that he has shown he can go again, it will give rushers pause.

“Now that the threat is there, those backside guys come screaming off the edge and now as defenders they really have to think about what they are going to do because there’s always that possibility (of Newton running),” Rivera said.

The next game at Detroit should be difficult. The Lions are also 3-1 and tied for the best record in the NFC. Carolina’s defense will again give up some points – Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford is strong, accurate and has a lot of weapons.

That will leave it up to Newton and company to match and surpass Detroit’s offense. And you can bet Newton will be running the ball sometimes in crucial situations.

Because when you’re playing the Lions, you better make sure you bring out your biggest lion – in full roar – for the fight.