Scott Fowler

Should Cam Newton have been running the ball on Panthers’ final play? Absolutely not

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Here’s the thing: I actually liked the Carolina Panthers’ final play call.

It’s easy to rip it because it didn’t work as Carolina failed to score on its final drive Thursday night in its 20-14 loss to Tampa Bay – the Panthers’ ninth defeat in their last 10 games.

But after what we saw in the first week, wouldn’t you take a very healthy Christian McCaffrey in space against a defensive back? With only a half-yard to gain on fourth down?

I’d rather see that on what was officially a fourth-and-1 from the Tampa 2 with 1:28 left than an obviously compromised Cam Newton trying to lug his body forward for that half-yard.

The Panthers had already tried that on fourth-and-1 earlier in the game, remember. Newton rolled right, looked vulnerable and didn’t get it, missing on the sort of play he would have made with relative ease five years ago.

And then the Panthers had had another fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter and got Curtis Samuel open on what would have been at least a 20-yard gain. But Newton, hit as he threw the ball, couldn’t get it there.

So I thought putting the ball in McCaffrey’s hands — down 20-14, needing a touchdown to win — was better than most of the alternatives. Newton, in two carries, had zero rushing yards and a lost fumble in what appears to sadly be the “new normal” for his rushing game — on a night where the quarterback heard boos in his home stadium while losing his eighth straight start.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves prepares to tackle Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) on fourth-and-1 from the 2. Hargreaves made the stop and Tampa Bay won, 20-14. David T. Foster III

Although he said “of course” he would liked to have the ball in his hands on that final play called by offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Newton also said he was “extremely confident” the final play would work.

The problem, though, was two-fold. First, Tampa Bay cornerback Vernon Hargreaves figured out where the ball was coming.

“What we hoped to do is Christian — we felt had a good opportunity to score,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “So we went fake-reverse ghost action, trying to deke them a little bit.”

What this meant, as Panthers tight end Greg Olsen would explain later, is that Tampa Bay would probably be in man-to-man coverage because they were daring Newton to beat man-to-man all night. By that logic, Hargreaves would follow Samuel (the ghost) on the play. Samuel went in motion to the right — but Hargreaves didn’t follow him.

That messed it up.

‘Now if this was Year One Cam’

“We counted on that guy going with Curtis,” Olsen said. “It was a well-thought-out play. We felt really good about it in that exact situation —down in the red zone, game-winning play…. And for whatever reason the corner didn’t run with Curtis and he was left unblocked. Tough.”

Said Hargreaves: “As the play developed, McCaffrey came right to me. I just stayed at home and I had to make the play.”

Hargreaves actually thought the play was going to be the “Philly Special” from a previous Super Bowl, which ended up being a throwback pass to Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. It wasn’t that, but it was similar to a play the Panthers ran last week on a direct snap to McCaffrey that worked for an eight-yard TD into the same side of the same end zone.

Hargreaves, incidentally, said he wasn’t shocked that Newton didn’t keep the ball himself on fourth down and 18 inches.

Not really surprised,” Hargreaves said. “He can’t take those hits like that. It’s going to eat his body up. We expected more throws as he’s getting older in his career. Now, if this was ‘Year One Cam,’ then Yes, I’d be very surprised. Where he’s at in his career, he needs to take care of himself.”

Instead, it is Year Nine Cam, and things have gone sour.

“Sometimes you find yourself in a blender and the only person that can get you out is yourself,” Newton said afterward.

Teams are now going to play the Panthers like this all season — eight men in the box, trying to bottle up McCaffrey — until Newton and the receivers prove they can make them pay in the passing game. Newton was frustrated with himself after Carolina didn’t score a single offensive touchdown and dropped to 0-2.

“It’s hard to look our defensive guys in their eyes after a game like this,” Newton said. “Offensively we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain … It’s time for me to look at myself in the mirror and do some real soul-searching, because I had opportunities tonight and I didn’t get it done.”

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) said after not scoring on this fourth-down play: “Coach put the ball in my hands at the end of the game and I blew it. So it’s my fault.” David T. Foster III

‘I blew it’

Still, for all that, McCaffrey had a chance to score and to send the Panthers to a 21-20 win.

The Panthers had the final play called when it was fourth-and-2 and they kept it on after Tampa Bay made a “stupid” (that was Bucs coach Bruce Arians’ word) mistake. The Bucs called consecutive timeouts and drew a delay-of-game penalty.

So then Carolina only needed a half-yard. And the Panthers put the ball in the hands of their 23-year-old, very quick tailback instead of their 30-year-old quarterback with who had offseason shoulder surgery and hurt his foot three weeks ago. (“Don’t even worry about the foot,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera growled. “The foot has nothing to do with it.”)

So the second part of the problem was this: McCaffrey did have a shot at making the game-winning play, and he flat didn’t make it. Chased by three Bucs defenders, he either had to cut inside or try to beat Hargreaves to the sideline and the pylon.

“Coach put the ball in my hands at the end of the game and I blew it,” McCaffrey said. “So it’s my fault. I’ll take that one ... Just got to make a play there and I didn’t.”

No, he didn’t.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey looks back to see the officials call after diving toward the pylon in an effort to keep the drive alive vs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during late fourth quarter action at Bank of America Stadium on Friday, September 13, 2019. Jeff Siner

“Every loss sucks,” McCaffrey said. “Sucks a little more when you have an opportunity at the end of the game to win, and you don’t do it.”

But if the Panthers get the ball in that situation again, needing one yard, McCaffrey is the right guy to go to.

Despite throwing for 333 yards, Newton too often looks like a shadow of himself when he’s on the field. I don’t think it was this play call or really any play call that undid the Panthers Thursday night.

It was the players.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.