The Carolina Panthers returned to Charlotte Tuesday from their training-camp home at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., 74 miles southwest of Bank of America Stadium. Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer succinctly condensed three weeks of work into one sentence:
The Panthers’ three-week stay at Wofford could be summed up like this: No major injuries, no major drama and not much zone read.
The move away from the read-option was expected, even before Mike Shula took over as the Panthers offensive coordinator. Person noted back in October of 2012 that Carolina shifted to a power-running team shortly after general manager Marty Hurney was fired.
New general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera made their intentions known at the 2013 NFL scouting combine, via NFL.com. Gettleman said the read-option was just “an option.” Rivera called the read-option “a mixer.” Both made it sound like quarterback Cam Newton was going to be spending a lot of time in the pocket in 2013.
That’s the sentiment Person shared Tuesday. It’s also the result everyone saw Friday when the Panthers played their first preseason game against the Chicago Bears.
Newton and the first-team offense played 13 snaps spread over three series. Newton went 3-of-6 with 16 yards and threw a touchdown pass and an interception. What he never did was cross the line of scrimmage with the football in his hands. He also stayed firmly in the pocket.
Carolina played four snaps with two running backs in the game, six with three receivers and five from the shotgun formation. Newton threw the ball six times and handed the ball off seven. And he did all his passing from the pocket, in a variety of three-, five- and seven-step drops.
But why, when so many teams are finding success with mobile quarterbacks and the read-option, is Carolina shying away from this trend when Newton is obviously athletically gifted, possibly even more so than anyone on the football field?
The answer might lie in the fact that Carolina plays better when Newton limits mistakes. A safer, less mobile Newton may be better for the Panthers than the “Superman,” do-everything athlete.
Newton has played mistake free—at least mistake free in the fact that he did not turn the ball over in a game—11 times in his two-year career. When that happened, Carolina was 10-1. Newton has played in 14 games in which he either threw for 300 or more yards or coordinated three or more touchdowns. In those games, Carolina was 4-10.
The way to keep Newton from making a ton of mistakes is to simplify the offense and keep him in the pocket, both plans Shula and Rivera will institute in 2013.
Remember Week 4 of the 2012 season? The Panthers were on the road in Atlanta and owned a one-point lead over the undefeated Falcons with under two minutes to play. On 3rd-and-short, Newton tried to stretch a run play for a first down but fumbled. Fullback Mike Tolbert recovered the ball, but Carolina had to punt.
The Falcons drove the field in under a minute and kicked a game-winning field goal. Newton’s fumble wasn’t the sole reason why Carolina lost that game, but it’s the play everyone remembers. And it’s a result that won’t be replicated as often if Newton isn’t carrying the football as much in 2013.
There were also two media reports from last season that speculated that Newton was tipping his hand in the read-option and that Carolina wasn’t doing him any favors in its play-calling.
Does Cam Newton tip off zone read passes? Sometimes, yes. Watch how he rides fake compared to RG3. often token fake, eyes downfield. but...— John Keim (@john_keim) November 4, 2012
And Cam Newton is more than capable of hurting teams w/play action off zone read, but that's all the Panthers ran early in the yr. Not good— Steve Palazzolo (@StevePalazzolo) May 16, 2013
If Newton was predictable or Carolina was running the read-option too much early on, those trends stopped later in the season. If they hadn’t, Carolina would not have won five of its last six games. But now the coaching staff plans to remove all doubt and greatly reduce the read-option from the game plan.
If it’s truly only “an option,” as Gettleman announced at the combine, the play might be more effective used sparingly.
But that theory only works if Carolina running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are successful in their transition as the Panthers move to a power-running scheme.
Keeping Newton in the pocket and limiting his running also only works if Newton becomes a more precise passer. His career completion percentage is 58.9, and he’s never had a season above 60 percent. Only four quarterbacks—Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler and Andrew Luck—led their teams to winning records last season with completion percentages below 60. They were the exceptions to the rule.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.