Here's what the Panthers shouldn't do this season to take advantage of all their new offensive weapons:
Line Christian McCaffrey up in the I-formation. Give him a first-down handoff up the gut for a gain of two. Then, if Cam Newton cannot make something happen on second down, bring Curtis Samuel off the bench for—surprise!—a screen pass that the entire defensive line knows is coming.
McCaffrey and Samuel are multidimensional playmakers who completely change the complexion of the Carolina offense. Instead of pounding the ball between the tackles (sometimes with Newton) to set up deep shots, the Panthers are now built to get the ball to playmakers in space, both on the perimeter and short in the middle of the field.
In other words, this is a team that is custom-tuned to bring the option back the NFL.
Free Cam Newton
The Panthers already use a lot of option principles, of course. They just aren't getting enough bang for their buck. Or too much bang for their buck, if by "bang" we mean "hits on Cam Newton."
Newton rushed 73 times on designed running plays last season, according to the Football Outsiders database. He gained 308 yards and scored five touchdowns on those runs, the touchdowns all coming on goal-line plays. That's a lot of rushing, and frankly, 4.2 yards per carry are not really worth the additional hits it meant for Newton.
Part of the problem was many of those designed runs were not options. A few were sneaks for short yardage. Many were quarterback draws or inside power runs, with no option for a handoff or pitch. Franchise quarterbacks shouldn't be hammering the football up the gut twice per game, but excluding sneaks and scrambles, Newton ran between the guards 32 times last season.
Another problem was the stale design of coordinator Mike Shula's option package. In the second quarter against the Chiefs in Week 10, for example, Newton lined up in a diamond formation, with Jonathan Stewart to his left and receiver Corey Brown behind him. The play design was a triple-option: Stewart looked for an inside-zone handoff to the right, but Newton pulled the ball and ran left, while Brown fanned out toward the sideline as a pitch recipient.
Problem was that Brown's presence in the backfield alerted the Chiefs to shenanigans. They loaded the box. Their backside defenders responded to the play like they just emerged from an option seminar with Nick Saban: The edge defender crashed on Stewart, a linebacker replaced him to contain Newton and a safety slid into the alley to neutralize the Brown threat. Newton took a hit and gained zero yards.
McCaffrey and Samuel give Shula the opportunity to put option pitch threats in the backfield, the slot or wherever his imagination leads him, without tipping his hand to the defense. Both McCaffrey and Samuel also possess the speed Stewart now lacks, making them more effective weapons on plays to the perimeter.
No more Newton between the tackles. No more Corey Brown. It's time for the Panthers to option smarter instead of harder.
Building Better Options
For fresh option inspiration, let's look to some other NFL offenses led by mobile quarterbacks. Option concepts may not be in vogue like they were four or five years ago, but there are still plenty of teams that incorporate them into their core offense.
Here's a clip of the Chiefs gaining 21 yards on a basic weak-side speed-option pitch from Alex Smith to Charcandrick West. The Panthers rarely have used speed-option principles because their running backs lacked speed. Line McCaffrey up next to Newton, and defenses will always have to respect the threat of a play like this one.
The Chiefs often gussy up plays like this with the threat of a wide receiver screen on the opposite side of the field. With McCaffrey to Newton's left, imagine Samuel bunched with Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen outside the right hashmark. Now picture how many defenders opponents will split out to prevent a Samuel screen. Taffy-pulled defenses are much easier to attack, horizontally and vertically.
Here's another clip: Tyrod Taylor's running a counter option in Week 6 against the 49ers, with Mike Gillislee taking a play fake to the left and Brandon Tate in the Corey Brown role as the would-be pitch man. The 49ers defense actually handles its assignments and gets into position pretty well, but Taylor just out-athletes a linebacker for an 11-yard gain.
The Bills, like last year's Panthers, needed to align a backup receiver in the backfield on this play to inject speed. Carolina now has two rookies with wide receiver speed but a running back's abilities as a ball-carrier. It can easily integrate plays like these into its base offense without having to resort to funky formations or personnel groupings.
But there's no reason why it shouldn't get a little funky once in a while.
Spread 'Em and Sweep 'Em
When McCaffrey and/or Samuel are on the field, defenses are going to respond with nickel or dime personnel so they can match speed with speed. When the Panthers then spread the field, there won't be many defenders in the box. And when Newton and one of the backs "mesh" for a handoff, the whole defense is going to freeze. That will make for some delicious misdirection goodness.
Let's expand on a simple zone-read type of play and make it a little more exotic. We'll start with linemen inside-zone blocking to the left, McCaffrey preparing for a handoff and Newton reading the backside defensive end for whether to give the ball or keep it.
But let's add an important wrinkle: Samuel motioning from a split wide receiver position, running a jet-sweep counter to the flow of the blocking. If that defensive end stays at home, McCaffrey takes the handoff and runs inside zone against what's left of the defensive box. If he crashes, Newton pulls the ball and gives it to Samuel. The Panthers get an option wrinkle and a playmaker in space without risking a hit on their quarterback.
The Panthers already have concepts similar to this one in their playbook. Against the Chiefs, they ran a wacky end-around to Ted Ginn Jr. that started as an outside-zone handoff to Stewart. That play got stuffed, in part because there was too much going on (the Newton-to-Stewart-to-Ginn exchange, mainly).
The sweep shown above can easily be integrated into a sequence, with a conventional handoff and some play-action passes from the same formation. That makes plays like this one hard to game-plan for—and makes the threat of them almost as dangerous as the plays themselves.
Wishbones, Bellies and Beyond
Why should the Panthers settle for conventional NFL option plays? Old playbooks are full of ways to get Newton, McCaffrey, Samuel and Stewart into the backfield at the same time. If Shula really wants to give opponents something to game-plan for, he'll bring back the wishbone triple-option.
Imagine Stewart as the fullback, McCaffrey as the near-side halfback, Samuel as the far-side halfback and Newton lined up over center. At the snap, Stewart runs a dive to the far side. McCaffrey swoops down to block an alley defender. Samuel sprints into position to receive an option lateral. Newton reads the front and the near-side defensive end to decide what to do with the ball: play it safe with Stewart, keep it or pitch to Samuel.
The following diagram of a wishbone triple-option was cribbed directly from a 1975 Alabama Bear Bryant playbook, so you know it's a winner.
If that play looks a little Pop Warner by today's standards…well, it is. But here's Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw scoring a touchdown on the triple-option.
If it works for a service academy, it will work for the Panthers, right? Well…once in a while, maybe.
Come to think of it, the wishbone may be a little too old-school for the modern NFL. The point is the Panthers now have the personnel to threaten defenses with out-of-this-world or blast-from-the-past offensive ideas.
They can even deploy something totally bananas like the Shotgun Wing-T without tying their personnel groupings in knots. Stewart could be the wing back next to Greg Olsen, while McCaffrey and Samuel spread to the play side of the field. Newton gives the Panthers a run-pass threat despite an empty backfield. Shula could execute an entire passing play series, then blow the defense's mind with a Shotgun Wing-T Belly Option.
The Panthers cannot build a whole offense out of this experimental stuff. But they can start in these formations, then shift into something more vanilla pre-snap, the way the Browns or Bengals often do. They can threaten options from these sets and just run standard plays.
But if they hit opponents with the Newton-Stewart-McCaffrey-Samuel kitchen sink two or three times in September, defenses will still be preparing for it in December.
Back to the Option Future
Option concepts in the NFL sound sooooo 2012 these days.
As mentioned earlier, defenses have caught up. The rule clarification that made an option-faking quarterback into a potential ball-carrier (someone who can be walloped by defenders, in other words) made many coaches less enthusiastic about even using the read-option as a decoy. Chip Kelly came and went without turning the league into 32 Oregon clones.
But the Panthers have a unique opportunity to restructure their offense into something truly creative and unconventional. Unlike most teams, they can construct an option-flavored offense that gets their quarterback hit less often instead of more often.
Sure, modern defenses will adapt and adjust. But Newton and the newcomers won't be easy to adjust to. And if Shula tweaks his system just right, it will be mid-January before opponents figure out a way to slow them down.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.