3 Ways the Carolina Panthers Can Better Use Cam Newton
Through 10 games, he is on pace to throw for 4,616 yards and 19 touchdowns and to run for 658 yards and 14 or 15 additional scores.
He is likely on his way to winning the NFL's Rookie of the Year award—though I'd vote for Denver Broncos linebacker/sackmaster Von Miller—over Cincinnati Bengals signal caller Andy Dalton, and he's the hottest young quarterback out of the SEC this side of the Denver Broncos faith-healer, Tim Tebow.
Still, the Panthers are not getting all that they can out of Cam Newton's abilities.
Here are three things offensive coordinator Rob "Chud" Chudzinski can do to help his star quarterback and the Carolina Panthers win a few more games this season.
Double His Carries
Double his carries.
Hell, triple his carries.
Cam Newton scored 20 rushing touchdowns and gained 1,473 yards on the ground last year at Auburn and still managed to pass for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
He won the 2010 Heisman Trophy as perhaps the best dual-threat quarterback college football has ever seen, and he threw the ball only 16 more times (280) than he ran.
He dominated the Southeastern Conference—the best defensive conference in the country—and he led the SEC in rushing last season from the quarterback position.
The Tigers rode his legs all the way to the BCS Championship.
I'm not necessarily saying he can walk onto an NFL field and do the same things he did in college, but I kind of am.
He's rushed for nine touchdowns in the first 10 games of the season, for crying out loud, and he ranks second on the Panthers with 411 yards on just 77 carries.
Newton wants to run the ball, and before anyone argues that he'll take too much punishment if he runs the ball 15-20 times per game, he says he actually feels safer and more protected in the open field, as reported by Panthers beat writer, Joseph Person, in the Charlotte Observer:
“Honestly, I take more hits in the pocket than I do outside the pocket. In the pocket, I don't see who's coming. That can be more dangerous than when you're running you've got your eyes on a swivel, aware of your surroundings. If I'm running, I know this may sound kind of crazy, but I feel more comfortable with protecting myself rather than in the pocket and being defenseless.”
Granted, part of his anxiety in the pocket likely stems from the fact that he has an undrafted free-agent rookie in Byron Bell "protecting" his blind side, but effective running quarterbacks can win in this year's version of the NFL.
Just ask Newton's former college teammate, Tim Tebow, who is 4-1 this season as the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback.
Throw Shorter Passes
There is no question that Cam Newton has a cannon for an arm, but he sometimes struggles with accuracy and decision-making on downfield passes.
That's to be expected from a rookie quarterback, no matter how talented he may be.
In order to cut down on Newton's interceptions, increase his completion percentage and keep the chains moving down the field, Chudzinski would be wise to call more short and intermediate passing plays instead of looking to throw downfield quite as often.
Newton has had a couple of games—including his four-interception performance in Week 11 against the Detroit Lions—when the ball has sailed on him, and when he struggles with his throws, he tends to lock in on his receivers to the extent that he does not always recognize defenders on the periphery of his target area.
Teams have been pressuring Newton more often in recent weeks to speed up his decision-making process and to force him into hurried throws, but the Panthers countered effectively with quick shovel passes and screens to Jonathan Stewart last week against the Detroit Lions' aggressive defensive line.
They can do the same with the intermediate passing game since Panthers tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey are dangerous underneath targets.
To use a basketball analogy, the best solution to a cold jump shooter's woes is often to get to the free-throw line where sinking a couple of foul shots helps the shooter's rhythm—and soon that player is burying mid-range jumpers and threes.
I am not suggesting that the Panthers abandon the downfield pass, rather that they open up the deeper routes and help Newton get into a passing rhythm by mixing in and completing a few shorter passes before immediately going deep to Steve Smith.
Hand the Ball off More Often
I wrote during the Panthers' bye week that they were beginning to reassert themselves as one of the best rushing teams in the NFL on the legs of 1,000-yard running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
In the first two games since the break, the Panthers have gotten away from the run again.
Though the results are usually positive when Chudzinski actually calls for a handoff, Williams carried the ball just 10 times for 73 yards last week against the Detroit Lions and he only got eight carries for 35 yards in Week 9 against the Tennessee Titans.
Stewart's combined rushing total since the break is 12 carries for 45 yards.
The Carolina Panthers have one of the best running back tandems in the NFL—each player averages over 4.5 yards per carry and they are one of only six duos in league history to rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season—but Chudzinski uses these guys the way a 60-year old vintage car collector uses his cherry red '67 Corvette: he keeps them clean and only takes them out for a spin on special occasions.
The best game the Panthers played all season was their 33-20 victory over the Washington Redskins and it is also the only game all season in which the Panthers ran the ball more often than they passed it.
No one in Charlotte is hearkening a return to John Fox's version of three yards and a cloud of dust—in the Denver Broncos' 17-10 Week 10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, Coach Fox only let Tim Tebow throw the ball eight times against 55 runs—but the Panthers' offense needs a more balanced attack to cut down on turnovers, eat up the clock and keep their defense off the field for as long as possible.
If the Panthers make more effective use of Cam Newton's legs, allow him to throw more short and intermediate passes, and hand the ball off to Williams and Stewart with greater frequency, they will have a legitimate chance to close out the last six games of the season with a 3-3 record, or better.
Bonus Slide: Buy This Kid a Baseball Cap
The Carolina Panthers need to help their franchise quarterback clean up his image.
Most have forgotten, or at least forgiven, Newton for the scandals that marred his college career, he's great with the media and, to date, he's heeded Panthers owner Jerry Richardson's admonishment that he not get any tattoos.
But his preferred sideline fashion garment, the Gatorade towel-as-hat, is not a good look.
It's funny what some folks, especially in the Carolinas, will say about a man wearing a towel on his head, especially when that someone is the face of their favorite NFL team.
We all know Newton is not a good loser, nor should Panthers fans want him to be, but when he puts that towel over his head and looks to the ground after a bad drive, he appears to be sulking, even if he's not.
I get it: It's his thing to wipe the sweat from his face and drape a towel over his head when he goes to the sidelines.
I'm also sure the execs at Gatorade love all the free pub from the man who shares Charlotte's athletic spotlight with the company's most iconic pitchman and notoriously bad loser, Michael Jordan.
Matthew Stafford even wears his Detroit Lions hat backwards.
Someone, please just buy Cam Newton a Carolina Panthers baseball hat and assign one of the ball boys or film technicians to sideline hat duty.
Or at least hand him a towel with the Panthers' logo.