Panthers’ Cam dilemma: Balance between running and preservation

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton released a long, slow whistle when asked if he could continue to put his body at risk in the run game at the age of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

“We just gotta get there,” the Carolina Panthers quarterback said.

Then he released another long, slow whistle.

“Man, Brady. How old is he? Forty?” said Newton, whistling again. “Man! He may be Benjamin Button. He’s like a GQ model still, right? Golly, I don’t see any gray.

“As a matter of fact, shout out to Tom Brady. He sent me one of his books. I am reading up on that, trying to find out the cheat codes about pliability as he says in his book.”

What Newton, 28, may need are cheat codes to figure out how to be consistently successful in the pocket like Brady, who has proven over time he can beat you with his arm and mind when he doesn’t have all the pieces around him.

Not that Newton aspires to be like Brady outside of winning Super Bowls. He takes great pride in being unique as a dual-threat quarterback that can beat you with his arm and legs even if his running puts him at risk.

But Brady has won Super Bowls without a great defense and running game around him.

Newton hasn’t.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young isn’t sure Newton can.

“Back in ’15, I always believed the magic for the Panthers was killer running game, dominant offensive line and a ferocious defense,” Young told ESPN.com as he recalled Carolina’s run to Super Bowl 50. “And then Cam filled it all in. And he filled every crack in.

“But I never felt like Cam was the one that needed to be like, ‘throw us to victory, line up and you do it all.’ I don’t think that fits, and this team proves that.”

Cam ‘can’t carry it all’

Newton has led the Panthers (6-3) in rushing each of the past four games heading into Monday night’s primetime showdown against Miami (4-4). He ranks 11th in the NFL in rushing during that span with 251 yards on 40 carries.

He’s been spectacular at times, none more than the 9-yard touchdown run in his last outing, a 20-17 victory against Atlanta on which the 2015 NFL MVP went airborne at the 3-yard line and stretched the ball out over the goal line.

But Young, one of the top running quarterbacks in NFL history, doesn’t believe Newton can continue to put his body at risk on a consistent basis and survive.

The ESPN MNF analyst isn’t convinced the Panthers can be successful consistently with Newton carrying the ground game.

“There’s not enough plays for Cam,” Young said. “They’ll crush him. He’ll be beat down and there’s going to be frustration. He can’t carry it all.”

Young, who held the record for rushing touchdowns (43) by a quarterback before Newton shattered it (52), loves what Newton does as a runner. He wishes the read-option had been an option for him during his career (1984-1999) that included seven Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl titles with San Francisco.

But he doesn’t love what Newton and the Carolina offense have become, even with the addition of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, since 2015.

He believes Newton needs a more traditional ground game that doesn’t require the quarterback to be the centerpiece, along with a top 10 offensive line and top 10 defense to reach his full potential.

Newton has the NFL’s top-ranked defense, but the rest has been suspect. Without Newton, according to ESPN Stats and Information, the Panthers rank 28th in the NFL with 59.5 yards rushing the past four weeks.

That’s impacted the passing game. Newton has 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, far off his pace of 35 touchdowns in 2015.

“To me, they’re not putting the pieces in place to win a championship, because Cam, you can’t keep asking him to do that,” Young said of carrying the running game. “It was almost like running the last leg of some relay. Give me the baton at the end and we will win, but I need you guys at through the first three legs to set it set up.”

Fear of missing out

Newton didn’t hesitate to thrust his body into the air against Atlanta because he had no fear of being injured or re-injuring his right shoulder that was surgically repaired in March.

His fear was of looking back and saying he didn’t take the chance.

“You have to ask yourself if I’d rather have that feeling of doing it . . . rather than looking back and wishing I would have [done] that,” Newton said.

Newton’s ability to run has been his edge throughout his football career. He does what few quarterbacks in league history have because of his size [6-foot-5, 245 pounds] and skill set.

Carolina backup quarterback Derek Anderson can’t think of many quarterbacks who could survive four games doing what Newton does.

“Every time he goes airborne I go, ‘Yep, I’m going in.’ But I’ve seen it enough now to know he takes educated risks of knowing the timing in the game, for the most part.”

Panthers backup QB Derek Anderson

“Every time he goes airborne I go, ‘Yep, I’m going in,’ ” Anderson said with a laugh. “But I’ve seen it enough now to know he takes educated risks of knowing the timing in the game, for the most part. And obviously his own ability to do things. At times it’s incredible. At times I’m like, ‘What are you doing?'”

Running is about the last thing Brady thinks about.

“A lot of times even though it may look like a big opening to run, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s a great opening to throw. I can see everything. It’s really clear,'” Brady said. “It just doesn’t quite trigger in my mind, ‘Hey, take off and go because there’s a lot of space.’

“I think there’s other quarterbacks who when they see a lot of space they think, ‘Man, this is a great opportunity to run.’ It’s just kind of how you’ve been trained and what you’re confident in and so forth.”

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who like Brady does most of his damage from the pocket, agreed.

“I would just say in general the mindset is don’t take the unnecessary hits,” said the 38-year-old, who has led the league in passing yards seven times. “But listen, if it’s third down and you’re running for a first down, then you’re gonna lower your shoulder. And if you’re close to the goal line, you’re gonna lower your shoulder.

“There’s just situations where you’re gonna sell out to make the play, because you’re wired that way. If it’s first-and-10 and I’m scrambling for five yards, and there’s eight guys that are about to come take my head off, I’m gonna slide.”

The Panthers entered the offseason saying the offense needed to evolve to depend less on Newton as a runner and more on the playmakers around him. They drafted McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, a wide receiver out of Ohio State, to give the quarterback more weapons.

They signed left tackle Matt Kalil in free agency to protect Newton’s blind side, although Kalil’s 40.6 grade by Pro Football Focus is by far the worst on the Carolina line ranks 66th in the NFL among tackles.

But since Newton was given clearance to run after the third game he’s been on a pace to eclipse the career-high 132 carries he had in 2015.

“If you are saying to me the Carolina Panthers need Cam Newton to carry all the water this year [offensively], that’s too much,” Young said.

Coach Ron Rivera would like to have a more consistent ground game with his backs.

“That speaks for itself in terms of having Cam not take hits,” he said. “The thing you can’t account for is him doing things on his own, whether it’s a scramble or he sees something where he keeps the ball. That’s one of the things I can’t control unless we don’t call anything using him as a runner.”

Newton thrives off running. As he said before the season when there was talk of him running less, “You don’t expect a lion not to roar.”

But can the Panthers expect the lion to roar 10 times a game as Newton has the past four weeks?

“You can’t,” said Young, even though his 70 rushes in his 14th season were the third most of his career. “But again, when you don’t have those other conventional pieces then it’s like it’s the Cam Newton show, and that is a physical game.”

Dilemma is a ’media thing’

Newton calls the debate over how much he should run “another media thing.”

He insists he feels safer at times running in the open field than in the pocket where many of his hardest hits have taken place.

“As far as me being ready to go, or the workload increasing, it is just the confidence of the coaches,” Newton said. “In my eye, just like any other playmaker that wants the ball every single play, I feel I can do it every single play. [I] just have to be smart.”

Newton is running smarter. He slides and runs out of bounds more than diving forward to gain an extra yard. He doesn’t take as many chances.

He also doesn’t care what skeptics say as long as the Panthers win.

Case in point, his 154 yard and 137 yards passing in wins against Tampa Bay and Atlanta the last two weeks are the lowest two-game total of his career.

“Man, I could care less,” Newton said. “You give me 50 yards rushing, zero yards passing and the Carolina Panthers win it is an unbelievable day in my day. You give me 300, 400 yards passing and even a hundred yards rushing and we lose, I’m miserable.

“I’ve had those games. Those games aren’t good.”

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