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Former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton(notes) won the trifecta in and after his sole season as a starter at a major college in 2010 – the Heisman Trophy, the BCS title game and became the first overall selection in the NFL draft. He did so primarily because of the athleticism that facilitated his passing game by forcing defenses to play more defenders in the box and allowing him to predetermine reads by taking his targets on the run.
Newton will be joining a team in the Carolina Panthers that had six different people attempt passes in 2010, and none of them did it particularly well. The Panthers finished last or near last in most relevant passing categories, which is why Newton was their top pick just one year after they selected quarterback Jimmy Clausen(notes) in the second round. Clausen's three-touchdown, nine-interception season was one of the reasons Newton will be replacing him, but one of the few plays in which wide receiver Armanti Edwards(notes) – a quarterback in college – found the field could indicate how Newton might be used in certain types of plays.
Newton ran a crazy quilt of running plays at Auburn; everything from Pistol to speed option to misdirection. The play that Edwards ran out of shotgun with 3:44 left in the second quarter of a 23-6 loss in Week 5 to the Chicago Bears was a misdirection to counter a defense reading run against an inexperienced quarterback who ran a lot of option in college.
The Bears lined up in a single-high safety zone look, with the strong safety having come down to the strong wide tight end, and to read the strong inside tight end if Dante Rosario(notes) released to the seam, which is exactly what he did. That route out of a three-tight end set took the strong-side linebacker away from the run and into coverage, and the deep safety as well. At the same time, the lone receiver started an end-around look as Edwards came back out of the shotgun formation with the ball.
The fake end-around took the strong safety up and out, as the halfback blocked him away from the play. With the Bears playing zone and the Panthers' passing options relatively limited, Edwards took a quick look downfield out of what was basically an end-around play action, didn't like what he saw, and took off right up the middle of a Chicago front four that was wide open because the Carolina offensive line blocked so well, and because the defensive tackle over center stunted out to the side to try and get to Edwards when he was near the pocket. Edwards trucked seven yards upfield.
That play turned a second-and-16 to a third-and-9. On the next play, Clausen threw an awkward pass out of bounds to receiver Brandon LaFell(notes), and the Panthers had to punt. The difference between Newton and Clausen is that Newton probably makes that throw on the run. And the difference between Newton and Edwards is that the incoming rookie probably gets a few more yards on the play through his sheer size and athleticism.
At least, that's what the Panthers are hoping. If they want to make the most of Newton's abilities in the short-term as he's learning the complexities of the NFL passing game, advanced option and misdirection plays will be crucial to the success for an offense that looks to get on its feet after a horrible 2010.
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo’s Shutdown Corner blog and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.