Cam Newton isn’t running anymore. At least that’s what it looks like through two games.
If that’s the case from here on out, the Carolina Panthers have some tough questions ahead. And they have some immediate issues after falling to 0-2 with an ugly 20-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Newton is without a doubt one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history. What happens when one of those dimensions no longer exists? On Thursday night Newton wasn’t running, again, and his passing was way off. He missed badly on many throws. He has never been a pinpoint passer, but his running game always opened things up in the Panthers offense. Through two games, Newton has only five rushing attempts, for minus-2 yards. He’s just a pocket passer now, at least through two games. That’s not the role that led to him winning an MVP. Newton threw for 333 yards against Tampa Bay, but was just 25-of-51 passing.
The Panthers had numerous chances to salvage a win. They couldn’t do much against a Buccaneers defense expected to rank near the bottom of the NFL. Newton had his best stretch late in the game, marching the Panthers into Buccaneers territory in the final two minutes. But with first-and-10 at Tampa Bay’s 11-yard line, Newton threw two incompletions, then an 8-yard pass to D.J. Moore. On fourth-and-1 following a Tampa Bay delay of game penalty, the Buccaneers stopped Christian McCaffrey for no gain on a tricky direct snap.
In previous years, the Panthers probably would have called a Newton run on fourth down.
Cam Newton has taken a lot of punishment
Newton is the oldest 30-year-old quarterback in league history. While we see others thrive into their late 30s, and in the case of Tom Brady and Drew Brees into their 40s, Newton has taken punishment like no other quarterback. He came off shoulder surgery that cut his 2018 season short. The Panthers often asked Newton to be heavily involved on called runs, presumably knowing that the day would come when the wear and tear would rob Newton of some of his abilities. While it seems really early, maybe that day has come.
There was a telling sequence early in the fourth quarter on third-and-1. That’s where Newton stresses a defense, even as a decoy. He turned, handed it off to McCaffrey and McCaffrey was stopped for no gain. The Panthers run game isn’t as good without the threat of their quarterback being involved, and the Buccaneers teed off on McCaffrey all night. Then on fourth-and-1, Newton had to rush a throw under pressure and it wasn’t close. In previous seasons, the Panthers would have played that situation much differently with Newton. The same goes for their final offensive play, the direct snap to McCaffrey. Newton hurt his foot in the preseason but a testy Ron Rivera said that didn’t affect his play or the Panthers’ final play call.
“Don’t even worry about the foot,” Rivera said at his postgame press conference. “The foot’s got nothing to do with it, OK?”
Newton said he felt “OK,” and didn’t know why there haven’t been more running plays for him this season.
“No matter what physical condition I’m in, no matter what foot, shoulder, I didn’t get the job done tonight man, and it’s frustrating,” Newton said after the game.
On Carolina’s next possession after the fourth-and-1 incompletion, Newton missed way too high to a wide open D.J. Moore on second down, then threw behind an even more wide open Curtis Samuel on an easy third-down pass, and Samuel couldn’t catch it. It was Newton’s seventh straight incompletion on third down. The Panthers had to punt.
Newton missed badly throughout the game. Even his biggest play of the first half was a bit of a misfire. Samuel won easily on a double move and was wide open downfield. Had Newton hit him in stride, it would have been a touchdown. Newton under-threw him, Samuel got 44 yards instead of a score, and the Panthers didn’t get in the end zone. A 44-yard gain looked good on the stat sheet, but it should have been more.
Much has been made of Newton changing his mechanics to protect his shoulder. It seems to be affecting his accuracy, which wasn’t great to begin with.
Buccaneers shut down Newton
The two times Newton ran, the Buccaneers made two of their biggest plays of the game.
In the first quarter, the Panthers went for it on fourth down and Newton was stopped barely short of the first down. In the third quarter, Newton had nowhere to go, was hit hard and fumbled. The Buccaneers recovered, but the Panthers got lucky when Tampa Bay missed a field goal on the ensuing possession. It didn’t matter when Newton missed way too high on a third-down pass on the Panthers’ next possession and had to punt.
The Panthers have a lot of talent, but their hopes rested on Newton bouncing back strong from shoulder surgery. He hasn’t done that. The Panthers couldn’t get one touchdown against the Buccaneers, and now have two straight home losses to start the season.
It’s early in the season. Maybe a foot injury Newton suffered in the preseason has forced the Panthers to scale back their called runs for Newton. Perhaps their game plans just haven’t focused on Newton running the ball, for some reason, and that will change.
But through two games the Panthers seem to be trying to change Newton’s game. It’s not working.
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