CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Cam Newton proved he can provide the Carolina Panthers with a jolt off the bench playing in certain goal-line and short-yard packages.
Now it becomes a matter of can Newton be as productive as an every-down quarterback when the Panthers return home on Sunday to face his former head coach Ron Rivera and the Washington Football Team. Newton is 7-16 in his last 23 starts, including eight straight losses as Carolina’s starter.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule hasn’t officially named a starting quarterback, but said Monday that Newton will get the majority of reps this week in practice.
“If he’s ready to start, great. If he’s not quite ready to do everything then P.J. Walker is available,” Rhule said Monday.
But Rhule made it clear after Carolina’s lopsided 34-10 win Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals, saying “We brought Cam here to play, there’s no doubt about that.”
Rhule said the Panthers’ plan with Newton is right on schedule. Newton didn’t sign with Carolina until Thursday night, so he had limited time to digest the playbook. He knew about 15 plays going into the game and Newton played 12% (9 of 75) of the offensive plays.
P.J. Walker started against Arizona, but even he knew his time as a starter would be brief.
“I understand what’s going on,” said Walker, 2-0 as an NFL starter. “I understand the game. I understand the business of it.”
Newton scored touchdowns the first two times he touched the ball against Arizona, first on a tackle-breaking 2-yard run and then on a 2-yard pass to Robby Anderson. He ran for 14 yards on three carries and was 3 of 4 passing for 8 yards.
“He pulled the trigger on the deep ball today, we threw the sprint out with him. He’ll have to get into it this week and learn more and more and more,” Rhule said.
When asked how much of the playbook he knew coming into the game, Newton replied “two touchdowns worth.”
If the season ended today, the Panthers (5-5) would be the NFC’s third wild- card team.
Newton is a big part of the team’s optimism moving forward.
“We’re .500 right now,” Newton said. “We lost games that, going back and watching film, that we should have won. It’s still keeping that microscope to the details and making sure every opportunity that we get, we maximize in a positive way.”
The impact of a healthy Christian McCaffrey is beginning to be felt, as the versatile running back combined for 161 yards from scrimmage Sunday. McCaffrey’s mere presence in the backfield opens up so many things for his teammates as defenses are forced to account for him every play. The Panthers are doing a nice job of keeping running backs Chuba Hubbard and Ameer Abdullah in the mix to take some of the workload off McCaffrey and prevent another injury. McCaffrey played 59% of Carolina’s plays vs. Arizona. He appeared to be stretching out his hamstring in the fourth quarter, but Rhule said the 2019 All-Pro was not injured.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Discipline. Despite the lopsided win, the Panthers continue to hurt themselves with penalties. Carolina was penalized nine times for 115 yards. The Panthers are now the most penalized team in the NFL with 74 through 10 weeks.
Zane Gonzalez. The kicker has made 16 straight field goal attempts, including 4 for 4 on Sunday that included makes of 44, 48, 49 and 27 yards.
Haason Reddick. The outside linebacker continues to have an impressive season with 10 sacks. Reddick has five games this season with at least 1 1/2 sacks, tying a franchise record.
Sam Darnold. The Panthers spent three draft picks on the former Jet and gave him every opportunity to become the team’s franchise quarterback, but it’s clear he wasn’t the right guy for the job. He’s expected to miss four to six weeks with a shoulder injury and could be done for the season. With Newton in the fold, there’s no reason to believe Darnold will ever be the team’s starter again.
The bad news for the Panthers is they’re stuck with a pretty expensive backup next season after picking up the fifth-year option on Darnold’s contract that will pay him $18.85 million in 2022.
Carolina’s No. 2-ranked defense could get a boost this week if safety Juston Burris is able to return. He has been out since Week 3 with a groin injury. Burris had been set to return a few weeks ago, but suffered a setback.
11 — number of games with at least 10 receptions by McCaffrey in his career, the most of any running back in NFL history.
24 — Panthers’ margin of victory against Arizona, their largest since 2017 against the Dolphins.
Carolina’s defense has been really good for most of the season and the next three weeks the team will face QBs Taylor Heinicke, Tua Tagovailoa and Matt Ryan. This is a chance for the Panthers to make some hay and position themselves for the playoffs before a brutal closing stretch that includes two games against Tampa Bay and one each against Buffalo and New Orleans.