Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula knew exactly what Cam Newton was going to do as soon as he broke the pocket and started running toward the end zone.
From there, it was just a matter of Shula holding his breath.
Newton completed a 9-yard touchdown run on Sunday with a highlight reel leap into the end zone, stretching the ball across the goal line and essentially dunking on cornerback Desmond Trufant. The quarterback landed safely on his surgically repaired right shoulder and got up to wildly celebrate Carolina’s go-ahead touchdown in a game they would eventually win 20-17 to improve to 6-3.
“Every now and again, is it a little precarious? Yes,” Shula said of Newton running the ball. “It’s like living on the edge.”
Despite talk from coach Ron Rivera this past summer about limiting Newton’s carries to prevent wear and tear on his quarterback’s body, the 2015 league MVP has taken it upon himself to breathe some life into a stagnant running game.
Newton has led the team in rushing four straight games, including Sunday when he gained 86 yards on nine carries. He’s averaged 10 carries per game over that span, the vast majority on scrambles rather than designed runs.
“I’m just trying to win football games at a fast and rapid pace,” Newton said after the win Sunday.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming when Newton responded to Rivera’s remarks about limiting his running in July by saying, “Are you really going to expect a lion not to roar?”
The lion is roaring again.
Newton is on pace to run for more than 600 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
When asked if the Panthers still want to limit Newton’s hits, Shula replied, “Sure, but if he runs the ball and slides is that a hit? Or are you exposing him? I guess my point is it’s a fine line that we walk.”
It’s a line the Panthers have been walking since Newton came into the league as the No. 1 pick in 2012.
On one hand the Panthers don’t want to risk getting their $102.5 million quarterback hurt on an unnecessary run. On the other, they have a unique weapon in the physically imposing 6-foot-5, 245-pounder that is difficult to defend. Newton has piled up 3,907 yards and 52 touchdowns on the ground —the most by a quarterback in NFL history — in 6 ½ seasons.
Both Shula and Rivera take solace in the notion that Newton is — his diving touchdown notwithstanding — getting smarter when he runs.
He’s finally learned a proper baseball slide. And he’s doing a better job of getting out of bounds and avoiding contract when multiple defenders surround him. That was never more evident than Sunday when he culminated a 34-yard run with a slide in the open field as tacklers converged.
He did the same thing on a couple of shorter runs.
“You can see it by the way he gets down prior to hits, and running out of bounds or sliding,” Rivera said of Newton playing smarter. “He was a little bit on the exciting side when he leaped to get the touchdown. That was a little too much, but I’m not going to stop him.”
The Panthers have also come to realize that the natural high Newton gets from making a big play with his feet often translates into him and his offensive teammates playing better.
“He played very emotionally on Sunday, which I think really spills over to the team,” Rivera said. “I think guys picked up on his energy and I think that is terrific. That is when he is at his best, when he plays emotionally.”
Added Shula: “If you ask him, he would probably want to run it more. I don’t want to ask him that question because I think I know the answer. But it is part of his game, and if you take that away I think you are taking a piece of him and his game away. So it’s a delicate balance.”