If you were skeptical about the Panthers’ decision to replace play-caller Mike Shula with Norv Turner this offseason, you weren’t alone. Cam Newton was too.
Carolina’s coordinator change came replete with standard-fare coachspeak from Ron Rivera, of course, who cited Turner’s résumé coaching Hall of Fame quarterbacks and the ease with which Newton would transition to Turner’s scheme. But the veteran play-caller’s background in the vertically focused Air Coryell offense didn’t feel like the answer for a quarterback like Newton. Newton has struggled with accuracy and had completed more than 60 percent of his throws in just one of his five seasons in Shula’s similarly aggressive downfield scheme. Turner’s history coaching mostly immobile pocket passers didn’t exactly bode well for his understanding how to utilize Newton’s unique skill set as a runner, either.
Carolina’s dismantling of what had perhaps been the best defense in the NFL on Sunday, though, makes it clear those worries were unfounded. Against the Ravens’ disciplined and talented group, Turner called a magnificent game, marrying old-school passing and run concepts with the read option, triple option, RPOs, and plenty of misdirection. Newton looked like his former MVP self, completing 21 of 29 passes (72.4 percent) for 219 yards and two touchdowns for a cool 116.9 passer rating while adding 10 rushes for 52 yards and a score on the ground. The dynamic 6-foot-5, 245-pound passer was in complete control throughout the afternoon, but he wasn’t forced to carry the offense on his back. Like any good leader, Newton delegated, leaning on the talents of the team’s offensive skill players and a surprisingly stout offensive line.
We’d seen glimpses of the upside of this new-look Panthers offense throughout the year, but the team’s performance Sunday represented the culmination of two months of tinkering, both in scheme and in personnel. Newton and Co. still have much to prove, but the Panthers’ newfound mix on offense could have major implications for the playoff race in the NFC—and for the stretch run of your fantasy league.
It might sound obvious, but one of the keys to Turner’s offense this year has been his ability to make things easier for his quarterback. For much of his career, Newton has hovered near the top of the NFL’s rankings in average depth of target (aDOT), including a career- and league-high aDOT of 11.0 yards in 2016. That focus on deep shots, combined with the team’s reliance on bigger, slower receivers (like Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess) meant that Newton has tended to finish near the league lead in the rate of pass attempts into tight coverage. Of course, that aggressiveness downfield led to a decrease in completion percentage and an uptick in interceptions. Turner’s new-look offense has flipped Shula’s script.
No one likes watching a quarterback rely solely on check-downs and dump-offs, but the Panthers have found what appears to be the right mix of aggressiveness and simplicity. With a greater focus on quick-breaking routes, Newton is passing shorter more often, and his average intended air yards per throw sits at just 7.5 yards this year (28th among qualifying passers per NFL Next Gen Stats). He’s finding more easy, wide-open targets, too. Newton ranks 11th in the rate of tight-window throws (17.2 percent) this season after finishing second in that category in 2016 (24.5 percent) and fifth in 2017 (20.5 percent). The result? Newton is on pace to set a career high in completion rate (66.4 percent), has posted a career-low interception rate (1.7 percent), and the Panthers are averaging 22 first downs a game—up from 20.2 last year—and scoring 25.4 points per game, up from 22.7 last year.
That offensive evolution was spurred not just by Turner’s scheme—which has drawn on zone-flood concepts, run-pass options, mesh routes over the middle, and lots of trips looks to help get receivers open quickly—but by the team’s investments at the receiver and running back position. Christian McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick in 2017, remains a reliable outlet option for Newton as a pass catcher. He ranks second among running backs (behind only New England’s James White) in total routes run (224), per Pro Football Focus, and has been dangerous from the slot, where he’s run 28 routes this year (fourth among running backs). McCaffrey’s reliability as a pass catcher is integral in helping Newton avoid pressure: On this play, both Newton and McCaffrey recognized that the Ravens had dialed up a safety blitz (you can even see Newton point at the blitzer), so McCaffrey just drifted outside from his spot in the slot to give his quarterback a quick dump-off option from where the pressure originated. Easy.
These quick, underneath pass options, along with the Panthers’ strong run game, have helped Newton avoid oncoming pass rushers (the Panthers rank fifth in pressure rate) and have deterred opposing teams from blitzing frequently (on just 19.5 percent of downs, the fifth-lowest rate). McCaffrey is a big part of that, but second-year receiver Curtis Samuel and rookie D.J. Moore could factor in as well as they become a bigger part of the offense. Samuel, a second-rounder for the team in 2017, has seen his snap rate increase in the past three weeks (5 percent to 32 percent to 40 percent) after missing the first three games due to an irregular heartbeat. Moore, another hybrid pass catcher the team selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, had his coming-out party on Sunday against Baltimore. The dynamic run-after-the-catch specialist caught five of six targets for 90 yards while rushing twice for another 39 yards, and showed off the ability to run routes deep or take a simple screen and pick up chunks of yards. On this play, Moore runs a sweep motion across the formation before the snap and when Newton’s first option (a slant to the left) gets covered up, Newton just looks to his right and swings it to Moore.
Moore and Samuel are more than just dump-off options, though. In the run game, McCaffrey has proved dynamic in his move to a more featured role, and averages 4.6 yards per carry on 92 totes. But he hasn’t been burdened by a typical bell cow’s workload; while he has played an amazing 96 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, the team split up the responsibilities of carrying the rock. For starters, Carolina realized that Newton is most dangerous when he’s an integrated part of the run game, and the big dual-threat quarterback is averaging a career-high 8.9 rushes per game. The Panthers have also sprinkled in plenty of two-running-back sets featuring veteran C.J. Anderson, and have incorporated their two dynamic hybrid pass catchers, Moore and Samuel, as extensions of the rushing attack. Whether it’s by quick screen passes, end arounds, or jet sweeps, Samuel and Moore have both added to the team’s ability to attack teams on the ground.
On one play Sunday, Moore motioned from out on the wing into the backfield, and after faking the handoff to McCaffrey on the dive, Newton pitched it to Moore, who corralled it on a bounce and used his open-field athleticism to pick up big yardage.
On the very next play, the Panthers ran what looked to be a quarterback power run to the right, but Moore swooped in from the wing and took an end around the other way for another nice gain.
These misdirection plays attack the perimeter and pair perfectly with the team’s foundational run game that typically attacks the middle of the field. Using Newton as a running option keeps defenses off balance: If the defense cheats and widens out toward Newton, he’ll hand it off to McCaffrey; if they cheat inside on McCaffrey, Newton will keep it. Carolina led 27-14 early in the fourth quarter and confounded the Ravens defense on three plays in a row. On the first, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs opens up at the snap to contain Newton, so the give goes to McCaffrey.
On the second, Newton holds the ball at the mesh point a little longer, duping Suggs into thinking it’s another dive. He keeps it and runs for 5 more yards.
On the third, Newton lines up under center, fakes the handoff to McCaffrey, and, fooling just about everyone on the Baltimore defense, takes a naked bootleg into the end zone for the score.
The Panthers offense reached a near-perfect equilibrium on Sunday. They mixed speed with power. They threw 30 times for 232 yards and two touchdowns and ran the ball 33 times for 154 yards and two scores. They ran the ball and then threw off play-action, and then used the passing game to set up more runs. They used inside rushes to set up RPOs and screen plays that attacked outside, and they used jet sweeps and pre-snap orbit motion to get the defense flowing outside before attacking the middle. Newton got just about everyone involved and seven separate Carolina players caught a pass. When he wasn’t looking to McCaffrey, Moore, and Samuel (three catches for 28 yards), he targeted Funchess (three catches, 27 yards) and Greg Olsen (four catches, 56 yards, one touchdown) in the intermediate area.
The only thing still missing from the Panthers’ offensive assault is the deep passing game. Newton has completed just five passes of 20-plus yards this year, which ranks 29th out of 38 qualifying passers, per PFF, and until Torrey Smith returns from a knee injury sustained in Week 7, that may not change. But based on what we saw Sunday, the lack of a deep passing attack may not matter. Instead of sitting in the pocket and waiting for deeper plays to develop, Newton is taking what’s there for him underneath. He’s like the point guard in the Carolina scheme, and distributes the ball to his playmakers so they can pick up explosive plays in space. That’s worked wonders for Newton, and it perfectly fits what run-after-the-catch specialists like Moore and Samuel bring to the offense. Smith’s injury forced that dynamic receiver duo into bigger roles, and it gave us a glimpse of what this Panthers offense should look like.
Let’s hope Rivera saw it that way, too. If so, Carolina’s evolution carries key fantasy implications. Clearly, Newton and McCaffrey remain every-week must-starts, but there’s room in this offense for a couple of new names to emerge as fantasy relevant players. Moore (rostered in 47 percent of Yahoo leagues), who set career highs in snaps (46), targets (six), receptions (five), and total yards (129), should be the primary beneficiary. He’s a must-add player with a high floor, especially in PPR leagues, as the Panthers manufactured multiple ways to get him the ball in space. Samuel (rostered in just 1 percent of leagues) is a much deeper dive at this point; but he’s got similar big-play potential if the team can get him more involved. It sounds like they want to, and with Carolina shifting to a more pass-happy approach in the past three weeks, there should be opportunities to get both Samuel and Moore more integrated into this system.
It’s still too early to predict how the Panthers’ receiver rotation will shake out, but it’s clear that Carolina is still just scratching the surface with what that dynamic receiver duo can do.