Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: To run or not to run is the Cam Newton question - The Buffalo News
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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: To run or not to run is the Cam Newton question

The next phase of Cam Newton's NFL career appears under way.

The Carolina Panthers have seen the beating Newton has taken the first six years of his career and want him to run less. That's good for Newton's health and longevity.

Is it good for the Panthers this year? We get another indication Sunday when the Buffalo Bills visit Charlotte.

"We want him to last 10 more years," Panthers coach Ron Rivera told reporters at the end of last season. "We have to find ways to change. We have to find ways to protect him and for him to protect himself. Part of his evolution is learning how to survive."

Newton is a career 58.4 percent passer. That is not elite. He does not get the ball out of his hands fast. He doesn't execute the underneath passing game superbly. He's not precise enough on the kind of horizontal quick-game throws that make Tom Brady great.

Make no mistake, Newton is an elite talent. He's a superb intermediate and deep passer. He's tough. His phenomenal running ability is the trait that has taken him from good to great in the NFL.

When Newton won the NFL most valuable player award in 2015, he was 16th in the league in passing yards. But add his 636 rushing yards and he was eighth among all QBs in passing and rushing yards combined.

He produced 45 touchdowns (35 passing, 10 rushing) in 2015. Only five QBs ever have produced more TDs in a single season (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers). The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton has produced 184 TDs his first six seasons. Marino (with 199) is the only QB to have more in his first six years. Newton's 48 rushing TDs are 30 more than any other QB since 2011. Phenomenal.

The running has taken a toll, along with the fact Carolina has ranked in the bottom 12 in sacks allowed each of the past four years. Newton's injuries the past three years have included a concussion, torn ankle ligaments, cracked ribs, a back fracture from a car crash and a torn rotator cuff (for which he had surgery in March).

Newton's scale-back on running started last year when his attempts dropped from 132 to 90.

With an eye toward dropping the number again this year, Carolina spent its top draft pick on speedy, quick-game target Christian McCaffery.

In the season opening win at San Francisco last week, Newton rushed twice, one by design, one by scramble. Carolina ran read-option designs on six plays, but each time Newton handed off to the back at the mesh point.

With Carolina's emphasis on downfield passing, opponents generally attack the Panthers' pocket. Newton was the most blitzed passer in the league last year, with foes blitzing a league-high 38 percent of pass plays, according to Football Outsiders.

Look for Sean McDermott to be aggressive with his Bills defense on Sudnay.

Can Newton transform his game? Ben Roethlisberger learned to be more of a quick-game thrower in the middle of his career. This is a big season for Newton to move in that direction, if he can.

He reads your mail

ESPN's Jon Gruden loves to say Tom Brady "reads your mail" before the snap. Brady knows all, sees all. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly might be the best defensive player in the NFL at "reading your mail."

"There's a reason why Luke's been successful," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "He spends an incredible amount of time watching film, watching the TV copy of film so he's not only watching but he's listening, gathering information. Anything that comes up, he hears, he sees, he's on it. When you leave the office, his truck is still there most nights. So there's no mistaking why he's successful."

The 30,000-foot View

Carolina is a good team in a tough division, but the direction of the franchise is a bit cloudy due to the surprise July firing of Dave Gettleman, the general manager the past four years. Gettleman, who was on Bill Polian's scouting staff in Buffalo, was Sporting News executive of the year for 2015. His axing bore some resemblance to Polian's exit from the Bills in that it was more about style than on-field results. According to the Charlotte Observer, one factor was owner Jerry Richardson grew weary of Gettleman's gruff management style. Richardson, 81, plans for the team to be sold after his death to someone who will keep it in Charlotte.

Game-breaker

Christian McCaffrey. The rookie first-round draft choice from Stanford is the dynamic new toy in the Carolina offense. Every time he touches the ball, you sit on the edge of your seat because it looks like something big could happen. McCaffrey got 21 touches in Week 1 (13 rushes, five catches and three punt returns). He produced 92 yards. McCaffrey gained 6,987 all-purpose yards at Stanford and was Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2015. His 4.48 speed in the 40 tied for fourth best among RBs before the draft. His 37.5-inch vertical jump was second best. His 6.57 time in the 3-cone drill is the second fastest of any back in the last 10 years.

"I love LeSean McCoy, and this guy is every bit as athletic," said NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock before the draft.

Weak link

Pass protection. This is a team without a glaring weakness, and the Carolina's offensive line isn't poor. It has yet to allow a sack through preseason and the opener in 2017. If the Bills are going to pull an upset, they will need to force Newton into some hurries and mistakes. The guard tandem of Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell are mauling run-blockers but could have some trouble with the quickness of Kyle Williams (especially Norwell). Turner just signed an $11.25 million-a-year deal, third biggest among guards. Right tackle Daryl Williams is only average. The Bills need to win vs. him. Left tackle Matt Kalil was signed for $11 million a year to solve a problem spot last year. Was it an overpayment? He never has been a darling of the analytics sites.

One more stat for the road

The run sets up the pass for the Panthers. Carolina ranked eighth last year in first-down run percentage (51.0) and sixth in first-half run percentage (42.0), according to Football Outsiders.

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