CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers offense are finally hitting their groove.
Too bad for Carolina it’s a case of too little, too late.
At 4-9, Carolina’s playoff aspirations evaporated several weeks ago, but Newton’s vastly improved play in recent weeks gives promise that his stellar rookie season in 2011 was far from a fluke and better times are ahead.
After a rough start this season, Newton has tallied 1,363 yards from scrimmage with 11 combined touchdowns and, here’s the really impressive part, no turnovers in the past four games.
Carolina piled up 365 yards of offense in 2˝ quarters Sunday against NFC South champion Atlanta and built a 23-0 lead and held on to upset the Falcons 30-20.
Newton finished with stellar numbers, completing 23 of 35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns. He also ran for 116 yards, completing a jaw-dropping 72-yard touchdown jaunt along the left sidelines by somersaulting into the end zone before getting to his feet and making his treademark celebration, pretending to rip open his shirt like Superman.
“Spectacular,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Newton’s performance.
“The way he played and the things that he did, that shows you what potentially he is going to become. We just have to keep working and he has to keep growing as a football player. These last five weeks now have been pretty doggone solid. I’m very pleased with his development,” Rivera said.
After ranking near the bottom of the league on offense most of the year and struggling to close out close games, the Panthers are averaging 397 yards and 23 points per game over the last four weeks entering Sunday’s game at San Diego. That’s a bittersweet stat for Rivera to swallow.
“The disappointing thing is that’s what we can be,” Rivera said. “We know that. Based on what we did, how we did it and who we did it with, that’s the disappointing thing. ... We’ve found balance, we have. Unfortunately we didn’t do it sooner.”
After Sunday’s win over Atlanta, Newton downplayed talk of being “in the zone.”
“I just think this whole offense is clicking,” Newton said. “We just have to connect the dots. When the offense is on, the defense has to step up, and when the defense is on, the offense has to pick it up also, and special teams.”
Rivera said Newton has handled himself more professionally in recent weeks, particularly after losses.
That’s always been a touchy subject for Newton, a guy who barely lost at the previous level claiming national championships at Blind Junior College and Auburn.
Rivera said Newton has also been more accepting of what offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula have been teaching him after a disappointing start to the season in which Newton only threw five TD passes in his first seven games and turned it over 12 times.
“I think his football acumen has improved,” Rivera said. “I think his footwork has gotten better, his technique, his style, things that he does. It’s like all of a sudden the light bulb has gone off and I think that has been big.”
Still, for Newton, the effort was good, but not good enough.
After the game Sunday he stopped briefly in his postgame press conference to berate himself over the plays he didn’t make.
Even after Carolina piled up 475 total yards in offense against the Falcons, Newton was thinking about a throw that got away. He had receiver Louis Murphy open down the left sideline on a long pass play but threw it too far to the left and out of bounds where Murphy had no chance to make a play on it.
“Some plays I wish I could have back,” Newton said.
However, the one play Newton left everyone talking about was his highlight reel touchdown run where he got a downfield block from Steve Smith to spring him to the end zone. For all the grief the Panthers have taken about their zone read option not being effective, this play worked like a charm.
Tight end Greg Olsen said it was a play similar to what they’d been running all season but with a little wrinkle.
“We did a nice job dressing it up, starting out a receiver at the back and they really keyed in on DeAngelo Williams,” Olsen said. “I came around, they blitzed the safety and we just had a great call there at the right time for that look. They blitzed that safety and that’s my guy. It’s like you drew it up on paper.”
Then he added with a smile, “but you need a 6-foot-5 quarterback to run 80 yards. We were fortunate to have that.”