Cam Newton is right, his gift of running the ball also is his curse

Cam Newton landed on his helmet so hard after going up and over a defender at the end of a third-and-9 scramble that his helmet slid down over his left eye and left him with a shiner. AP/Jason E. Miczek

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The images of Cam Newton landing on his head on the seventh play of Friday's 25-14 preseason win against New England are scary.

His head is cocked awkwardly to the side as it strikes the ground so hard after his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame landed when he dove for a first down that his helmet slammed over his face and left him with a shiner on his left eye.

The images of the Carolina Panthers quarterback heading into the sideline tent to be evaluated for a concussion also are scary. It reminded of the 2016 season when Newton was diagnosed with a concussion after a hard blow to the helmet at the goal line while going for a two-point conversion in Atlanta.

He missed the next game with a concussion.

Newton was lucky this time. Doctors cleared him and he returned four plays later to finish off a drive for a field goal. It was another in a growing list of close calls for the 2015 NFL MVP.

There will be more.

Although the Panthers would like to see Newton run less in the offense new offensive coordinator Norv Turner is implementing, plays such as the one against New England are a reminder that the franchise quarterback will do whatever it takes to get a first down or win -- even in a preseason game.

This was an unnecessary risk because the game didn't count. That thought actually went through Newton's mind as the defender went low and Newton went high to get extra yardage.


It definitely went through the mind of coach Ron Rivera and quarterbacks coach Steve Turner, who had what Newton called a few "expletives" for him on the sideline.

But this is who Newton is, and for better or worse it's not going to totally change.

"I only know how to play this game one way, and a lot of times it becomes my curse," Newton said after the game as he joked about his black eye. "But in more ways it's my gift."

Newton does have a rare gift when it comes to using his legs to extend plays or keep drives alive. He used that gift smartly later in the game when he sidestepped the rush to buy more time and then found an open receiver for a first down.

There were times earlier in his career, even last season, when he would take off running and give up on throwing the pass.

So he's buying into Turner's philosophy of getting the ball into the hands of playmakers who have a chance to turn short gains into big ones. A 68.4 completion percentage in three preseason games for a player with a 58.5 career percentage is evidence.

"The consistency of finding receivers downfield is what we are looking for," Rivera said. "I don't think he gets enough credit for his movement in trying to find receivers downfield. He did a very nice job with that.

"The more and more he plays within what we are doing, the more and more confidence he's going to have."

But Newton always has had confidence in what he can do with his legs, sometimes to the point he'd rather take a chance on himself than putting the ball into the hands of a receiver.

On the third-and-9 scramble against New England, running back Christian McCaffrey was wide open 10 yards ahead of Newton for what would have been an easy dump pass and likely first down. Wide receiver Jarius Wright also was wide open.

Newton chose to run and use McCaffrey, who possibly could have turned the play into a big gain, as a blocker.

You can bet Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would have dumped the ball off. Avoiding hits is one reason he's still going strong at 41.

For Newton, 29, to play at Brady's age he'll eventually have to eliminate such shots. But for now, Newton is focused on getting a Super Bowl ring like the five Brady has.

"We've seen that a long time around here," Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said of Newton taking chances on runs. "That's not anything new to us. That's just how he plays. When he goes out to play preseason, regular season, it's all the same.

"He brings an element that is different than other quarterbacks. He can extend plays, pick up first downs ... . Those are huge plays that sometimes get lost. What other guys can make those?"

Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who watched Newton as an opponent last season while helping the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl, agreed.

"He's a competitor," he said of Newton. "He plays to win. Obviously, you don't like seeing [plays like the head first landing]. But ... he got the first down."

Wright said that play "shows what kind of guy Cam is."

"We all know it's the preseason and he didn't have to do that, but it was a third down and Cam wanted to stay on the field," he said.

Newton compared his landing to an airplane crash.

"There was a lot of malfunctions going on from the cockpit," he said with a smile. "Buttons were getting stuck. Oh my goodness. It was bad. It was real bad."

That's Newton's dilemma. One day it could be so bad that he doesn't come back four plays later, that he misses multiple games with a concussion as outside linebacker Luke Kuechly did in 2015 and '16.

If that happens, the Panthers would have to turn to Taylor Heinicke or Garrett Gilbert. Neither has started a regular-season game. Gilbert hasn't played in a regular-season game.

Heinicke, who appears to have the inside track to the backup job, has played in just one game that counts.

The Panthers need their starter to remain healthy now more than ever if they hope to again be a Super Bowl contender.

So odds are you'll see fewer designed runs out of the read-option for Newton. Turner wants his quarterback to think handoff first, then pass, not handoff first and take off running second.

It's hard to imagine Newton getting close to the career-high 139 carries -- 8.6 per game -- he had last season if McCaffrey is going to get close to the 25 to 30 touches Turner says is realistic.

The math just doesn't work.

But if a win, or even a first down, is on the line it's not hard to imagine Newton taking chances like he did on Friday. It's part of his DNA.

It's why he considers himself "Superman" even though, as we've seen in the past, he's not invincible.

"I always worry about him, but that's him," Rivera said. "He plays to win. I'd much rather he didn't [in the preseason], but he's going to give us all he has because he wants to do his best out there."