The Carolina Panthers finished the 2010 season with a 2-14 record, in part because the offense never found any lasting rhythm behind quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen or Matt Moore. In 16 games, the Panthers scored just 17 touchdowns, by far the lowest total in the league. The next lowest team in the NFL, St. Louis, had 27 touchdowns and the three other teams sharing the NFC South with Carolina averaged just over 43 TDs.
In a way, however, that very problem led to its own solution.
The Panthers' two-win season earned them the first overall pick in the 2011 draft and the opportunity to draft Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Some questioned whether Newton, with only one year as a college starter and a heavy reliance on his own running ability, could be a star quarterback in the league, but the Panthers obviously didn't share that concern. And they still don't.
This year, through 11 games, the Panthers have scored 28 touchdowns, which is tied for 11th best in the NFL. Newton, amazingly, has a hand in 22 of those 28 scores.
In addition to passing for 263.5 yards per game and a total of 12 touchdowns, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner has also rushed 86 times for 464 yards and, most impressively, 10 touchdowns. Only two running backs in the entire NFL have scored on the ground more often than Newton – Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy – and they've only got him by one.
Carolina, which finished dead list in the NFL's yardage rankings last year, as well, have vaulted all the way to fifth in 2011 so far. Considering the rest of the offensive cast is largely the same – tight end being an exception – it's obvious that Newton is the reason.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of three NFC South teams that won 10 or more games last year while the Panthers were floundering, haven't yet gotten an in-person look at Newton's performance. That will change on Sunday, when the Bucs and Panthers meet in the first of what will be two games between them in a span of four weeks.
Buccaneer defenders have checked Newton out on game tape, however, and they've come away as impressed as the rest of the league.
"He's one of those guys you've got to contain," said defensive tackle Roy Miller. "You watch him in college and you think, 'This guy's not going to be as dominant a force in the NFL,' and he turns around and does exactly what a lot of people doubted he could do.
"We've got to get Cam Newton off his rhythm because he does a great job of being smart out there and extending plays. He does a great job of knowing exactly what he needs to do to get the first down, whether it's a run or a zone read. All that stuff, he does a great job."
The Bucs haven't exactly avoided the league's best quarterbacks this season. They've gone up against New Orleans' Drew Brees twice, knowing they had to take advantage of turnover opportunities to counterbalance the huge numbers he was likely to put up. They've tried their hand at Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who is most dangerous when he moves around just enough to extend plays. They've seen hot hands like Matt Schaub, game managers like Alex Smith, rising stars like Matthew Stafford and clutch performers like Matt Ryan.
They have not, however, faced anyone quite like Newton yet this year.
"It's a different offense," said defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a 2011 first-round pick like Newton. "It's kind of NFL-style, kind of college-style. You've got to be prepared for both and he's a good quarterback. It's just like going against a quarterback every other week, he's just a different style because he can run. I guess we'll see on Sunday, but you've just got to be prepared to do your assignment and trust that your teammates are going to have your back and do your job."
Carolina isn't the only team in the NFL getting its quarterback involved in the rushing attack. Michael Vick is obviously a huge threat on the ground for Philadelphia when healthy and Tim Tebow is running more than he's throwing in Denver. But the Buccaneers haven't played either of those teams this year and the once-familiar Vick hasn't been on their schedule in a long time.
"It's an innovative scheme they're running," said Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake of the Carolina attack. "It's really diverse. They have a lot of NFL running offense, but then they have a lot of college-influenced offense, too, some of the stuff that he ran in college at Auburn. It's almost similar to the Denver Broncos with Tim Tebow; they kind of play to his strengths a little bit. I think they're doing the same thing here with Cam Newton."
Linebacker Mason Foster, another rookie newcomer to the NFC South, says the Buccaneer defenders have to be ready to swarm to the football on every play. That's something the team has actually done quite well over the last two weeks after a pads-intensive week of practice before the Green Bay game. However, the run defense still took a beating last weekend in Tennessee, mostly in the second half, because of continuing problems with gap fits. That could be an issue again Sunday, if not corrected, because the Newton-led Panthers attack is averaging 101.6 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.
The problem is that Newton is not the only problem, when it comes to stopping the Panthers' rushing attack. Even in 2010, when the Panthers' offense was the league's worst, the team still finished 13th in the NFL with 115.4 yards per game. The running back duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart has been making life difficult for NFC South defenses since 2008, and now they serve as a complement to Newton's running and Steve Smith's revived downfield threat.
Williams has rushed for 540 yards and three touchdowns and is picking up 5.0 yards per tote. Stewart is at 442 yards, two TDs and 4.8 yards per run.
"He's not the only threat," said Miller. "They've got the other two running backs that are as good as threats, and we've got to contain all three of them. We've got to stop that attack."
Added fellow interior lineman Albert Haynesworth: "[Newton] is definitely a key but they have two other guys that are really good, and also Smith. He's got a lot of talent around him but we've just got to play a complete game and not lose focus on what we have to do."
According to Clayborn, the key to keeping that trio of ballcarriers from running roughshod over the Bucs' defense, which currently ranks 30th in the NFL against the run, is assignment football. The Panthers often let their runners stretch a play until they see the gap they want to hit and cut hard into it. To keep that approach from turning into big plays, the Bucs need to get a defender into each gap, which is a task as mental as it is physical.
"They kind of run a zone scheme so you have to play your part and know your teammates have their part in order to take on him or their running backs," said Clayborn. "Everybody has to stay in their gaps and not try to over-think or do too much."
Newton, of course, gives opposing defenders an awful lot to think about. The Buccaneers are looking forward to the challenge.
"He's athletic and I think he's playing with a lot of confidence right now…maybe young confidence, too," said Lake. "He's throwing into coverage a little bit, but sometimes he'll throw into coverage and his guys make the plays. He's playing at a high level. It's going to be a tough test for us."