Cam Newton runs Panthers' evolved offense perfectly

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The buzzword in the land of the Carolina Panthers this offseason was "evolve." The team had reached a clear inflection point in the Cam Newton era, as the scoring unit that supported a league MVP season in 2015 fell apart last season.

The question was always, what exactly did evolve mean? From the outside, it seemed the team needed to make Newton's life a bit easier. Doing so would center upon creating more high-percentage throws for the quarterback. Back in 2016, no quarterback threw into tight windows at a higher rate than Newton. Consistently asking Newton to hit those throws while going down the field with poor protection created little margin for error for the quarterback and the Panthers offense, as a whole.

The Panthers recognized the need for change and acted. The team acquired Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in the draft, among other moves to create a more diverse run game and bolster separation. Carolina made another move to that end by trading Kelvin Benjamin before last month's trade deadline.

Coming into Week 10, the results of Carolina's attempts at a transformation had been mixed, to say the least. When we last saw the Panthers in prime time, the run game was completely stuck in the mud, leaving their quarterback a sitting duck for the Philadelphia Eagles. Nothing had gone to the evolutionary plan set out by the Panthers' brass.

Against the Dolphins on Monday night, 10 weeks into the regular season and their second without Benjamin, the Panthers' evolved offense finally emerged. Carolina had one of the best offensive performances in franchise history as everything came together. The running game finally looked dynamic and it set up their star quarterback to show off the immense ability he has. Gifts that, when Newton is at his best, few can match.

The Panthers' running game was perhaps one of the most disappointing units across the NFL this season. Both of their running backs struggled behind poor blocking and robbed the unit of the identity we've come to associate with the squad.

The Panthers' offensive line was allowing the running backs to gain an average of minus 0.23 rushing yards before defenders closed within one yard over the first nine weeks of the season, ranking 29th in the NFL. Against the Dolphins, the front five set the tone early for a powerful night of dominance on the ground. The Panthers' backs gained an average of 1.5 yards before close. With the improved blocking, Carolina's duo of running backs found more space and both showed off the open field ability we'd been waiting for all year.

Jonathan Stewart came into Week 10 averaging 3.3 yards after defenders closed within one yard (NFL average minus 3.7) but averaged 4.7 against the Dolphins. It was easily the veteran's best game of the season.

Christian McCaffrey also showed off the elusiveness we expected to see from him on a routine basis this season, embarrassing Kiko Alonso on more than one play. The rookie back gained an average of 5.1 rushing yards after close on Monday night, a massive improvement over his early season showing. In the first nine weeks of the 2017 season, McCaffrey averaged a measly 2.75 yards gained after close, ranking 60th out of 65 running backs with over 30 carries. He followed up an encouraging Week 9 performance with the type of truly difference-making showing a player taken at the eighth overall spot should offer.

With the running game in full bloom, Newton operated in the evolved version of the Panthers offense. In doing so, he morphed back into the 2015 version of Cam Newton; a player who is simply unstoppable.

The Panthers have succeeded in dialing back Newton's low-percentage passing assignments. No quarterback threw into tight windows more than Newton in 2016, as he led all quarterbacks with 24.5 percent of his attempts going to a receiver with less than a yard of separation. So far this season, he's dialed back that number to 18.6 percent of his passes, right in line with the league average. Yet, Monday night offered the best showing of the evolved offense and the wide passing lanes Carolina hoped to design for its quarterback. Newton threw just 11.4 percent of his passes into tight windows and carved up the Dolphins at every level of the field.

Removing Benjamin from the equation certainly lessens the need for Newton to throw into tight coverage. Benjamin currently averages 2.0 yards of separation on his targets this season. Only Marvin Jones and Alshon Jeffery carry lower separation figures among receivers with 25 or more targets.

In addition to what a dominant run game offers them schematically, players like Samuel and true breakout player Devin Funchess are simply better separators for Newton. The Panthers quarterback found lanes the likes of which he rarely has over the last three years against the Dolphins on Monday.

While the running game certainly helps open up the passing lanes and the Panthers could not truly evolve on offense without it, with Stewart and McCaffrey operating in peak form it also allows Newton to offer up vintage Superman type plays. Newton hit 20.09 MPH on his 69-yard run Monday night, which is now the fastest speed on a carry for any quarterback this season.

The Dolphins found themselves across the field from an offensive juggernaut, which would have been tough to predict based on the first half of the NFL season. The Panthers boasted two dynamic running backs behind a powerful line and had their former MVP quarterback operating this new-look offense in perfect form. It took 10 weeks to get there but the evolution of the Carolina offense finally appears to have taken hold for one of the NFC's most dangerous teams.

You can explore the charts and data provided by Next Gen Stats for yourself right here, as well.

Matt Harmon is a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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