Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers must strike balance on offense

BALTIMORE -- The sulk has been sidelined, the towel thrown in. If there is good news to be gleaned about the Carolina Panthers offense this preseason -- and there has not been much so far -- it is that it has given quarterback Cam Newton plenty of opportunity to practice his nascent sunniness.

"It's human nature," Newton said, as he headed toward the team bus Thursday night. "We know what we're capable of doing, that's the most positive thing. Even more positive is we came in to a hostile environment and got a win and we have to build from that."

That was almost more positivity than points produced by the first-team offense in three preseason games, an admirable effort by Newton to channel his inner Up With People, even as the offense can't go up-tempo. Four returns for touchdowns -- and a dazzling night by linebacker Luke Kuechly -- accounted for the 34-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

But that seemed to only highlight an offense that could not match the defense, and Newton conceded that there was only so much that could be said to keep the defense's morale up while the offense sputters. The No. 1 offense led by Newton has scored just one touchdown in 14 preseason possessions -- and that came off a short field after the defense forced another turnover against the Chicago Bears. Since then, it has gone 12 possessions without a touchdown. Newton's six series against the Ravens produced two field goals and at the end of the third quarter, when the starters exited, the Panthers had amassed just 104 yards on 33 plays -- an unsightly average of 3.2 yards per play.

Coach Ron Rivera alluded to potential changes, maybe to the offensive line that provided Newton minimal cover. Center Ryan Kalil said he could speak for the offensive players when he stated, "It doesn't feel like a win tonight."

It wouldn't be a win under normal conditions either. Only so much can be gleaned from the preseason, when offenses unveil few of the wrinkles they intend to use later. Still, the Panthers need only check with the 2012 New York Jets to know that a failure to score in the preseason can portend similar struggles once the games count.

In the meantime, even as Newton is trying to blossom as a leader, he has, somewhat stunningly, slipped out of the conversation about the game's best young quarterbacks less than two years after he was the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year, and only months after he became the first quarterback to lead his team in rushing in more than a decade. He was once the face -- and the physique -- of the running quarterback. Now he has been eclipsed by Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, his profile shadowed by the Panthers' lack of victories. Thursday night was a snapshot: Newton made a few poor tosses, when he didn't step into throws and ended up bouncing the ball in the dirt. Rivera noted that Newton has to set his feet a little faster and release the ball more quickly. But more often, Newton was under siege by the Ravens' defense (he was sacked three times and hurried more often than that), and bedeviled by drops from his intended targets. Rivera said he was sure that when he watched the tape he would see that Newton was making the correct decisions, only to have progress undone by mistakes elsewhere.

Those are not unfamiliar issues for young quarterbacks -- check the dirt on Andrew Luck's 2012 jersey for a reality check on poor protection, for instance. The more problematic question that might eventually confront the Panthers is whether this is the right offense for them at all. New coordinator Mike Shula, who received the in-house promotion from quarterbacks coach when Rob Chudzinski became head coach of the Cleveland Browns, has indicated he wants to veer toward a more conventional running game rather than the read-option-heavy approach that first made Newton a highlight-reel staple.

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A more traditional approach led to the Panthers winning five of their final six games in 2012 -- after going 2-8 to start the season, when Newton ran more of the read option. During that successful stretch run, the simplified offense allowed Newton to display his acumen as a patient passer, picking apart defenses with a series of short and intermediate throws designed to take advantage of the defenses' desire to eliminate the deep throws that Newton's powerful arm threatens. The offense operated at a faster clip and Newton got into the kind of rhythm that the group has not been able to strike this summer. He threw 10 interceptions and had nine fumbles in the Panthers' first 10 games; he had just two interceptions and one fumble in the final six.

Newton has reined in his running in the preseason, and there were moments Thursday when it was easy to envision him taking off if a game was on the line and the offense weren't in such an experimental phase. Shula is correct in shielding Newton from unnecessary contact in the preseason, and Kalil said he'd rather have Newton in one piece for the opener than to have him running right now.

The trouble is that Newton isn't completing many passes or moving the offense with any consistency. He completed just 10 of his 19 pass attempts for 99 yards Thursday. On the Panthers' second drive, they failed to gain even a yard on second-and-1 and third-and-1 on two runs by DeAngelo Williams. Those play calls were straight out of the "three yards and a cloud of dust" book, and there is little question that the absence of running back Jonathan Stewart -- who is recovering from offseason surgeries to both ankles and who has yet to practice -- is hampering the running game.

But if that was an indication of the offense to come -- assuming that Stewart might not be a part of it for a while -- it eliminates one of Carolina's most devastating weapons by removing even the threat of Newton running. A steady diet of the option could wear Newton down, but without at least a sprinkling of it, the Panthers are unlikely to be able to stay with the high-powered passing attacks of the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

"I'm in the game to try to be the person, to be proactive, whatever coach asks me to do, I'm going to do it," Newton said. "I'm not going to bicker about me not running the football. I'm just trying to move the chains. If he asks me to block, I'm going to block. I'm a football player. I'm out here to do whatever it takes to win."

That is the holistic approach any team wants from a quarterback who is, it seems, possessed of a fresh body and a clear mind to start the season. Now the offense has to find the same delicate balance.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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