SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was precisely how the Panthers believe Christian McCaffrey can help Cam Newton.
With 32 seconds left in the first half of Sunday's season opener against San Francisco, Carolina faced a third-and-15 from its 40-yard line. In similar situations during previous seasons, Newton would often drop back and toss a pass past the first-down markers. But this time he quickly dropped off a screen pass to McCaffrey, who weaved his way 16 yards before stepping out of bounds.
On the Panthers' next two plays, Newton made his first connections of the half with tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, putting the Panthers in range for a short field goal that sent them into the break with a 13-0 lead.
That 3-for-3 first-half finish, and Newton's second-half performance – 6-for-6 for 66 yards, a touchdown and a 152.1 passer rating – were seemingly sparked by that simple screen to McCaffrey. It a safe, smart play Newton needed after he began his first extended action since New Year's Day with 11 misfires on his first 16 throws.
"The quarterback is obviously getting used to the timing. He missed some throws and he knows it," Rivera said. "I had to talk him off the ledge, but he's focusing in on what he needs to get done. The nice thing is all the other guys are rallying around him. They understand he's a little rusty.
"He did some things very well, made a couple really good audibles. He's making good reads. It's just about getting comfortable and getting his rhythm."
Newton, who wasn't made available to the media post game because he was picked for a random drug screen, didn't take too many shots downfield. That's part newish offense, part protecting him from pushing his surgically repaired shoulder too hard. But his 25-yard completion late in the first half to Benjamin was right on the money. The result sure was better than Newton's lone deep pass to Benjamin earlier in the quarter that safety Jaquiski Tartt intercepted with one hand.
"If he puts that ball out a little sooner with a little less air," Rivera said, "I think Kelvin might catch that. That was a heck of a play by them."
Because he hadn't completed a pass for more than 20 yards against live competition since last year's season finale in Tampa Bay, no one knew what to expect from Newton. The first part – that 5-for-16 start with 40 of his 63 passing yards coming on a touchdown to Russell Shepard – was ugly. But the Panthers hope the 9-for-9 finish was a preview of what their offense can do when Newton makes sound decisions and gets in a groove.
"I think we all took turns being just a little off," Olsen said.
"I just don't think we really found our stride. We had our moments, but collectively I think we'll be better as the year goes on."
View the top photos from Panthers vs. 49ers by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.