CHARLOTTE – Cam Newton's latest dive into the end zone wasn't drawn up that way. But when he began to scramble toward the goal line late in the first half of Sunday's game with the Falcons, anyone who's watched Newton's seven-year career could envision him finishing the play like he had so many times before.
"I think the whole (coaching) box and sideline knew once he got to the 8-yard line that he was going airborne," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Monday.
Fortunately for the Panthers and Newton, not only did he land safely, but the ball also crossed the plane, giving the Panthers a lead they'd never give back. Still, it added to Newton's long list of 'Superman' moments that were accompanied by a twinge of worry.
"That was a little too much," head coach Ron Rivera admitted before adding, "But I'm not going to stop him."
Yet therein lies the dilemma the Panthers have faced since Newton came to Carolina – one that appeared destined to take a different turn when Rivera began to reveal a plan to “evolve” the offense late last season.
Much of that focused on limiting the amount of hits their most important player takes as he gets older. And although the most dangerous collisions typically occur inside the pocket, to many, an evolution meant scaling back the amount of times Newton carries the ball.
But nine games into 2017, he's averaging nearly eight rushes per game, which puts him on pace for 123. Last year, he rushed only 90 times.
"Sure, you want to expose him (less), but if he runs the ball and he slides, is that a hit or is that exposing him? I guess my point is the same is what it's always been – it's a fine line that we walk," Shula said.
"He probably would want to run it more. I don't want to ask him because I know the answer. But that is part of his game, so if you take that away, I think you're taking away a piece of his game away. So that's a delicate balance."
Of course, it's easier to say you want to do something when you're going into an offseason than it is to pull off when you're living inside the pressure of a win-at-all-costs season. But to his credit, Newton has become a smarter and safer runner. He's making more attempts to get out of bounds or slide – and those are less awkward than they looked early in his career. Plus, even if the Panthers dial up fewer designed runs, they're not going to lock their quarterback down in the pocket.
"That was not a designed run," Shula said of Newton's diving score. "That was a scramble that he did a good job on in diagnosing the defense and making a play."
Another example of Newton calling his own number came late in the first quarter when he took off on a naked bootleg. Even his linemen didn't seem to know it was coming:
The end of that play is a study in all that must go through Newton's head during a run. One part of his brain likely told him to pick up more yards and possibly even score. Another said to give himself up and play another down.
"He knew somebody was coming in from behind," Rivera explained, "and he wanted to make sure he got down and protected the ball."
Newton, whose 86 rushing yards against Atlanta were the most by an NFL quarterback this season, has led the Panthers in rushing the past four weeks. That's the longest streak of his career and hardly the change many thought was coming. But if defenses give the most productive running quarterback in NFL history room to run, it'd be silly for him not to take it, right?
"He knows his game and if he does it judiciously as well as us calling it judiciously, we should be OK," Rivera said.
Sunday's game also provided clues to how defenses could play the Panthers when they spread out with more speed on the field. It meant fewer stacked boxes and more space near the line for a run game that racked up 201 yards. And while the biggest chunk of that came courtesy of Newton, how he's running is a bit of an evolution itself.
"He has such an uncanny ability to know when to go for it, when to slide, when to avoid," Shula said. "Every now and then, is it a little precarious? Yeah. Living on the edge."