Even in football, sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. The Panthers hope that’s not the case for them after selecting two of the 2017 NFL Draft’s best playmakers in Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, shocking their offense’s conscious.
With a passing game centered around Cam Newton and big, powerful threats on the perimeter, the Panthers now have two versatile playmakers they’ll look to utilize.
And while that might make the Panthers fun to play with in “Madden NFL 18," the offense's transition might not be all that smooth in real life.
As a general principle, mobile quarterbacks value teammates who can make plays down the field. Their athletic ability allows them to stretch defenses horizontally and make plays outside the pocket, and they can take advantage of that spacing by having receivers work on the interior or vertically. Pocket passers rely on shorter routes, especially by running backs out of the backfield, to create that spacing, as they are generally resigned to the pocket.
Newton, the NFL's fourth leading rusher for a quarterback, fits the former description.
Statically, the premise mostly holds true. The league average for a team’s total receptions by running backs was just over 77 in 2016. Of the nine QBs who rushed for more than 250 yards last season, all but one (Andrew Luck) led an offense that finished below the average of 77 running back receptions.
The Panthers in 2016 finished with the lowest total of running back receptions, 44. Thirteen different running backs each had 44 or more by themselves in the same year. Carolina has been notoriously low in running back receptions since Newton took over in 2011; its offenses in that span have averaged just 55 per season.
But Newton's limited use of running backs in the passing game during his time in Carolina does not mean he won't be able to maximize McCaffrey and even Samuel. It will just take schematic adjustments, forced adaptation of new offensive focuses and time.
Again, mobile quarterbacks generally don't rely on running backs as often. And while Newton has continued to develop as a pocket passer, limiting him to dropbacks and within the tackle box won't be an easy transition. It also could limit his value.
For comparison, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the most creative QB runners in the NFL, slowly has gotten more comfortable by letting his running backs — rather than his own feet — create lateral separation in the passing game. The Packers’ offense since 2012 has seen an increase in running back receptions every year, with 75 in 2016 being the highest total for any offense led by Rodgers.
Not only has that adjustment made Rodgers more of a ball-spreading threat, but it has forced defenses to limit its pass rush and “spy” Green Bay running backs, rather than Rodgers himself, as a running threat.
That’s something Newton can grow to do, too.
McCaffrey is the best and most NFL-ready running back pass-catcher to come out of the draft since LaDainian Tomlinson, and the Panthers seem anxious to used him as such. But it will take time — maybe the entire 2017 season — for Newton to learn to work McCaffrey into the target rotation.
With Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Greg Olsen, Samuel and McCaffrey all advocating and worthy of targets, it’ll be difficult for offensive coordinator Mike Shula and Newton to keep everybody properly utilized.
The Panthers will look for offensive cohesion early in the season, but while going through a rapid adjustment, mistakes, struggles on third downs and internal frustrations likely will be short-term side effects.
The Panthers are loaded with offensive talent, and it’s certainly a good problem to have. But to start the season, it might be just that — a problem — before Carolina can start to reach its peak.