The numbers don't lie: The Carolina Panthers are tougher to beat when Cam Newton is running the football.
Newton was more active with his legs this past Sunday and the Panthers got their first win, a 38-0 rout of the New York Giants to improve to 1-2 before their bye. Newton carried four times for 40 yards on the team's second possession leading to Carolina's first touchdown and setting the tone for rest of the game.
That's really no surprise. The Panthers are 7-3 in three seasons when Newton carries the ball nine times or more in a game. They're 7-18 when he carries eight times or less.
Carolina is 9-6 when Newton runs for at least 50 yards.
"We're a better team when he's running the ball," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "... It causes frustration to defensive linemen. I'm sure it's something (defenses) talk about all week is not letting No. 1 get out of the pocket."
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula is trying to walk that fine line between using Newton's incredible athletic ability and not exposing his franchise quarterback to injury. Shula said during the offseason the Panthers wanted to get back to a "more traditional running game," in essence getting the running backs more involved and taking some of the load off Newton.
In short, Shula would rather not have Newton lead the team in rushing like he did last season.
For the most part, Shula has tried to adhere to that philosophy as Carolina's running backs have averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game. But last weekend's rout of the Giants proved again when the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback gets his powerful big body in motion it's difficult to stop the Panthers.
After only rushing for a combined 53 yards on nine carries in Carolina's first two losses, Newton's early runs seemed to open up the entire offense.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he's learning to get Newton active early in games.
"Running helps getting him in the rhythm early," Rivera said. "I think as you look at those things we've got to make sure we're putting him early into the position to have success. That can equate to a lot of good things."
And not only when Newton is running the ball.
Rivera said the threat of Newton taking off is often just as effective as a good run because it opens up other things on offense.
On Sunday, Newton ran what Rivera called a "ride read" to the left, drew in a defender and pitched to running back Williams, who ran around the end for 15 yards. The defense was forced to honor Newton — and it paid the price.
Right tackle Byron Bell said the threat of Newton's running ability makes his job easier and helps in all facets of the offense.
"When we got him running early against the Giants it slowed down their pass rush because they had to read a lot of things," Bell said. 'And it opened up things for DeAngelo (Williams) and the passing game, too."
Williams, the team's starting running back, ran for 120 yards on 23 carries, while Newton threw three touchdown passes.
It's not that Shula doesn't want to give Newton the option to run. The Panthers are on pace to run the read option 96 times this season, according to STATS. A year ago they ran it 81 times, which was more than any team in the league, including Colin Kaepernick's San Francisco 49ers and Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins.
Newton has said repeatedly he has immense respect for Shula, and even petitioned for him to be promoted to offensive coordinator when Rob Chudzinkski left earlier this year to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
So he's not about to challenge Shula's philosophy.
When he was asked this week if part of him is wary of being labeled a running quarterback, Newton replied, "There's a part of me that wants to be known as a winner. o whatever I have to do to get that — throwing, running, blocking, catching — I'm all for it."
AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP