John Madden gave Panthers coach Ron Rivera some advice this offseason: You need to reduce the wear and tear on Cam Newton's body.
Rivera said he sought out Madden during a trip to California this offseason. The two met over coffee and Rivera said Madden, who had studied film on the Panthers before the meeting, "was a little concerned about us giving the ball a little too much to the quarterback."
Rivera has taken the advice to heart.
Newton is on pace to carry the ball 110 times for 502 yards, down from an average of 128 carries for 724 yards in his first two NFL seasons. Newton is also doing a better job of avoiding contact by getting down or going out of bounds before tacklers arrive.
Less, it turns out, is more for the Panthers.
Carolina (5-3) has a winning record at the midway point in the season for the first time since 2008 as they prepare to travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers on Sunday. The Panthers are one game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
Rivera said Newton running less is a "good thing" for the Panthers.
"I think it means we have established ourselves as a more traditional style running team," Rivera said of the team's emphasis on using the team's running backs more. "But we still have that element of the zone read and we still have the element of him pulling the ball down and running it. If we ever needed it we could still go back to it very easily."
Rivera said keeping Newton healthy is also a big reason they aren't calling his number as much.
"I think we want to limit his exposure in light of what has happened to RG3 in the past," Rivera said in reference to Robert Griffin III's knee injury last season. I think that is important. But we can do so much with him — we just choose to do it on a limited basis right now."
Granted, that's not always easy.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Newton is fast and extremely difficult to tackle, making him a tremendous weapon as a runner.
Newton demonstrated his athletic ability this past Sunday against the Falcons when he managed to break three tackles in the backfield, scramble free and complete a 23-yard pass to Steve Smith on third-and-12.
Teammates and coaches were left in awe when they saw the play on tape the following day.
Rivera said it reminded him of an old nemesis.
"It's funny we used to have a saying whenever Barry Sanders ran the ball. We'd start yelling 'Houdini,'" said Rivera, who played linebacker for nine years with the Chicago Bears. "It's kind of funny that echoed in my mind as I watched Cam escape when they were trying to sack him."
Mike Shula, who took over as Carolina's offensive coordinator this year after two seasons as quarterbacks coach, said he's purposely tried to limit Newton's carries.
"You have to be selective with it," Shula said.
He said sometimes just the appearance of Newton running the football can benefit him just as much as a designed run.
"When you have a guy like Cam, you want to always have the threat for him to run the football and defenses have to account for that," Shula said. "But you don't want him to be the leading rusher or his career is not going to be very long."
Forty Niners coach Jim Harbaugh joked of Newton's reduction in carries "I hope they pick and choose less (carries) this week."
Newton said he could care less how much he runs the ball — as long as the Panthers are winning games.
Coach Shula "didn't come up to me and say we're going to reduce your carries," Newton said. "I've always had the attitude that I'm always an outlet. I have the mentality of coach me, coach. What do you want me to do? Carry out a fake, catch a pass, go block or do whatever. I'm a football player and we only have one expectation and that is to win a football game.
"Whether I throw the ball 40 times, run the ball 40 times or block 40 times, my job is to be best quarterback and do exactly what I'm asked to do."
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