CHARLOTTE — Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson told me before the 2012 season that Cam Newton would be his last quarterback.
Richardson, 76, meant he would never have to look for another. Successful teams have franchise quarterbacks. Richardson and the Panthers, the theory went, finally had theirs.
So, Carolina has the ball on the Buffalo 25 Sunday. It’s third-and-5. Pick up the first down and the Panthers win.
They had run effectively on the drive. They had moved 55 yards in 10 plays and only one, the first, was a pass. On third-and-5 they stuck with the run, giving the ball to fullback Mike Tolbert.
Tolbert, who had averaged 4.2 yards a carry, ran off right guard and picked up 4 yards. That set up a fourth-and-1.
I believe you know the rest of the story.
What if, instead of handing the ball to Tolbert, the Panthers had given the ball to the last quarterback Richardson will ever have?
Newton could have attempted to run for the first down or pass for it. He could have been sacked or intercepted.
Whether he succeeded or failed, wouldn’t he be better equipped when the situation arose again? If the NFL is a quarterbacks’ league, and Newton is Carolina’s first franchise quarterback, isn’t the risk necessary and worthwhile?
If Newton is, I mean.
So far this season, Newton has not looked like Newton. The mesmerizing plays that make you want to smack the table in front of you or the writer next to you, even if you’re in the press box, are absent.
Newton often looks like an old-fashioned, pocket-passing adult. It’s Bart Starr. No, it’s Drew Bledsoe.
Some of the passes have been outstanding. The 13-yard touchdown pass with which Newton hit Greg Olsen on Sunday as the first half came to a close was his best. The opening was less a window than a place-mat. The pass had to be hard and precise, and it was.
Newton also hit Ted Ginn Jr. with a 40-yard touchdown pass. But he missed Ginn deep, too. He overthrew him, thus answering the question: Is it possible to overthow Ginn?
Newton has the league’s 20th best passer rating, 86.4. Drew Brees is 19th, Carson Palmer 21st.
Newton runs better than they do, however. He’s run nine times, averaging 5.9 yards a carry. Newton is the league’s 45th-leading rusher and is fifth among quarterbacks.
Run him as frequently as the Panthers did last season, when he led the team in rushing, and of course he’s more likely to get hurt.
Newton is not a conventional drop-back passer. He’s 6-foot-5, weighs 245 pounds and can move. Burn an opponent just a few times by running free or rolling out and the defense has to adjust. That adjustment ought to create opportunities for teammates, among them Tolbert.