There are a few plays that every Carolina Panthers fan remembers: Sam Mills’ interception return of a shovel pass in 1995. Steve Smith’s catch and run against St. Louis in the 2003 playoffs. A handful of others.
One play was added to the list Sunday, when Cam Newton ran 72 yards for a touchdown and front-flipped into the end zone in the Panthers’ 30-20 upset of Atlanta.
Let me repeat that: A 6-foot-5, 248-pound quarterback sprinted almost the length of the field, used an incredible Steve Smith block to his advantage and then had the athleticism to do a front flip into the end zone.
And then Newton was a little disappointed that a Falcon had gotten a hand on him at the end, so he didn’t stick the front-flip landing quite like a gymnast would.
But it was a ridiculously good play. If you haven’t seen the highlight, go find it online. You owe it to yourself.
“It was just a zone read play,” Newton said of the run, in which he first faked a handoff to DeAngelo Williams. “When I was running I saw No. 23, Dunta Robinson, look back as if the running back had it. ... The only thing I kept thinking was, ‘I just can’t get caught.’”
I was watching one of those ESPN “30 for 30” documentaries this weekend – this one was on Bo Jackson. Much of it focused on the incredible things Bo could do until he wrecked his hip. And it struck me – that’s Newton. He’s Bo Jackson, except he plays quarterback and he can’t hit a curveball.
When Newton did the “Superman” routine after the 72-yard run, it almost seemed too understated. He needed to fly to the top of the stadium after that one.
It wasn’t the longest quarterback run for a TD ever – Kordell Stewart once had an 80-yarder against the Panthers – but it was the play everyone will remember from Sunday.
“We had a great call there,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who also had a fine block on the run. “It was the right time for that look, just like you drew it up on paper. But you need a 6-5 quarterback to run 80 yards. That’s the problem. Fortunately, we have that.”
There was far more to Newton’s game than that one run. For the fourth straight game, he didn’t commit a turnover, and turnovers have usually been Newton’s bugaboo. His quarterback passer rating for 2012 is now better than it was in 2011, when he was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and had what I thought was the finest rookie year of any player at any position ever.
Newton’s best throw was on Carolina’s first drive, when he threw just high enough to a well-covered Olsen to allow Olsen to make a leaping 25-yard catch in the end zone. Newton ended up throwing for 287 yards and running for 116 more.
It was the first time any Carolina quarterback has gone over 100 yards rushing. More significantly, it was also the first time any quarterback in NFL history had thrown for more than 250 yards, run for more than 100 yards and gotten at least one touchdown passing and running.
Newton wasn’t perfect. He missed several throws, including one that would have been a 47-yard TD. “The one that stands out right now is the one throw to Louis Murphy when he was wide open,” Newton said of that pass, which he inexplicably lofted out of bounds.
But at least his misses no longer get intercepted nearly as often. And he finally can brag to his friends back home in Atlanta that he has beaten the Falcons for the first time in four tries. Coach Ron Rivera said several times this week that the Falcons games seem particularly special to Newton.
Said Newton, agreeing: “I get hounded so much when I get in Atlanta. … I think this game allows me to have a little chip on my shoulder going back home.”
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross said Newton’s sideline demeanor has been better over the past few weeks as well.
“I tell Cam all the time that the positive energy he brings is as valuable as his athleticism and his physical features,” Gross said. “He has a way of getting everybody around him excited about the game and believing we can make good things happen. And that run was part of it. And to see Steve down there in his 12th year, providing a critical block for him, the crowd was excited. That’s what our offense needs to be about.”
The Panthers offense was scoring so often Sunday – it got points in each of its first five possessions – that there was even a little argument about what to do with the final touchdown ball.
On Newton’s 53-yard screen pass for a touchdown to DeAngelo Williams, which clinched the game, Newton came jogging into the end zone and tried to wrest the ball from Williams to give to a fan.
There was a brief, playful struggle and then Newton let the ball go. Williams took the ball to the sideline.
“It has come to a competition of who is going to get the football,” Newton said. “As we call it, the Sunday giveaway. Whoever gets it, I couldn’t really care less. Because if we are having those types of arguments, those are good arguments.”
There was no argument about this Sunday: Newton was the best player on the field.
And while this season is already broken beyond repair, this afternoon and its 72-yard memory provides the kind of hope that a franchise like the Panthers desperately needs.