CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Quarterback Cam Newton said if the Carolina Panthers are to be successful this season their running backs need to be more involved in the offense.
Newton said that means a concerted effort to get the running backs involved early in games.
The Panthers once invested nearly $80 million in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — both contracts have since been restructured — and also brought in free agent Mike Tolbert last season. Yet, it was Newton who led the team in rushing with 741 yards in 2012.
Williams, Stewart and Tolbert combined for 1,256 yards rushing last year, which ranked 28th in the league among running backs, according to STATS Inc. Only Jacksonville (1,231 yards rushing), Atlanta (1,225), Dallas (1,212) and Arizona (971) had less production from their backs.
Carolina’s running backs seemed an afterthought at times last season under former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, touching the ball on only 38 percent of the offensive plays.
“For us, the running game is key,” Newton said this week at the team’s minicamp. “In years past, success for the Carolina Panthers has meant getting our running backs involved in the game early and letting those guys do what they do. I feel like we have an unbelievable group.”
Coach Ron Rivera agreed.
He said one of his primary goals is to get the running backs more involved and “keep them involved.”
“We want to keep them as a big part of what we do,” Rivera said. “I think with Cam’s ability to get the ball downfield is going to open things up underneath. His ability to run will make people hesitate and that is where you can see the effectiveness of the running backs.”
The Panthers added rookie Kenjon Barner from Oregon in the sixth round this year, giving them another weapon coming out of the backfield.
General manager Dave Gettleman said the Panthers will use him as a “scat back.”
Barner hasn’t disappointed in minicamp, turning heads with exceptional speed and quickness.
“We have guys that are capable of running the ball as well as catching it out of the backfield,” Newton said. “We have to use that to continuously keep the defense honest. Everyone knows we have playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. But in order for us to be successful, we have to run the football. We will run the football.”
Williams ran with the first-team offense during minicamp while Stewart recovers from minor surgery on both ankles.
Williams carried the ball only 173 times last season, while injuries limited Stewart to 93 carries. Tolbert, the team’s fullback, carried 54 times.
Newton ran 127 times, averaging a team-best 5.8 yards per carry.
Carolina finished last season ninth in rushing and 7-9 overall, largely because of Newton’s contribution.
The Panthers have used the zone read option extensively over the past two seasons with Newton, but are expected to limit that this season.
“I envision it being used in certain situations and circumstances,” Rivera said. “There are still some things that we can exploit against opponents because of it. We’ll use it and use it smartly… But we’re not going to go with something like that as a staple” of the offense.
Nothing would make center Ryan Kalil happier than if the Panthers ran the ball a little more.
“I think people tend to be numb to that statement of hey, we want to run the ball more, but it’s very true that most successful teams do have a balanced run-pass attack,” said Kalil, who has played in three Pro Bowls.
Kalil said it’s a matter of getting back to what the Panthers were doing well in 2008 and 2009 when they ranked among the league’s leaders in rushing.
“It’s sort of what it looks like we’re doing,” Kalil said. “It’s what we got back to at the end of last year. I think it helps out Cam, too. It helps out for the passing game and it’s exciting to watch the two horses we have back there (Williams and Stewart) do what they do best.”