Panthers have high expectations for backfield

This is the sixth part of 7-part series focusing on the position groups of the Carolina Panthers.

Franchise quarterbacks don’t come along too often. And when they do, a team’s fortune can dramatically change.

A year ago, the Carolina Panthers debated whom they would select with the top overall pick in the NFL draft. They had so many needs that every option seemed like a quality choice. But the team took what many pundits thought was a risky move and they selected quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn.

A year later, and after six months of Newton mania, the prospects of Carolina’s immediate and long-term future have the Carolinas buzzing with optimism.

Newton set just about every rookie passing record this past fall, including passing yards (4,051). He threw 21 touchdown passes and ran the ball for 706 yards – an average of 5.6 per carry, becoming the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 500 in the same season. Newton’s 14 rushing touchdowns are also an NFL record for quarterbacks.

Perhaps as impressive as Newton’s numbers were was how he ingratiated himself within the team. Newton’s attitude was to yield to the veterans laced in a humble nature that was certainly tested, but was a true characteristic of who he is.

Newton was embraced early on by sometimes-tempestuous veteran receiver Steve Smith, and the others followed suit. By year’s end, long-time offensive tackle Jordan Gross raved about Newton’s maturity and how he handled the huddle during difficult times.

“He’s come a long way,” Gross said after the final home game, a rout of the Buccaneers. “I think his stats might have been better, as far as yardage and stuff, earlier in the season, but I love the way he’s playing now so much more than how he was playing earlier.”

Head coach Ron Rivera was so impressed by Newton’s maturity and ability to mesh with the rest of the team that he thinks taking another giant step forward is realistic and necessary for the young signal caller.

“I think the one thing is his leadership, just keep developing that,” said Rivera, who was in his first year at the help this past fall. “We always talked about how respectful he was to the veteran guys. He didn’t want to step on people’s toes or get in people’s way… I told him,’ ‘You’ll be the veteran.’”

Veteran Derek Anderson and second-year man Jimmy Clausen backed up Newton, but only Anderson saw any game action, and it was extremely limited.

The Panthers didn’t have to rely on Newton to chuck for massive yardage as the temperatures cooled. Its ground attack became more consistent, giving the offense needed balance. Long runs by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were still part of the mix, but they were more effective with 4, 4 and 5-yard runs, which is healthy for an offense to run smoothly.

Williams ran for 836 yards and seven scores. He averaged 5.4 yards per attempt with his longest run going for 74 yards. Stewart gained 761 yards on the ground (5.4 average) with four touchdowns and also caught 47 passes for 413 yards and a score.

Stewart will enter his fifth season next fall while Williams will be in his seventh. Second-year back Josh Vaughan played in just seven games and ran the ball only seven times this past season.

Rivera noted after the season he’s pleased with the pieces in place in the offensive backfield, so don’t expect any major changes, at least for now.