Cam Newton didn't get the memo about running less this season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nothing in football gives Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson more pleasure than standing in the pocket, surrounded by defenders who are trying to take his head off, and then taking a big hit just as he releases a perfect pass.

He can only imagine that's the way starting quarterback Cam Newton feels when he runs over or past a defender 10 or 15 yards downfield.

He says imagine, because few quarterbacks in NFL history have run like Newton in his first seven seasons. It's like Shaquille O'Neal trying to imagine what it's like to be Stephen Curry from beyond the 3-point line.

"I've been saying this for a long time," Anderson said. "He's not the same beast everyone wants him to be. He's an athlete that happens to have a very talented arm as well as seeing [running] lanes.

"I don't think even Michael Vick ran the football in the same capacity he does."

Vick is the NFL's all-time leader in rushing yards for quarterbacks with 6,109. Yet a majority of his runs weren't on designed plays the way Newton's have been out of the read-option offense.

The same was true for Randall Cunningham, who's second among quarterbacks with 4,928 yards.

Newton is third with 4,320, so he'll enter the 2018 season with a decent chance to catch Cunningham.

Based on what Newton said Wednesday as he prepared for Sunday's NFL wild-card playoff game at New Orleans, he'll run his way past Vick in the next few seasons.

"I'm comfortable running the football," Newton said. "I feel like I help the team when I'm running the football, and as long as I'm playing this game, I'm going to run the football."

The pace at which Newton has run this season is something of a surprise. Coach Ron Rivera said during the offseason that Carolina's offense needed to evolve to depend less on his quarterback's legs, more on his arm and the weapons around him.

Rivera said it was for the long-term health of Newton, coming off surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff.

But Newton never bought into that. He seemed almost offended at the start of training camp when it was suggested his role as a runner would be reduced.

"That's my edge," Newton said. "Are you really going to expect a lion not to roar?"

Newton apparently knew something the rest of us didn't.

And while he was limited in the first three games of the season while continuing to rehab the rotator cuff, since he was turned loose in Week 4 against New England, he has been running at a rate higher than at any time in his career.

Newton set career highs in rushes (139), designed rushes (108) and rushing yard (754). He became the fifth quarterback since the league merger in 1970 to lead his team in rushing.

At 28, he would have been the oldest to do it had Russell Wilson (29) not done it with Seattle.

Panthers center Ryan Kalil isn't all that surprised.

"I don't know necessarily if what's said in the media lines up with what's said behind closed doors," he said regarding the theory that Newton would run less this season. "It's been part of our game plan since he's gotten here, and I don't see that changing anytime soon."

What has changed is Newton is more cautious when he runs. He slides and runs out of bounds more than ever. Only a few times this season has he taken a big hit outside of the pocket.

Newton feels safer running than he does pinned in the pocket when it comes to being hit.

"I don't think everything [Rivera] said was necessarily we're not going to run him," Anderson said. "There was always the plan to have him have a better understanding when to take chances when he's running, like protecting his own body."

But to lead the team in rushing?

"We ask him to win games," Anderson said. "That's how it goes."

In a way, Newton is running out of necessity. The evolution of the offense with the addition of first-round pick Christian McCaffrey hasn't been entirely smooth.

Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen missed nine games with a broken foot. Kalil missed 10 with a neck injury. No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo in early November. Second-round pick Curtis Samuel suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

The pieces Rivera planned on the Panthers (11-5) having simply haven't been there.

Newton's ability to run has been there, and offensive coordinator Mike Shula has taken advantage of it.

"They're utilizing all of their weapons, and it creates that added pressure on your defense when you can design [quarterback] runs or even plays that take place spontaneously," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It's a challenge, and one of the elements that makes him a great player."

What makes Newton special as a runner is the designed runs. ESPN Stats & Information doesn't go back before 2008 in differentiating designed runs and scrambles. Vick's most productive seasons as a runner were 2001-06.

But for some perspective, from 2008 through his final season in 2015, only 48 percent of Vick's rushing yards came on designed plays. Of Newton's 828 rushes, 73 percent have been by design.

"I don't think it's essential," Anderson said of Newton having to run for the team to have success. "But when he plays well, and he gets in the game like that, some of the designed stuff gets him in his rhythm. At this point, he's going to do whatever it takes to win football games."

Newton still is taking hits this season at a higher rate than any quarterback, as he has since his rookie year in 2011. Opponents made contact with Newton -- while he was running or throwing or via sacks -- on 23.9 percent of his dropbacks this season.

He's just being smarter about avoiding the hits that kept him banged up last season.

"He knows when to take a chance, when he needs to get a first down," Anderson said. "I don't think he's taken unnecessary shots running this year."

That's the part of Newton's running that Rivera likes.

"He's pretty special, and we know that," he said. "Everything we do with him has to be done judicially. We can't overexpose him, and at the same time he's got to make good decisions as well."

Newton didn't make good decisions in his most recent outing, a 22-10 loss to Atlanta that kept the Panthers from winning the NFC South and hosting Sunday's game. He was intercepted three times and had a career-worst passer rating of 31.9.

Newton has had 60 plays that ended in an interception, sack and/or fumble this season, the most among quarterbacks in these playoffs.

But what gives the Panthers a chance against New Orleans (11-5) is Newton's ability to beat you with his legs. He gave the Panthers a chance in the second meeting against the division champs, with six rushes for 51 yards to go with two touchdown passes.

He's prepared to run as much as he has to in the wild-card game if it helps the Panthers advance.

"That's my edge," Newton said. "I wouldn't expect you or anybody else to take it away. And when I say you, I mean the media as a whole. ... I'm just trying to help this football team in any way possible to win football games."