CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Asked how he balances keeping three running backs happy while sticking with the hot hand, Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula needed only one word.
"Delicately,'' he said with a smile.
Perhaps the more delicate situation is how to resist the temptation to give quarterback Cam Newton more carries.
The lack of huge numbers from running backs DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart has raised questions about the health of Carolina's running game lately. It's been well documented that Newton has led the team in rushing the past two weeks and three of the past five.
Much of the focus of concern has been on Williams. He ranked third in the NFL in rushing with 291 yards after three games (97 yards per game), but has only 319 yards over the last eight (39.9 ypg). Some see the addition of Stewart to the mix in those eight games as part of the problem.
But is there really a problem? Consider this: Newton has averaged 4.3 carries and 26 yards a game in Carolina's three losses. He has averaged 8.1 carries and 37.6 yards in the eight wins.
During their current seven-game win streak, one that has them 8-3 heading into Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, the Panthers have gained more than 100 yards each week. So what if Newton is a big reason for that?
The key numbers are 7 wins and 0 losses.
“I know the quarterback had to run a little more ... but again, it shows that if you pile up on us, you do certain things, we have another weapon,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Is it disconcerting? Yeah. I’d like to see us have more success [with the backs]. But when we had to, we ran the ball, and we had some big runs at the right time.”
That doesn't mean Shula and his staff don't keep track of how many times Newton runs. For his well-being, they would prefer the running backs to carry the load.
But when teams stack the defense to stop the run, Newton's two best options often are to pass or run it himself. When the Panthers are playing from behind, as they have the past three weeks, there also are fewer opportunities to run.
When you think about it that way, the Panthers have struck a decent balance. Newton is on pace to have 113 carries, 14 fewer than he had last season. Throwing, he is completing a career-best 61.7 percent of his passes and his touchdown-to-interception ratio, 17 versus 9, is better than it has ever been.
So while Shula may have to delicately handle the balance of touches his running backs get, he has the comfort of knowing his quarterback will touch the ball on every play.