Josh Allen and Cam Newton are 'unicorns,' but of a different breed

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The play was beginning to break down and Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen did what he does instinctively -- run.

“He’s a unicorn," shouted a Bills fan, showing his approval of the scramble during Tuesday’s joint practice against the Carolina Panthers at Wofford College.

On the adjacent field, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stood tall in the pocket, waiting patiently for a receiver to get open before dumping a pass to running back Christian McCaffrey.

In past years, the first pick of the 2011 draft might have taken off running and received shouts of approval from Panthers fans who love the energy their quarterback brings with his legs. Newton is a unicorn too, in terms of being a rare find because of his threat as a runner and passer.

But after eight NFL seasons, two shoulder surgeries and more hits than any quarterback in the league, Newton has learned to be smarter with his runs -- particularly in practice.

Still, the 23-year-old Allen often is compared to Newton because they’re both huge as quarterbacks go -- Newton is 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Allen 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds -- and because of their ability to beat a defense with their legs as well as their arms, and because Allen was drafted by the same general manager who played a role in the Panthers having drafted Newton.

Allen doesn’t mind it, either.

“I’m not mad at comparisons at all," Allen said with a smile on a hot, humid day that was unlike almost any day in Buffalo.

But the comparisons at this point in Allen's career really aren’t that fair. Newton, 30, came into the league as a read-option quarterback, meaning he has the option to hand off to the back or run himself. The Panthers adapted their offense to fit their quarterback’s strengths and his prolific season in which he won the 2010 Heisman Trophy at Auburn.

Most of Newton's runs early in his career came on designed plays.

Only since Norv Turner took over the offense in 2018 has Newton migrated more to RPO -- run-pass option -- in which the quarterback reads the linebacker to determine whether he throws or hands off to the back. Keeping the ball should be the last option in this scheme.

According to Pro Football Focus, of Allen’s 490 rush yards last season, 401 came on scrambles.

In 2015, when Newton won the league MVP, 103 of his 132 rushes were on designed runs for 414 of his 636 rushing yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“I didn’t do a lot of comparisons to Cam when drafting Josh," admitted Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane, who was Carolina’s director of football operations when Newton was drafted in 2011 and then the Panthers assistant GM before the Bills lured him away in 2017. “It’s funny, when [Allen] was going through the draft process, people were comparing him to [Ben] Roethlisberger.

“But when we drafted him, the comparison came back to Cam, which I get."

The Roethlisberger comparisons were more accurate because the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, also 6-foot-5, ran more out of necessity.

Still, Allen believes there are things he can learn from Newton during their two joint practices.

“Kind of how he processes things, how he went from a mobile quarterback to a quarterback who will run when necessary," said the seventh pick of the 2018 draft. “I’m still going through that transition too, so I can take some lessons from his early career."

'Cam is Cam'

Arm strength was the first thing that caught Bills nickelback Captain Munnerlyn’s eye when he faced Allen a year ago in a preseason game.

“I saw this guy throw the ball almost 75 yards and I was like, 'Whoa!'" Munnerlyn recalled. “This kid, man, he definitely can be very special."

But Newton special?

“Cam is Cam," said Munnerlyn, leaving others to draw their own conclusions.

Facts speak for themselves. Newton came into the league special, throwing for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games and winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.

He started all 16 games as a rookie, completing 60% of his passes for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions. He also rushed for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Allen started 11 games after beginning the season as a backup to Nathan Peterman. He had 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, completing 52.8% of his passes for 2,074 yards.

What earned Allen comparisons to Newton were his 631 yards rushing and eight rushing touchdowns.

But it’s not statistics that Beane ultimately wants to measure Allen in comparisons to Newton. It’s what Newton has accomplished in terms of being a leader, winning a league MVP and getting the Panthers to the Super Bowl that matters.

“Cam’s already done more than most," Beane said.

‘Two different players’

Bills coach Sean McDermott spent six seasons (2011 to 2016) facing Newton every day in practice as the Panthers defensive coordinator, so he understands the nightmare opponents face each week in preparing for the three-time Pro Bowl selection.

“It was good for my career and I learned a lot having to go against him," McDermott said. “One of the best players to maybe ever play the game."

McDermott also knows it’s unfair to compare Allen to Newton.

“Two different players," he said. “Josh is at the start of his career. He’s a young quarterback who is continuing to learn and grow and develop."

But McDermott and Beane have employed some of what they ascertained while watching the Panthers groom Newton into Carolina's franchise quarterback that they hope will help Allen get to that level.

“I definitely learned getting him up to speed, showing him everything it takes to be a quarterback," Beane said. “Obviously, he has to work on footwork and everything you guys see every day in practice. But the leadership component and getting guys on the same page, the work ethic ... we laid out of plan off some of the stuff we learned from Cam."

The Bills even hired Ken Dorsey, Newton’s quarterbacks coach from 2013 to 2017, to develop Allen.

But thinking Allen can be the next Newton isn’t the goal, because the quarterbacks, beyond size, are so different.

“If Cam doesn’t win another game, that’s a great career," Beane said. “Anytime you have a young quarterback that can be around a player who has the skins on the wall that Cam does ... that’s what you want [Allen] to get out of an experience like this."