Cam Newton can thank Christian McCaffrey for improved completion percentage

Christian McCaffrey has 206 yards on 22 catches so far this season. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn't hesitate when asked if he was surprised rookie running back Christian McCaffrey doesn't have a touchdown through his first four games.

"Well, I'm part to blame for that," Newton said.

True, Newton missed a wide-open McCaffrey on a third-and-goal pass from the 2-yard line in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills. The former Stanford star could have walked in had the 2015 NFL MVP not overthrown him by several feet.

But there's some irony here.

McCaffrey doesn't have a touchdown because of Newton, but Newton has completed his highest percentage of passes (65.2) through the first four games of his career because of the 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back/wide receiver.

"They'll come," Newton said of McCaffrey's touchdowns.

And Newton's completion percentage could stay at a career-high pace if he keeps feeding McCaffrey the ball.

McCaffrey is Carolina's leading receiver with 22 catches for 206 yards on 29 targets. That's a 75.9 percent success rate.

Newton's top receiver last season, tight end Greg Olsen, had a success rate of 62 percent. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was next at 53.3 percent.

It went mostly downhill from there.

With Newton taking advantage of more check-down and underneath throws in McCaffrey, his percentage can't help but go up. McCaffrey also helps open up the offense for other players that also are catching passes at a higher success rate.

Benjamin is at 68.4 percent and Devin Funchess is at 63 percent after being at 39.7 a year ago.

"It's part of the understanding of what we talked about in the offseason, some of things we had to change, some of the things we had to get better at," coach Ron Rivera said.

"One of the things we went out and did consciously was we brought in a young man in Christian that has that ability to make plays underneath and it's created a little more awareness for Cam in terms of throwing the ball underneath ... taking what they're giving."

Newton is starting to understand more the advantages of completing short passes underneath and moving the chains as opposed to going for the home run down field. That's enabled the Panthers (3-1) to have at least one drive of six minutes or longer in four games and drives of eight minutes or longer in three games heading into Sunday's NFC showdown at the Detroit Lions (3-1).

It wasn't an easy switch for Newton, particularly after he missed most of the offseason and preseason because of offseason shoulder surgery. But McCaffrey has made it easier even though Newton insists he's not worried about completion percentages.

"Completion percentages for me is irrelevant," he said. "The most important statistic in all of sports is the win and loss column."

But one of the biggest knocks on Newton since he arrived in the NFL in 2011 has been his completion percentage. It wasn't anywhere close to that of a top-tier quarterback.

Newton completed a career-low 52.9 percent of his attempts in 2016. He had four games in which he completed less than 45 percent of his attempts, topped by 37 percent in a loss to San Diego.

Thanks in part to a 75.9 completion percentage in Sunday's 33-30 victory at the New England Patriots, and thanks in part to an evolving offense in which calls for more high percentages passes, Newton is off to a career start.

His 65.2 completion rate is better than the 63.5 start he had in the same span of the 2012 season.

Newton was particularly effective against the blitz on Sunday, completing 80 percent of his attempts compared to 67 percent in the first three games.

Running back Fozzy Whittaker benefited, scoring on a 28-yard catch when the defense shifted to follow McCaffrey, who went in motion right after lining up as a wide receiver on the left.

Those are the kind of plays the Panthers hoped McCaffrey would help create and Newton would complete when they made McCaffrey the No. 8 pick of the draft.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula reminded that McCaffrey is a "very important part of our offense." He reminded that because McCaffrey hasn't scored a touchdown and he's often been a decoy to set up others doesn't mean it will always been that way.

"We didn't bring him here to be a decoy," Shula said. "We brought him here to be an important part of what we do and also a playmaker. He's been a playmaker and made some big plays in critical situations already.

"Now numbers wise, have we seen that yet in regards to lots of yards or lots of touchdowns? No. But within that he's been very important to our success."

McCaffrey just hasn't put up big numbers like a lot of the other top rookie running backs. His 31 rushes for 89 yards pale in comparison to the 502 yards rushing and four touchdowns by the Kansas City Chiefs' Kareem Hunt.

And the 354 yards rushing and two touchdowns by the Minnesota Vikings' Dalvin Cook, who on Sunday suffered a season-ending knee injury.

McCaffrey is tied with Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard for 56th in the league in rushing.

Newton is 55th with 90 yards and two touchdowns.

But McCaffrey does lead all rookie running backs with his receiving yards and catches. He just doesn't have that touchdown.

"I think we're just scratching the surface of who we can be," Rivera said. "A big part of it was the play of the quarterback last Sunday. That was obviously what we've been hoping for. If he has that kind of success early ... who knows what we could be.

"I do know this, if we can emulate it going into Detroit we have a good chance."