There wasn’t a New England Patriots defender within 10 yards of him.
And he had what he called a “convoy’’ of blockers out front.
“Mac went in motion and literally the entire defense went with him,’’ Whittaker said of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. “All I had to do was catch the ball, turn up and follow blocks.’’
Whittaker did, taking a short pass from quarterback Cam Newton and turning it into a 28-yard touchdown.
This is what the Panthers (3-1) envisioned in January when they began transforming the playbook to rely more on playmakers other than Newton and his legs.
But until Sunday it was merely a vision.
Until Sunday the Panthers had shown bits and pieces of what the offense could be, but hadn’t executed on a consistent basis to take full advantage of McCaffrey and others.
“People have to realize -- I have to realize it -- it takes time,’’ Newton said after the 33-30 victory against the defending Super Bowl champions. “This offense isn’t cereal or quick grits or instant grits. This is a full entree and we have to prepare it that way.’’
That the Panthers were facing the NFL’s worst defense in terms of yards and points surrendered helped. But a week ago they faced what was then the league’s worst defense and failed miserably in a 34-13 loss to New Orleans.
So as Newton said afterward, this was a statement for the offense.
The play to Whittaker was just one of the many highlights. If you missed it, McCaffrey lined up wide left, and then went in motion behind Newton to the right.
Newton pump faked to McCaffrey and turned to find Whittaker all alone. Instead of overthrowing him as he had other open receivers in the first three games, he hit Whittaker in stride and the rest was easy.
The win wasn’t easy. It still came down to a 48-yard field goal by Graham Gano as time expired.
But the Panthers finally showed they have the firepower to win a shootout when the defense is facing a potent offense like New England’s, ranked No. 1 in the NFL coming into the day.
“You can build off this type of momentum,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “You have to take it and use it now. You can’t waste it.’’
Then he reminded that next up is a trip to Detroit, which is 3-1 and only inches away (on the final play of last week’s loss to Atlanta) from being 4-0.
But plays like Whittaker’s touchdown give the Panthers more confidence they can go into hostile territory and put up big numbers regardless of where the opponent ranks defensively.
“We have to put the ball in the playmakers' hands,’’ Rivera said.
Newton did that, completing 22 of 29 pass attempts for 316 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 130.8. He came into the game ranked 29th in the NFL with a passer rating of 69.7.
Newton also rushed eight times for 44 yards and a touchdown. In the first three games he’d rushed only 14 times for 46 yards.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula made a conscious decision to get his quarterback more involved in the running game even though Newton continues to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder.
The Panthers are now 22-9-1 with an average of 27.5 points when Newton has at least eight non-kneel-down runs. They are 32-33 with an average of 22.7 points when he runs fewer than eight times.
“That does help him get more into a rhythm,’’ Rivera said of Newton running. “It’s not like we want to give him 10 to 15 carries.’’
But eight carries seemed like a lot in the first three games as the Panthers tried to protect the shoulder of their franchise quarterback.
“It definitely adds juice to our defense when you see your quarterback go out and perform the way he did,’’ outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We know what he’s capable of and it’s been very reserved the first couple of weeks.
“I feel like the playcalling hasn’t been aggressive, but we opened up the playbook today and it showed.’’
The Panthers showed what they can be when they execute, particularly when Newton executes.
“It takes time,’’ Newton reiterated. “We’ve got impact players and playmakers that when you give them the ball or give them opportunities to make plays, they will do it.’’