CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rob Chudzinski chuckles when he hears how the Baltimore Ravens are on the cutting edge, building their offense around dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, the odds-on favorite to win the NFL MVP award this season.
Chudzinski also chuckles when the television pundits jump straight to comparing Jackson to Michael Vick simply because they are similar in stature and speed.
He chuckles because they overlooking Cam Newton.
Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers in 2011, when Newton was the first pick of the NFL draft. For two seasons, he built an offense around what Newton did in the read-option/zone-read scheme at Auburn, just as the Ravens have adapted their offense to the dual-threat abilities Jackson showed at Louisville.
Chudzinski doesn’t remember being called cutting edge, although he was.
“Did they have those words back then?” Chudzinski said jokingly. “I laugh now at all the people who said you couldn’t do it at the time. Now, all of a sudden, you see it everywhere.”
Perhaps because injuries have had an impact on Newton’s running, and career in general, the past two seasons — he was shut down for the final two games last season because of a shoulder injury and hasn’t played since Week 2 because of a Lisfranc injury — it’s easy to forget how dynamic and revolutionary he was.
Newton, 30, was doing Jackson-like things in the NFL when Jackson was in high school. He was just doing them at a larger size. Newton was 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds early in his career, compared with Jackson at 6-2, 212.
Few plays defined Newton’s abilities as a runner like his 72-yard touchdown run in 2012 against Atlanta that ended with him flipping into the end zone.
“I remember when they put the read-option plays on Madden,” Carolina cornerback James Bradberry said, referring to the video game. “I would always use Cam on Madden. Cam definitely compares to Lamar.
“I don’t know why people bypass Cam. They disrespect him a lot for some reason.”
Newton was dynamic
Jackson has the Ravens (10-2) on an eight-game winning streak, and the Ravens suddenly being the hottest team in the NFL has given Jackson a platform Newton didn’t have early in his career.
The Panthers finished 6-10 and 7-9 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. They never were a threat to make the playoffs.
But Newton was dynamic. The Panthers finished fifth in the NFL in scoring in 2011, and Newton was the first rookie quarterback to pass for more than 4,000 yards. He also rushed for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, the most ever for a quarterback in a season.
Although Vick has more rushing yards than any other quarterback in NFL history (6,109), he did much of his damage on scrambles and designed quarterback runs as opposed to having a zone-read or read-option offense, as Newton and Jackson have.
What Newton didn’t have in his first two seasons that Jackson does now is a top defense. The Ravens rank fifth in the NFL in points allowed. The 2011 Panthers ranked 27th.
But what the Ravens are doing with Jackson basically is the same thing Chudzinski, and later Mike Shula, did with Newton, who ranks third among quarterbacks in career rushing yards (4,806) and first in rushing touchdowns (58) and rushing attempts (934).
Baltimore is taking advantage of his strengths as a runner.
“He was doing it before anybody in terms of that style of offense,” Chudzinski said of Newton in the zone-read and read-option. “Cam was special, and is special. What he could do at 250 pounds … he had the elusiveness and could make people miss and still run people over.
“There’s phenomenal highlights of things he did. He was incredible.”
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Cam has MVP
Newton’s Panthers broke out in a big way in 2015, when the Panthers went 15-1 and played in Super Bowl 50.
“Originally, when sitting down talking, we were looking at like a four- or five-year time frame of him getting to the point where he could be the quarterback that could get you to a Super Bowl,” Chudzinski said. “In Year 5, he got to the Super Bowl.”
Newton threw for 35 touchdowns and rushed for 10 more. Jackson has 25 touchdown passes and seven rushing TDs. In four games, Jackson will have to throw 10 touchdown passes, rush for three more and pass for 1,305 yards to equal what Newton did in 2015.
Newton averaged 7.8 yards per pass attempt in 2015, and Jackson is at 7.9. Newton completed 60% of his pass attempts in 2015, and Jackson is at 67% this season.
The burning question for the Panthers is whether Newton can be a similar player again. He has one more year on his current contract at $21.1 million. The team could save $19.1 million on the salary cap if he’s released after the season.
The NFL is a copycat league, and if Newton is deemed healthy, another NFL team would certainly take a chance on trying to recapture that magic, signing a former MVP who once dazzled the league in a way no quarterback ever had, who once led his team to a Super Bowl.
Vick never got there. Jackson hasn’t just yet.