TAMPA — Cam Newton is quite comfortable sitting in the pocket firing darts to receivers downfield. But he also doesn't mind running with abandon around the edge on a designed run that catches exasperated defenders napping.
That's the reason the Bucs have spent so many hours this week devising ways to stop the record-breaking Panthers rookie quarterback, whom Tampa Bay faces Saturday.
One never knows what's coming with Newton, which is exactly what the Panthers want. That's why their unique usage of the No. 1 overall pick out of Auburn could have a lasting effect on how quarterback is played in the NFL for years to come.
It might seem ludicrous to suggest a 22-year-old is redefining his position, but many agree that NFL quarterbacks will evolve over the next several years.
"The NFL has trends, and some of those things will be here to stay," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "It's getting harder to find Peyton Manning than it is to find that dynamic athlete that plays quarterback and is able to do different things. We have a young man who won the Heisman this year (Baylor's Robert Griffin III) who I'm sure is going to be able to do some of those things. … These guys are coming into the league, and you can't hide from them."
Denver's Tim Tebow, less of a traditional quarterback than Newton, also is helping to alter the way the NFL thinks about passers. Though Tebow's game has been met with plenty of objections and is far from ideal, the Broncos have proven there's something to be said for quarterbacks who excel at running.
Newton has proven he can be an efficient and effective quarterback within the confines of a conventional offense. He'll likely break Manning's rookie passing record on Saturday and has thrown for more than 400 yards in two games.
But the Panthers decided it would be foolish to ignore Newton's unique athletic traits. To that end, while their offense contains plenty of five- and seven-step quarterback drops, it also includes designed runs, bootlegs and things that take advantage of Newton's running ability.
Look no further than a fourth-and-2 play against the Bucs earlier this month in which Newton took the snap and raced around left end for 6 precious yards.
It was not a busted play. And it was not a scramble. It was, from the beginning, a running play, one executed by a quarterback.
"It puts a tremendous amount of stress on the (defensive) coordinator," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He's got to decide, 'Are we going to make this quarterback beat us?' Well, you put eight in the box and next thing you know he's throwing for 400 yards. Then they say, 'Well, we've got to back up and play coverage,' and then we start running the ball.
"Then you add another twist, and that's a quarterback with the athleticism and ability to run the zone read concepts and to be an additional running back. It adds a whole other dimension."
While running quarterbacks in the NFL is hardly a new — Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick proved that long ago — rarely has it been attempted in a scripted manner in the modern game.
The changes in the high school and college ranks, where wide-open spread offenses are employed, are largely responsible. But in the case of Newton, that does not mean he can't function in a pro-style offense.
"I definitely think you'll see more of this," Bucs quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. "Some people might look at Cam Newton and say he's maybe not the prototypical quarterback, but he has all the skill sets. He is, to me, the prototypical quarterback. But he has the unique skill of being a quarterback and being able to run with it as well. As these guys come in, I think you'll definitely see more of the college style."
In Tebow's case, he is not a polished passer and still has mechanical flaws. But the former Florida standout presents some comparable schematic challenges for defenses.
"I watched him this weekend," Morris said. "I think I was the only person cringing on my couch every time he ran. You're just not used to seeing a quarterback get hit that way and be that tough and also (I thought about) defending it. You have an extra man running the ball and you have to be able to take on that blocker and he's still coming. It's like LeGarrette Blount holding the ball at the quarterback position."
Neither Newton nor Tebow is your garden-variety quarterback. But if things change, they'll have played a role in the evolution of NFL passers.