Panthers-Eagles: Cam and The Practice Squad Receiver
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) — If the Eagles get out of Charlotte with a win on Thursday night, the game ball may go to someone who's not even on the active roster.
Practice squad receiver Greg Ward was one of the more important players in the locker room this week because the former University of Houston quarterback was asked to play the role of Cam Newton, the Panthers' former MVP quarterback, in practice.
From a size standpoint that may seem silly because Ward is trying to transition to slot receiver at this level in large part because he's too small to be an NFL QB at 5-foot-11 and just under 200 pounds. Newton, meanwhile, rivals Daunte Culpepper as the most physically intimidating presence ever at the position, a shade under 6-6 and about 260 pounds.
What Ward and Newton so have in common, however, is the dual-threat ability to both pass and run the football and that's why the Eagles asked the undrafted rookie to dip back into his Houston toolbox to help get the Philadelphia defense ready.
"It was pretty fun just getting back there in the backfield," Ward admitted after practice Tuesday.
Fun with a purpose, however, because Ward was tasked with emulating what Newton has been able to do so consistently over the years.
"I try to do what [he] does," Ward explained when discussing his role in practice. "Cam is an amazing athlete who can run the ball and he can throw the ball, so whatever he does. I've been watching him since I was brought up, so I kind of know how he plays."
The impact of a player who can throw the football as effectively as Newton as well as run it with efficacy is perhaps the biggest headache for any defensive coordinator.
Those who swear by the virtues of a zone-read offense say it's a simple math equation. On a running play with a traditional QB, the defense essentially has an 11 to 10 advantage, one that is taken away when the signal caller is the one actually running it.
The unintended consequence of that, however, is a normal-sized individual taking a pounding in a league where teams do everything they can to protect their QBs.
Newton, however, is a different animal due to his size, which dwarfs almost every linebacker he faces.
Making matters worse for the Eagles is Newton is rounding into form after shoulder surgery that wiped out most of his offseason. In his last two games the former No.1 overall pick has completed over 77 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdowns versus one interception while adding another score on the ground in consecutive wins over the reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots as well as a playoff team in Detroit.
"You have to be good in so many different areas," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said when asked about defending Newton. "He can be a pocket passer, he can run the read-option, he can run designed runs, he can run off-schedule runs, but he's as good a pocket passer as there is. ...He's not a one-trick pony. He has mobility, he has designed runs. They do a lot of different things and we'll have to play our best team defense."
And helping them do exactly that is Ward.
"Whenever the ball touches my hands [in practice], I try to score," the rookie said. "You're trying to make guys miss."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen