Cam Newton didn’t beat Tampa Bay single-handedly. It just seemed like it.
The rookie ran for three more touchdowns to set the NFL single-season record for rushing TDs by a quarterback, leading the Carolina Panthers to a 38-19 rout of the struggling Buccaneers on Sunday.
The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner scored the 11th, 12th and 13th TDs of his career on a trio of 1-yard runs. He also had a 27-yard reception to set up Jonathan Stewart’s first-quarter TD and threw a 19-yard TD pass to Legedu Naanee to finish one of Carolina’s three scoring drives of 80-plus yards.
The Panthers (4-8), who drafted Newton No. 1 overall, doubled their victory total for last season. Tampa Bay (4-8), which played in throwback creamsicle jerseys and white helmets bearing the logo of a winking pirate, has lost six straight and seven of eight following a 3-1 start.
The Bucs played without quarterback Josh Freeman, who sat out with an injury to his throwing shoulder. Josh Johnson made his fifth pro start, throwing for 229 yards and one touchdown while also leading his team in rushing.
Newton completed 12 of 21 passes for 204 yards and no interceptions. He added 54 yards rushing on 14 carries, teaming with Stewart (14 attempts, 80 yards) to help Carolina gain 163 on the ground. Newton nearly scored on a 27-yard reception after throwing backward to Naanee on the far side of the field and taking a throw-back to the left.
Stewart’s 1-yard run put Carolina up 14-0. Newton leaped over the pile to finish an 83-yard, game-opening march and tied the record for rushing TDs by a quarterback to make it 31-12 in the third quarter. His third TD, giving him one more than New England’s Steve Grogan scored in 1976, finished a 15-play, 81-yard drive.
Connor Barth kicked field goals of 50, 47, 46 and 44 yards for Tampa Bay in the first half. Johnson didn’t get the Bucs into the end zone until he threw a 23-yard TD pass to Dezmon Briscoe in the fourth quarter.
Freeman injured his throwing shoulder on Tampa Bay’s final offensive play of last week’s 23-17 loss at Tennessee when he dropped the snap on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak and was stopped for no gain. He was limited in practice, making some soft throws on Thursday and Friday and declared out Sunday morning.
The third-year pro became Tampa Bay’s starter following an 0-7 start his rookie season and led his team to a surprising 10-6 record in 2010 to heighten expectations for this year. But after throwing for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions a year ago, Freeman has been inconsistent this season while also playing the past few weeks with a sprained right thumb that he insists was not a factor in his performance.
Johnson started four games — all losses — in 2009. The fourth-year pro had appeared in six games this season, primarily on designed running plays and attempting just seven passes. His running ability showed up late in the second quarter, when he scrambled 14 yards on third-and-5 and for a 7-yard gain that set up Barth’s fourth field goal, trimming Carolina’s lead to 21-12.
But the Panthers weren’t content to sit on the ball in the final minute of the half. Newton threw 12 yards to Stewart and 31 yards to Brandon LaFell to set up Olindo Mare’s 43-yard field goal as time expired to restore a 12-point lead.
Most of Tampa Bay’s offense in the opening half came on two plays — Johnson’s 38-yard completion to Arrelious Benn and a 42-yarder to Mike Williams.