Eagles wide receiver Greg Ward won’t take a single snap Thursday against the Panthers. He isn’t even on the 53-man roster. Yet, Ward might be the most important player on the practice field this week, getting his teammates prepared for the unique challenge of going up against quarterback Cam Newton.
“It was pretty fun just getting back there in the backfield,” Ward said Tuesday.
A member of the Eagles’ 10-man practice squad, Ward has been charged with emulating Newton in drills this week. Even in a practice setting, it sounds an awful lot like an impossible task. Based on size alone, Ward measures 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, compared to Newton listed at 6-5, 245 — not to mention his three trips to the Pro Bowl and NFL Most Valuable Player award.
Yet, while Ward may be a rookie just hoping to one day crack a roster as a receiver, the undrafted rookie also happens to have played quarterback at the University of Houston. It just so happens he may be uniquely suited for this role.
“I try to do what Cam does,” Ward said. “Cam is a crazy athlete. He 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. When I’m out there, I try to imitate him and do what he does.”
At his best, Newton is as difficult an athlete as there is to beat. Coincidentally, he’s been at his best the last two weeks. The seventh-year veteran completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 10.8 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and one interception, plus ran for 44 yards and a score in back-to-back wins over the Patriots and Lions.
Newton is officially hot, and he’s going to be a handful for the Eagles' defense.
“You have to be good in so many different areas,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “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.
“I think that's what makes it's difficult to defend every one of those. 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.”
It doesn’t help the Eagles have only a matter of days to prepare, as opposed to a traditional full week (see story). Practices leading up to this contest are fewer in number and significantly less involved than normal.
“In a short week, it’s tough because it’s more mental than it is physical,” Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “And no matter what, it’s always going to be tough to mimic Cam.”
Despite the fact Newton can spin the football as well as anybody — he enters the week ranked fourth with a 68.3 completion percentage — Ward revealed the Eagles were focusing primarily on the signal caller’s mobility, at least as far as his involvement was concerned.
Newton isn’t even the only weapon the Eagles are worried about. Ward has also been attempting to fill the shoes of Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft and a key cog in the offense.
“I watched a couple of his games,” Ward said of McCaffrey. “I like the way he balls. I like what he brings to the table as far as the athlete he is. I think he’s an exceptional athlete.”
McCaffrey’s carries have only diminished since the beginning of the season, but he’s seeing plenty of action in the passing attack. The 21-year-old has already recorded 27 receptions for 237 yards with one touchdown.
“(The Panthers) get him the ball in the run game, use him as a true wide receiver, and then get him option routes out of the backfield,” Schwartz said. “A lot like a (Eagles running back) Darren Sproles.”
The Eagles have players like McCaffrey and Newton with Sproles and quarterback Carson Wentz. But Sproles is injured and out for the season, and Wentz must get ready for a stifling Carolina defense.
That leaves Ward to simulate what not one, but two dynamic players bring to the table for a Panthers offense that’s found a rhythm. He won’t suit up Thursday, though. All Ward is able to do now is go flat out in practice and hope that it’s making his teammates better.
“Whenever the ball touches my hands, I try to score,” Ward said. “You’re trying to make guys miss if you’re in the backfield running the ball or you’re catching it running routes. You’re just trying to score.
“That’s what the other guys are doing on other teams. They’re trying to score every time they get the ball, so that’s the best thing is just going full speed and going hard.”