It is easy to forget that Cam Newton is only 25. In 2011, along with Andy Dalton, Cam helped usher in a new era of rookie quarterbacks that are not only expected to start immediately, but to excel. The transition was seamless. Newton was not phenomenal ‘for a rookie’; he was simply phenomenal. He threw for 422 yards with a completion rate of 65% in his very first game. He followed that feat with 432 yards through the air in Week 2. He finished the season with over 4,000 yards passing and 706 yards rushing, averaging 5.6 yards per carry with 14 rushing touchdowns.
But now that Newton is in his fourth season, the initial awe that he elicited in 2011 has been replaced with concern. Is he regressing instead of progressing? Last season the Panthers were 12-4, winning one of the toughest divisions in the league and securing a two seed in a stacked NFC conference. This season the Panthers are 3-6-1.
The Monday Night Football game this past week provided the catalyst for much debate and reflection. It was easy as the narrative wrote itself: a tale of two quarterbacks. The much-maligned Mark Sanchez, more famous for the infamous ‘butt-fumble’ than for taking an over-achieving Jets team to back-to-back AFC Championship games, served as Newton’s counterpart.
The contrast going into the game was stark. Cam Newton entered as statistically the best Monday Night Football quarterback ever. It is a small sample size, but Newton was victorious in his last two MNF appearances with five touchdown passes being supplemented by no interceptions. Meanwhile, Sanchez was empirically the worst MNF quarterback in the history of the league. Taking it a step further, in all games since 2009, Sanchez’s QBR is the worst of any quarterback in the league over that period.
Then it happened. Sanchez did something that he had never achieved before in his career: he threw for over 300 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. Conversely, Newton had three interceptions and two fumbles (one of which was lost), resulting in four very costly turnovers and a demoralising beat down at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles.
With some of the interceptions there appeared simply to be a disconnect between Cam and his receivers. It may not be surprising then to note that he leads the league in overthrown passes this season with 54; Andy Dalton and Nick Foles are tied in second with 46.
It is part of a somewhat alarming trend with Newton, who in his last three games has a completion rate of 48.2% (35th in the league), a QBR of 58 (34th in the league) and a touchdown to interception ratio of 1:3 (tied for 34th in the league). It should be borne in mind that those stats encompass quarterbacks with at least 27 pass attempts during Weeks 7-9, of which there are 35. The Panthers’ record during this stretch, would you believe, is 0-3.
All of these statistics are in need of some nuance. That nuance is applied helpfully by the way of another stat: in the last four seasons, Cam Newton leads the league in quarterback sacks or hits while throwing or rushing, with 531; a number which is nearly double that of second place Ryan Fitzpatrick (272).
Spreading out these numbers over the 57 games that Newton has played during those four seasons means an average of over nine such hits a game. Playing to the averages, this past Monday night Cam was sacked nine times.
Suddenly, Cam Newton’s struggles are put into perspective. It is easier than ever to play the quarterback position today, but only if you are afforded the time necessary to exploit the rule changes that benefit offensive players. Andy Dalton appeared to fully justify his contract extension after the first two weeks of the season, throwing for 853 yards with a completion rate of 65.5% and no interceptions. Crucially, however, this period coincided with Dalton not being sacked once or even so much as touched. It was the first time in his career that he had gone two weeks without an interception or a sack. It was a red herring; the more pressure Dalton came under physically, the less consistent he became.
Cam Newton did not shock anyone by revealing to reporters on Wednesday that he is “hurt” and has not “felt 100% in a long time.” There are a confluence of factors that stack the deck against him. He has lost two experienced wide receivers in Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, both of whom are enjoying very productive seasons. Kelvin Benjamin is an exciting rookie prospect playing already like an accomplished veteran, but he is essentially the only weapon on the outside, frequently attracting double coverage.
Then there is the problem of Carolina’s offensive line. Injuries have plagued the players tasked with the responsibility of protecting Newton. Left guard Amini Silatolu and right tackle Nate Chandler are questionable for Sunday’s divisional game against the Atlanta Falcons, making it likely that the Panthers will start with a different offensive line for the sixth consecutive game.
This incarnation of Cam Newton seems a long way off the Superman we became accustomed to. It is fair to say, however, that simply holding his team’s record this season, and even his own statistical shortcomings, against him is unduly harsh. Newton can become that explosive talent once again if he is given some time to heal and some protection when he returns. Unfortunately for him, the nature of the league is that he and his team are only afforded five days of ‘rest’ before the next challenge. It is likely to get worse before it gets better. Panthers fans may need to accept that Clark Kent is filling the void until next season.
By Ognjen Miletic