NFL Rookie of the Year: Cam Newton May Win, but Has Questions to Answer in 2012
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers (6-10) wrapped up the 2011 NFL regular season with a 4-2 record in their final six games and with momentum heading into the 2012 offseason, despite their Week 17 loss to the New Orleans Saints (13-3).
A situational breakdown of Newton's 2011 stats shows that the Panthers' young quarterback, and likely 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year, had a helluva first season as a pro, but they also show room for improvement.
Among Newton's accomplishments are:
First quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 400-yards in each of his first two starts
First quarterback in NFL history to rush for 14 touchdowns
First rookie quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season
First player in NFL history to pass for more than 4,000 yards and run for more than 500 yards in a season
Among Newton's weaknesses are:
Decreased second-half efficiency
Inability to overcome turnovers
Lack of fourth-quarter comebacks
Losing record vs NFC South divisional foes
Newton faced harsh criticism from the media, television's scouting "experts" and fans regarding his character, his intelligence and his throwing accuracy entering his rookie year.
While some of the criticism was warranted due to charges leveled at Newton and his father for incidents involving a stolen laptop, academic cheating and allegations of bribery, Newton disproved his critics by becoming involved in the Charlotte, NC community, quickly absorbing a complex NFL offensive system and throwing the ball better than even his biggest fans could have expected.
However, despite Newton's many accomplishments in 2011 and his likely coronation as the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year, there are still a few things he has yet to accomplish which will be crucial to his success and the Panthers' success in 2012.
No. 1: Can Newton Overcome Turnovers?
The Carolina Panthers were undefeated in games in which Cam Newton did not turn the ball over.
In the Panthers' six victories this season, Newton completed 64.1 percent of his passes, threw for eight touchdowns and ran for six more.
In Carolina's 10 defeats, Newton completed 58.3 percent of his throws for 13 touchdowns and 17 interceptions while rushing for another eight scores.
The good news is that over half of the picks he threw can be chalked up to inexperience and rookie mistakes—often trying to keep a play alive when he should have given up on the play and either taken a sack or thrown the ball away—as opposed to inaccuracy.
Improved decision-making comes with time and experience, and while his sophomore season will not be mistake-free, I expect him to clean up his game and play with greater efficiency than he did in his rookie campaign.
Newton proved that he can protect the ball when he's throwing it well and not making mistakes, but he has not yet proven his ability to overcome those mistakes and lead his team to victory.
No. 2: Can Newton Lead His Team to a Victory in the 4th Quarter?
There is one glaring quarterback stat missing from Cam Newton's rookie resume and that is the epic fourth-quarter comeback.
Several of Newton's fellow rookie quarterbacks, including Christian Ponder (Minnesota), Jake Locker (Tennessee), Andy Dalton (Cincinnati) and T.J. Yates (Houston) led their teams to miraculous come-from-behind victories, but the Panthers' rookie quarterback was unable to answer the bell.
Newton's greatest opportunity to lead a winning fourth-quarter drive came in Week 8 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Trailing 24-21 on their final possession of the game, Newton marched the Panthers down the field and into the red zone with relative ease and, on a play in which his "Super Cam" talents were on full display, Newton ran the ball inside the five-yard line and catapulted his body all the way to the 1-yard-line.
The play (pictured above) would have had the Panthers in easy scoring position had it not been overturned due to an illegal block by Carolina's Steve Smith.
Olindo Mare proceeded to miss a 31-yard field goal attempt that would have sent the game into overtime as the clock expired.
Though Newton and the Panthers are expected to improve in the offseason, they were 1-5 in games decided by seven points or less, and they will likely play as many close games in 2012 as they did in 2011.
If Carolina is to make the playoffs and continue their rise to NFL prominence in 2012, Newton is going to have to show off a little fourth-quarter magic he did not display in his rookie campaign.
No. 3: Can Newton Defeat His NFC South Division Foes?
The Carolina Panthers were 2-4 against their divisional rivals in the NFC South in 2011.
The Panthers seemed to find a winning-formula this season when they were able to implement a running-to-pass ratio of about 60:40, but they were unable to execute that strategy against the top two teams in the division.
The Panthers owned Tampa Bay this season, defeating the Bucs 38-19 in Week 13 at Raymond James Stadium and again, 48-16, in Week 16 in Charlotte.
Newton also used the Bucs as his personal record-setting whipping post, breaking Steve Grogan's old mark for most single-season rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in their first matchup and breaking Peyton Manning's rookie passing yardage record in Week 16.
Carolina moved slightly up the divisional ladder by showing it's better than the Bucs, but there is still quite a gap between the Panthers and the NFC South's two playoff teams.
Carolina played the Saints tough in their first matchup before giving up a late touchdown on an uncommonly long Drew Brees-led touchdown drive that consumed much of the fourth quarter and gave New Orleans the lead and the win, 30-27.
In their second matchup in Week 17, New Orleans scored back-to-back touchdowns to close the first half and open the second half, turning a 17-17 ballgame into a 31-17 exhibition which the Saints won 45-17.
The Panthers played great in the first halves of both games against the Falcons and carried leads into the fourth quarter both times, only to lose 31-17 in Week 6 and 31-23 in Week 14.
Room for Improvement in 2012
Cam Newton had an historic rookie season playing quarterback for the Panthers.
Perhaps more impressive than his gaudy stats and helping the Panthers triple their win total from 2010 is that Newton made me reconsider my long-held stance that rookie quarterbacks are not ready for NFL football.
There will continue to be growing pains for Newton and the Panthers next season, though I am predicting significant improvement and a 10-win season for the Carolina Panthers in 2012 as Newton elevates himself into one of the NFL's top-10 quarterbacks in his second season.