With Pro Football Weekly reporting that the Carolina Panthers have agreed to a contract extension with veteran wide receiver Steve Smith that should keep him in Carolina until at least 2015, no one should be happier than second-year signal-caller Cam Newton.
Under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, Newton had one of the greatest seasons we've seen from a rookie at the quarterback position. While Newton has deservedly been praised for completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing for over 4,000 yards and 21 touchdowns, to go along with another 14 on the ground, the job done by Chudzinski to get him in position to put up those numbers can not be overstated.
A big part of his ability to do so is due to the presence of Smith.
Chudzinski started the season isolating the quarterback's reads, giving him simple two- or three-man progressions with an emphasis on pass protection on many of the team's passing plays. Having Smith outside, either drawing safety help or taking on man coverage, Chudzinski and Newton often knew exactly what to expect on one side of the field.
Smith is no doubt thrilled to once again have a quarterback who not only looks for him, but who is able to get him the ball. After a 2010 season that saw his production plummet, much of it due to ineffectual quarterback play, Smith was back to putting up over 1,000 yards and scoring seven touchdowns.
It's interesting to note that the Panthers seemed to get away from Smith last year as the season wore on. His targets definitively decreased as defensive coordinators adjusted to what Chudzinski was doing, but that didn't stop Smith from being productive or effective in the offense.
What's impressive about the numbers put up by Newton and Smith is how productive they were able to be without the support of a traditional running game. Teams rarely needed to commit an extra defender in the box, enabling them to keep their safeties back for the specific purpose of ensuring Smith didn't blow the doors off by going deep.
While the ground game improved slightly later in the year, you have to think the addition of fullback Mike Tolbert is a nod to the need to take some pressure off their second-year signal-caller by enabling the offense to grind out some more tough yards and to keep Newton from having to do too much.
While the offseason spotlight has been brightly shining on the Panthers' rivals in the NFC South, for all the wrong reasons, the Panthers should not be dismissed. The most important aspect of successful teams in today's NFL is continuity—especially on offense.
If the Panthers can get healthy on defense, Newton and Co. will be right in the thick of the race for the division crown.
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