The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton was the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year, setting or breaking several NFL records in his premiere NFL season, and I expect him to be even better in 2012. However, will his sophomore season be good enough to enter him into the discussion for the 2012 NFL MVP award?
It is entirely reasonable to predict Newton will pass for 3,500 yards, pass for 30 touchdowns and rush for over 500 yards and 10 more scores in 2012. The key to Newton's success and his potential as an NFL MVP, though, will be to improve his completion percentage to around 70 percent and to keep his turnovers, including interceptions and fumbles lost, to single digits.
Cam Newton's 2011 accolades
Anyone who is a Carolina Panthers fan is familiar with the NFL records Newton set in 2011, including becoming the first rookie quarterback to pass for more than 4,000 yards and the first NFL quarterback in history to rush for more than 13 touchdowns in a single season.
• Most passing yards (4,051) in a season by a rookie
• Most rushing yards (706) in a season by a rookie quarterback
• Most rushing touchdowns (14) in a season by a rookie quarterback
• Most rushing touchdowns (14) in a single season by a quarterback
• Most total touchdowns (35) in a season by a rookie (21 pass, 14 rush)
• Most passing yards (422) by a rookie in his first game
• Most passing yards (432) by a rookie in a game
• Most passing yards (854) by a rookie in first two games
• First quarterback in NFL history to pass for 400-plus yards in his first two career starts
• First rookie in NFL history to pass for 400-plus yards in back-to-back games
• First rookie in NFL history to throw for 10-plus touchdowns and run for 10-plus touchdowns in a season
• First player in NFL history with 4,000-plus pass yards and 10-plus rush touchdowns in a season
• First player in NFL history with 4,000-plus pass yards and 500-plus rush yards in a season
• Led the Carolina Panthers to the greatest offensive turnaround (32nd to seventh) in NFL history
• First player to be awarded the Heisman Trophy, win a national championship in college, be named first overall pick in the NFL draft, be named the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and be selected to the Pro Bowl all consecutively
However, Newton's biggest accomplishment in 2011 was learning to lead an NFL franchise and learning to win in the NFL, which he did by helping the Panthers to four of their six wins in the last six weeks of the season.
Big expectations for Newton in 2012
To look at all of Cam Newton's accomplishments in his final collegiate and first professional seasons, the Panthers' quarterback has every excuse imaginable to come back to earth with an average season in 2012.
However, Newton's coaches don't expect Newton to experience a sophomore slump and I don't either.
When asked about the possibility of his quarterback slumping in 2012, Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera told the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person: "I will say this about a sophomore slump: If there’s anybody that’s going work through it, he’s going to work through it. When the season was over, one of the things he said was he wanted to find a way to make sure he didn’t have one."
Newton is a football savant, that rarely gifted athlete who has the Blake Griffin-esque ability to roll out of bed and make SportsCenter's Top 10 on a weekly basis based on physical talent alone, but who also has a Michael Jordan-esque dedication to his craft and a football acumen to understand and process the game that rivals Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
Room for improvement
It is unlikely Cam Newton will improve his stats in every category in 2012, but he has a lot of room for improvement and he should have a much better season in his sophomore year, even if his passing and rushing totals are less than they were in 2011.
It will be difficult for Newton to pass for more than 4,000 yards again this season in the Carolina Panthers' run-oriented offense and it is doubtful he will ever surpass his total of 14 rushing touchdowns in a single season.
However, Newton's 60.0 percent completion percentage in 2011 was 18th in the NFL and he turned the ball over 20 times, including 17 interceptions and three fumbles.
A better understanding of Panthers offensive coordinator Rob "Chud" Chudzinski's offensive system and a willingness to make better decisions with the football—i.e. taking a sack or throwing the ball away instead of forcing an ill-advised pass—will solve both problems in 2012.
The Panthers were the seventh-best red-zone team based on touchdown percentage, scoring opportunities and touchdowns per game from inside the 20-yard line in 2011, though they ranked 15th in the NFL in second-half points per game.
An improved Carolina defense and special teams in 2012 should equate to more scoring opportunities and better field position for the Panthers this season.
The Panthers learned late in 2011 that running the ball was their key to winning games and in their final five victories Carolina averaged 35.2 rushing attempts per game versus only 22.2 passes. Their average margin of victory in those wins against the Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (twice) and Houston Texans was 34.8 to 17.4.
For the Panthers to win big in 2012, they will have to rely heavily on the run, and they should with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton in the backfield.
Newton's MVP chances
So, is Cam Newton a candidate for the NFL's 2012 MVP award?
Preseason candidates for MVP will no doubt include the usual suspects—Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick and Tom Brady—but Cam Newton has the potential to jump into the conversation with the right mix of statistics and results.
I mentioned at the top of this article that it is entirely plausible for Newton to pass for 3,500 yards, run for more than 500 yards and combine for 40 touchdowns in the air and on the ground.
If Newton protects the ball by keeping his turnovers to single digits, improves his completion percentage to 68.0 percent or better and leads the Panthers to a combination of high-scoring wins and a dramatic game-winning drive or two, he will certainly be in the conversation.
More importantly, Newton will have to lead the Panthers to an NFC South title in 2012 and he will need the rest of his team's help to do so.
My current prediction for the NFL's 2012 MVP is a toss-up between Peyton Manning and Drew Brees—Manning if he leads the Denver Broncos to elite status and Brees if he leads the New Orleans Saints back into title contention despite distractions stemming from Bountygate, a coaching change and his own unresolved contract issues with the Saints—but the NFL season is long and unpredictable and just about anything could happen.
Cam Newton's chances of winning the MVP in only his second NFL season are not great, but his odds are significantly better than Lloyd Christmas' one-in-a-million chance of landing Mary Swanson.
So, I am saying there's a chance, though Newton's best opportunity to win the most NFL's most prestigious individual award will likely come further down the road.
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