Cam Newton's Response to His Sophomore Slump Will Define Him as an NFL QB
Make no mistake, Newton is slumping, and his response so far has not been ideal.
Entering Week 5, Newton has amassed 1,013 passing yards. At this same point last season, that total was 1,386—a difference of almost 100 yards per game. The Carolina Panthers were 1-3 last season as well, but it was generally accepted that that was in spite of Newton's phenomenal play. This year, he seems more like part of the problem than just along for the ride.
Rather than just comparing year to year however, it's probably more apt to note that the two are comparable, and they shouldn't be. Newton entered the NFL with little to no time to prepare. The lockout left Newton (and every other rookie) behind the eight ball, and the Panthers were terrible enough to earn the No. 1 overall pick the year before.
This year, the Panthers have (at least, theoretically) improved on both sides of the ball, and Newton had a full offseason to prepare with his teammates. So, even if one believes Newton hasn't taken a step back (he has), it's completely dishonest to think he's taken any sort of step forward.
After years of losing, at 1-3 and with games ahead against the Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears, the natives in Charlotte are getting restless. Newton's honeymoon period is officially over.
Newton Needs To Respond On the Field
Let's be clear: Newton is not solely (or even largely) to blame for the Panthers' 1-3 record.
Quarterbacks don't win or lose games on their own or in a vacuum. The Panthers defense has been terrible, and injuries (to both Jonathan Stewart and offensive linemen) have left the running game ineffective.
Newton is currently tied with DeAngelo Williams for the team rushing lead with 167 yards rushing. Last year, as great of a rusher Newton was, he was third on the team. This year, even with Stewart out, there is zero reason Williams and Mike Tolbert shouldn't be running down opponents' collective throats.
Yet rushing games don't fail in a vacuum either, and teams have stacked the box against the Panthers hoping to stymie the very running attack Carolina had hoped to lean upon.
One of the most notable statistics through four weeks is that Greg Olsen leads the Panthers in targets with 31. Steve Smith, Newton's best option, is second with 25. Again, this is a small sample size, but that is not a trend that should continue. It's also a big reason that his yardage is down.
If Newton wants to silence his critics, he needs to be patient as Smith works down the field. That might mean using that tremendous athleticism to buy time rather than run, and it might mean ignoring the intermediate throw to take the occasional shot downfield.
It isn't the highest-percentage play, but it will loosen up defenses scared of a Newton-to-Smith connection that worked so well in 2012.
Finally, and this runs somewhat counter-intuitive to the point above, Newton needs to protect the football. Interceptions and fumbles don't have to kill games, but when they start rolling together, it can affect the psyche of everyone on the team.
Still, the occasional interception on an already low-percentage play is easy to accept. It's a risk/reward proposition that all coaches deal with when they're play-calling, and they hardly blame their quarterbacks when it happens.
Newton Needs To Respond Off The Field
Ultimately, Newton can't control whether or not the Panthers' win games. He can control his play and nothing more. He can't stop defensive breakdowns, and he can't block for himself. He can't heal the team's injured players, and he can't be head coach or coordinator.
So, regardless of where this team's record is at the end of the season, Newton must be the leader keeping this team focused on better days ahead.
This isn't about tempering expectations, but it is about managing them.
Full-page ads promising Super Bowl victories can't happen on Newton's watch. Superman poses are stupid when a team is 1-3, even more so when that team is down late against the best team in the division. Newton doesn't need to apologize to his teammates in the media; he needs to play better and stop turning the ball over—period.
No one needs to hear that it is Newton's fault that the Panthers lost to the Falcons. First of all, it isn't. One play does not win or lose a football game all by itself. On the other hand, even if it is, the words are wasted breath. Apologize to teammates behind closed doors if necessary—not to reporters, not to a TV camera.
Be a leader, Newton.
A wide receiver should not have to call his QB out for sulking on the sideline. Newton needs to take the stupid towel off of his head. It doesn't matter why it's up there; the perception it sends matters. He looks petulant. He looks like a baby. He looks like Nolan Nawrocki had a point.
Perception is reality. In front of millions of football fans, that has always been true and will always be true.
Newton has won plenty as a football player and has lost frequently. He needs to learn how to win and lose like a professional and to manage the expectations and perceptions of his teammates and in the media.
If he can't do that, the road will be rocky even if he improves on the field.
Newton's slump doesn't have to define him. A winning record the rest of the way, improved play or even a better public attitude would quickly change the narrative around the Panthers. He can't go back and change what's happened, but he can bounce back from it.
How Newton responds from this point forward—both on and off the field—will define him as an NFL quarterback.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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