Breaking Down Cam Newton's Sophomore Slump

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Breaking Down Cam Newton's Sophomore Slump
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If Cam Newton doesn't play better in 2012, the Carolina Panthers might not win another game.

Newton is slumping this season and the Panthers are struggling. Sitting at 1-4, the Panthers are on a bye and come back in Week 7 to a murderers' row of Dallas, Chicago, Washington and Denver—four teams that can score and have the potential to make life awfully tough for quarterbacks.

Newton burst onto the scene in 2011. He opened his career with two 400-yard passing games, propelling him headlong into the the best rookie passing season in history. Not only was he effective through the air, but he also set quarterback rushing records as well.

Newton's greatness, of course, left Panthers fans asking: "What's next?" The team did not enjoy the same success as Newton did in 2011. Six wins was understandable for a team that was clearly rebuilding, but was clearly the prologue to something greater, right?

Newton and the Panthers have not been greater in 2012.

 

Newton Isn't the Only Panther to Blame

The purpose of this discussion is not to thrust blame for the Panthers' troubles on Newton alone. No, the parade of scapegoats for the Panthers' woes starts in general manager Marty Hurney's office, weaves through the coaching staff and permeates the entire locker room.

This team, in short, has not figured out how to win games.

The team lacks talent in all three phases of the game. Hurney doesn't seem to have any specific plan other than lucking into the easiest decision of a decade and choosing Newton.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Rivera hasn't lived up to expectations either.

We could spend a dozen articles talking about Ron Rivera's coaching decisions. It wasn't just punting on 4th-and-1, it's an entire philosophy of playing not to lose rather than playing to win. Rivera was once considered one of the great defensive minds of our generation and now presides over one of the NFL's worst defenses. 

Meanwhile, the Panthers have dealt with injuries and a surprisingly tough schedule early in the season.

No, Newton does not solely bear the blame for the Panthers' 1-4 record, but he hasn't been part of the solution in 2012 either.

 

Atlas Shrugged

The title of Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged, is reference to a line in which one of the characters asks what Atlas—the Greek mythical character who holds the world on his shoulders—should do in response to a world that grows heavier the more he struggles to support it. The response, "to shrug," gives the novel its title and encapsulates its major themes.

Politics aside, that analogy works just as well for the relationship between Newton and the Panthers.

As Newton moved into his sophomore season, the idea was that he would take on an even greater role both in terms of offense and in terms of leadership. Remember, Newton didn't have an offseason in 2011 because the owners had locked him and the rest of the NFL players out. With a full training camp and minicamps to prepare for 2012, he was supposed to rise to any challenge.

Instead, he shrugged.

Newton hasn't been the leader this team needs him to be. Perhaps it is belaboring the point, but Steve Smith should not have to call out Newton, publicly, to be less of a petulant child, which he did in late September:

I don't want to be passive and not do it because if I don't do it, who will? The same way with my son; I can't expect somebody else (to do that). So, yeah, I lit into him because I thought it was an opportunity for him to see and understand what was going on. This is more than about playing football. It's about becoming a man and understanding what this is.

There has been as much commentary and analysis of Newton's sideline towel wearing as there has been about his play. Newton has allowed the narrative to snowball to become what it has and his response to both his slump and the team's play this season has been disappointing.

It isn't just off-the-field/leadership ways in which Newton has shrugged.

The team has also attempted to put a slightly larger load of the offense on his shoulders this season.

The Panthers spend a ridiculously large amount of money on their backfield, but have forgotten how to run the ball at times this season. When they do run, Newton has been their most effective (only effective?) runner.

These issues, again, point to Hurney, who has failed to stock the offensive line with quality blockers, and to a coaching staff that has failed to game-plan effectively. This isn't just on Newton, but his response to a larger workload has been, to shrug. Instead of rising to the challenge, he has wilted under the pressure.

 

Where Newton Has Failed in 2012

Newton has not fallen off any cliff in 2012; his step back is noticeable only because it hasn't been a step forward. He is, largely, the passer football fans got to know in 2011, without the fantastic statistical outliers.

As you see above, his numbers are all down this season, but slightly. As with many sophomore slumps, the thought that he has gotten markedly worse is mostly driven by the hype of last year and the expectations of this year.

If one looks at the tape, it's clear that Newton is simply leaving plays on the field. 

Here, Newton almost gets his receiver killed by waiting on a pass that was wide open just moments earlier. In real time, the margin of error is almost unnoticeable, but it is extremely important.

Last year, Newton was an average quarterback whose statistics were propped up, to a degree, by high volume. Where Newton was most dangerous in 2011 was not as a passer or even as a runner, but as a matchup problem. Teams had to figure out how to stop Newton and, at least statistically, failed.

This year, teams are still having trouble with Newton, but have almost dared Newton to beat them by himself. The plays are there to make, but he simply is not making them with any frequency.

In this throw, Newton missed a wide open receiver, almost leading to a Kam Chancellor interception. Clearly, there are open receivers. Frames earlier, those receivers were even more open.

Instead of hitting one of the open receivers, Newton airmailed the ball over the crossing route directly at the safety.

Throws like this are inexcusable to most high-level high school coaches. At the NFL level, quarterbacks have to hit open receivers. Obviously Newton can do that, but he needs to root out the physical and mental errors that ruin his consistency.

Ignore the noise out there.

Newton hasn't been terrible in 2012—at least, not that more much than he was "terrible" in 2011. However, where Newton has failed (and failed spectacularly) has been in living up to the lofty expectations of his fanbase and teammates.

Newton is, right now, all style and no substance. He is truly an entertainer and an icon, but not an NFL-caliber passer.

Off the field, Newton needs to change the narrative surrounding him during this bye week. When he returns, Newton needs to stop leaving plays on the field and start accepting the responsibility his team has given him and perform at a higher level.

 

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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