After Cam Newton's record-shattering rookie season, we had high expectations in his sophomore campaign.
We saw a precocious, young signal-caller tearing apart NFL defenses with his dual-threat ability. We envisioned a confident, driven young man, seemingly born for the NFL spotlight.
Unfortunately for Newton, I'm not describing him. I'm describing Robert Griffin III.
RGIII has been everything this season that Newton was last season. Newton, after his team's 1-6 start, takes more heat every week for looking like the overmatched, underprepared "college system" quarterback he was supposed to be as a rookie.
But is that criticism warranted? Are those deriding Newton's performance on the money? Or are fans and media overreacting to Newton's sophomore slump?
That Rookie Season, Statistically
Let's take a look at exactly what Newton did his rookie season. Mostly, he piled up yards.
In the very first game, he set an all-time record for passing yards in a rookie debut with 422. The very next week, he threw for 432 yards. After four games, Newton had an eye-popping 1,386 yards; an average of 346.5 per game.
But after that fourth game, Newton never cracked 300 yards again. Over the last 12 games of his rookie season, Newton averaged a very ordinary 222 yards per game.
His NFL passer efficiency rating was 84.5. He threw 21 touchdowns against 17 interceptions; these are acceptable numbers for a rookie, but unimpressive for a veteran.
Newton really stood out on the ground; he carried the ball 126 times for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns. His rushing production made up for his tailing-off passing numbers.
Not to take away from Newton's great rookie achievements, but cracking 4,000 yards passing in a season where passing yards were inflated made Newton seem more dominant than he was.
This Sophomore Season, Statistically
So far this season, Newton's on pace for 485 attempts (down from last year's 515). Throwing less often, he's averaging 8.0 yards per attempt (up from 7.8 last season). That's tied with RGIII for third best in the NFL.
Newton's average yards per completion is up a full yard from last season (to an impressive 14.1). That figure is second best in the NFL.
Newton is not dinking and dunking; he's throwing it deep. He's on pace for 3,880 yards (just behind last season's total), even though he's not throwing as much.
His interception percentage is up slightly (from 3.3 percent to 3.8). This puts him on pace for about 18 interceptions.
His sack rate's gone up from 6.3 percent to 7.4. He's on pace to be sacked about 38 times (up from last season's 35). His completion percentage is down slightly (57.1 percent from 60.0).
The pattern is clear: Newton's throwing less often, but he's throwing deeper. Therefore, he's not completing quite as many passes.
His sacks and interceptions are a little more frequent as he pushes it downfield. Across the board, Newton's passing effectiveness is just a little bit down from last season.
Oh, except his touchdowns; those are down. Way down.
Newton's thrown just five touchdowns all season long. He's on pace for about 11 on the season; a huge decline from last season's 21. The Panthers are tied with the Dolphins for the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL.
Newton's rushing is a similar story: he's rushing slightly less often (7.3 times per game instead of 7.8), for more yards per carry (6.1 instead of 5.6), for slightly more yards and far fewer touchdowns.
Newton's got just three rushing touchdowns all season; he's on pace for seven scores...half his 2012 total.
This Sophomore Season, by the Eyeball
Watching the way Carolina uses Newton has been interesting.
As Grantland's Chris Brown explained in-depth, the Panthers deploy Newton in a robust zone-read offense. This maximizes the threat Newton poses on the run, freezing and dissecting defenses already terrified of Carolina's running backs and Newton's arm.
Carolina has also begun using "packaged plays," combination run-pass play calls that allow Newton to check between handoffs and quick passes on the same play. These can be devastatingly effective as the defense, used to defending either a run or a pass, has to account for both at the same time.
So what's wrong?
One problem is the play designs. When Carolina isn't executing a zone read or a packaged play, its dropping Newton back in the shotgun and sending all four (or five) receivers out on deep routes. The Panthers are putting a huge burden on Newton's ability to read coverages and beat them deep with his arm.
Newton's incredibly talented, but he's still only a sophomore. He has very limited experience with wide-open downfield passing.
His accuracy on deep routes isn't consistent, and when you're constantly throwing into the teeth of a defense that knows what's coming, a little inaccuracy can lead to a lot of incompletions and interceptions.
Newton's biggest problem, however, may be his supporting cast. Newton trusts receiver Steve Smith implicitly and targets him often, but the pair have struggled to connect as well as they did last season.
As I broke down here, Newton threw a game-losing pick-six when Smith fell down making a cut. It seems like when Newton's throws to Smith are accurate, Smith's not as reliable as he used to be.
The Rest of the Season
Watching Newton, he seems to be pressing. Even when the play design gives him a safety valve, he never seems willing to check down to it. Newton seems to respond to pressure by putting more on himself to make a big play, and when it's not there, forcing it is a bad plan.
Newton's appeared dejected and depressed in postgame media appearances, but his confidence in his ability hasn't diminished. He has to settle down within the offense and stop trying to force the deep pass. Newton needs to focus on moving the chains and extending drives.
Short passes are a lot easier to complete, and touchdown passes are a lot easier to throw from inside the 20.
The Rest of His Career
Fans and media are overreacting. They don't need to worry about Newton.
This "sophomore slump" is all part of his development within the NFL. Carolina, with the NFL's best and deepest ground attack, is leaning on Newton to win games through the air. He's taking on more responsibility, and he's trying to maintain his own impossibly high standards.
There are going to be growing pains.