Cam Newton entered his second professional season with high expectations for leading the Carolina Panthers to a playoff berth. However, he was very inconsistent early on, and due to a combination of questionable play-calling and a poor rushing attack, he seemed to be a shell of the explosive quarterback who took home AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors just a year ago.
As a result, the Panthers find themselves at a dismal 3-9 and making plans for the offseason that don't involve the playoffs.
Many pundits were quick to lay blame on the team's lack of success on Newton's shoulders, and while he has been at fault at certain times during the season, to hold him solely responsible would be ignorant. Miscues by the special teams and defense have hindered the Panthers. The game of football is a team sport, and over the past three weeks, Newton has done his part by playing very well and giving Carolina chances to win games.
Going back to as early as October, many fans, writers and analysts were quick to write off Newton as being mired in a sophomore slump. While that label did carry some merit, his play of late has been great and he has looked like the dynamic player who burst onto the scene in 2011.
Consider the following: through the first seven games Newton had a quarterback rating of over 90 only twice. Since then, he has had four. Another interesting stat that stands out is the lack of interceptions he has thrown. Since the beginning of November he has only thrown two picks, and both of them were against the Denver Broncos. Those were the only passes to be picked off over the course of five games.
So, what is the reason for his recent surge?
The most obvious answer could be the change in play-calling.
Earlier in the season, it seemed as though the Panthers preferred to run a spread read option-based offense that not only made the running game look bad, but took away from the strengths of the previous season. By returning to a big set which has involved two tight ends, Newton has been able to pass the ball more effectively and not force anything that would result in a turnover or worse.
Newton has established a rapport and is comfortable throwing to Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen. Both have proven themselves reliable options when Steve Smith becomes the focus of double-teams. His reason for recent success is not limited to just them as he has not hesitated targeting backups Louis Murphy, Gary Barnidge or even his running backs.
The return to a more simplistic style of offense has allowed the running game to balance out the attack, and while they have yet to have a running back eclipse 100 yards in a game, that balance is doing enough to allow Newton to thrive.
As far back as Week 9, Newton has only thrown for 300 yards once: a Monday night matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. Interestingly enough, he hasn't had to throw for a lot of yards to keep Carolina competitive. In fact, since the first week of November the only negative stat regarding Newton's game would be his completion percentage, which has been over 60 percent just once.
There are four games remaining for the Panthers this year and there isn't any reason to believe that Newton will regress.
Despite the team's poor record, Newton has turned around his slump and will pass for over 3,000 yards on the season. Based on his recent trend of throwing touchdowns (his last game without throwing one was Week 8 against Chicago) he should either match or just barely pass his rookie mark of 21. If he can keep his interceptions down, there is a good chance he will stay under his turnover mark from last season.
While Carolina has struggled and disappointed this season, Newton's recent play has shown everybody he is capable of being a franchise quarterback and that he is taking the advice of his teammates to heart, as his episodes of brooding have ended. He seems to be more involved on the sidelines with his coaches, learning from the previous series and limiting further mistakes.
Newton's surge as of late has proven to everyone that, while his numbers are well below those he posted a year ago, he has done enough to keep his team alive through four quarters and produced respectable stats in his second season. The remainder of the season should be interesting to see how he finishes and hopefully set the stage for a playoff run in 2013.