When a quarterback is selected No. 1 overall in any year's draft, there are going to be certain expectations for that player. You're talking a combination of statistics, playmaking ability, leadership and most importantly, wins.
There are a lot of things that can be overlooked if the team is winning games. Mistakes can be written off as "learning experiences" and accepted much easier if the team isn't perceived to be held back by their young signal caller.
Cam Newton showed us during his rookie season for the Carolina Panthers back in 2011 that he's capable of throwing up big-time statistical numbers. Newton threw for over 4,000 yards and scored a combined 35 touchdowns through the air and on the ground en route to the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He also went to the Pro Bowl that year.
Newton's athletic ability is unquestioned after two seasons in the NFL. The question surrounding Newton now is whether or not he can help the Panthers take that next step and win football games in a tough NFC South division. Newton is just 13-19 as a NFL starter through his first two seasons.
Panthers fans hope the last six games of 2012 were a sign of development from Newton. Despite an ugly start to the season (2-8), the Panthers managed to win five of their last six games to finish the season 7-9. New Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman understood the challenges he faced when coming to Carolina but also needed to make sure the last few games were more of the rule than the exception, via USA Today.
"They won five of their last six, six of their last 10. Is it real? Is it a mirage? After watching the tape and given the circumstance that team was in, for them to finish like that ... I don't think it's fool's gold. I really don't."
One of the main reasons the Panthers played better down the stretch was the play of Newton.
Almost all of the numbers and averages are at least slightly better for Newton during those last six games. You can see the big difference (besides W/L record) was the touchdown to interception ratio. Newton threw nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions during the first 12 games of the season, but 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions during the last six.
Is this a reason to rejoice in Carolina? Not so fast.
Those last six games were against teams with a combined record of 37-59, not to mention four of the six are in the bottom eight in the NFL in scoring defense. Newton and the Panthers offense were scoring points, but they were scoring points against teams that regularly gave them up. The Panthers offense averaged just 15.3 points per game over the first 12 games of the season, but 28.3 over the final six.
It's not to say there might not have been some kind of a combination of Newton getting better AND the fact that they were playing lesser competition (outside of Atlanta), but it is a cause for concern if you're putting your eggs in the "well look at the last six games!" argument for Newton's development.
We can look at these numbers, and just like most statistics, they can tell you a lot of different things based on how they're presented. So what do we need to see on tape from Newton that will help the Panthers win more games next season?
We're going to take a closer look at three different plays from three different losses the Panthers had last year. All of these plays were in the fourth quarter and all of them show a need for development in a few key areas from Newton.
The first play is in the Panthers' two-point loss to the Atlanta Falcons in week four, the second is in the five-point loss to the Dallas Cowboys in week seven and the last play is in the one-point loss to the Chicago Bears in week eight.
In this first play we've got Carolina leading Atlanta 28-27 with 1:51 left in the game. It's 3rd and 2 for Newton and the Panthers from the Atlanta 46 yard line. The Falcons had just used their last timeout. If the Panthers can pick up these last two yards, the game is essentially over.
This play is a designed run for Newton. When your quarterback is 6'5", 245 pounds and can run, you like your chances on third and short to win the game. Geoff Hangartner is the right guard and he's going to create a lane by kicking out the linebacker (No. 54) as he traps to his left.
Newton only needed to get to the yellow line in order to win this game for the Panthers. Rather than wait for his offensive lineman to create a path to run through, Newton rushed the play and ran right into the linebacker coming downhill, fumbled the football (which Carolina did recover) and ultimately didn't end up with the first down.
Atlanta got the ball back and Matt Ryan drove the Falcons down the field for Matt Bryant's 40-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. If Newton had remained patient, understood where his blockers are coming from and where the lane will form, the Panthers may have won this game. It's tough to go as far to say he "panicked," but it's a display of rushing through the play and not letting the game come to you. That's a trait that great quarterbacks have and one that Newton doesn't show here.
This second play against the Dallas Cowboys is an example of Newton missing an open receiver for a big play to help seal a victory.
It's 1st and 10 at the Panthers 18-yard line with just under nine minutes left in the game, with the Panthers leading 14-13. Mike Tolbert, who's lined up to Newton's left in the Shotgun formation, will run a delayed seam-route down the field.
As you can see from this picture, Newton didn't just miss Tolbert—he missed him badly. There aren't many times a NFL quarterback will get this kind of an open look and with an accurate throw, who knows how long this play would have gone for. The Panthers ultimately went three and out and gave the ball back to the Cowboys, who drove down the field and kicked the go-ahead and eventual game-winning field goal on the ensuing possession.
The Panthers defense may have given up the lead late in the game, but there were opportunities for Newton to put this game away. He failed to take advantage of the right play call against the right defense and the Panthers ultimately lost the game. It's never just one play that loses a game for a team, but there are plays that quarterbacks are expected to make in order to win games. This was one of those plays.
The final play against the Chicago Bears shows the need for more development from Newton as a pocket passer. Everyone knows about Newton's athleticism, but on this specific play he needed to stay in the pocket and keep his eyes down the field.
The Panthers are faced with a 3rd and 8 from the Bears 27-yard line. They're losing 20-19 and are sitting in field-goal range with just over two minutes left in the game.
The Bears defensive end on the right side of the screen shot will power his way to the middle of the backfield. Henry Melton, the defensive tackle on the left side of the screen will stunt all the way around the line and ultimately force Newton to make a decision (which he had already made in this case).
As soon as the defensive end gets inside position on the offensive lineman, Newton takes off. You can see Newton's feet highlighted on the screen shot in order to show that he hadn't planned on sliding in the pocket—he was taking off. His first instinct is to trust his athletic ability and get outside the pocket and that's a problem. A simple sidestep to the left to avoid the defensive end and then back to the right to allow the offensive lineman to push Melton (stunting) up the field would have bought Newton enough time to see Brandon LaFell come wide open down the field.
Here's another angle that shows you how close (or far) the defensive end actually was from Newton when he decided to bail from the pocket. He's not standing tall and trying to slide from the pressure, but rather he's shifting his eyes to the pressure and attempting to make a play with his feet. NFL quarterbacks have to be able to sit in the pocket and maintain their composure with chaos around them, slide around pressure within the pocket and deliver accurate passes down the field. Two small steps would have been more effective than trying a bunch of long ones on this play.
Newton gets outside the pocket and throws the ball away to avoid the sack on the play. The Panthers kick the go-ahead field goal and take a 22-20 lead. Jay Cutler then led the Bears down the field on the ensuing possession and won the game on a Robbie Gould 41-yard field goal as time expired.
Again, the Panthers defense may have given up the lead late in the game, but Newton could have made it so the defense was protecting a six-point lead instead of just a two-point one, or at least left the Bears with less time on the clock if a completion to LaFell didn't ultimately lead to a touchdown.
These three plays could have won games for the Panthers last season. Mind you of the word "could" in that sentence. But these plays could have been the difference between 7-9 and 10-6 last season for the Panthers. That's what it's going to take in the NFC South division.
Newton is fortunate to have a solid offensive line in Carolina with standouts Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil, who should be healthy in 2013 after missing significant time last season with a Lisfranc injury. They have a great duo at running back with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, as well as solid options in the passing game with wide receivers Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen.
There's some talent around Newton offensively already, and the Panthers didn't appear concerned with adding more pieces to that side of the ball this offseason. They used their first two draft picks on defensive linemen Star Lotulelei (No. 14) and Kawann Short (No. 44), and outside the depth moves of signing wide receivers Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon in free agency, the offense pretty much stays in tact from last season.
The biggest offseason move for Newton was the promotion of Mike Shula from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. This continuity will help Newton going forward.
The problem for Newton and the Panthers is that they play in the NFC South division. The Atlanta Falcons are still the class of the division, and the New Orleans Saints are going to be better as they get Sean Payton back as head coach. Then you've got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who made two huge moves this offseason by signing free agent safety Dashon Goldson from the San Francisco 49ers and trading for former New York Jets standout cornerback Darrelle Revis.
This means the pressure on the Panthers season will ultimately fall back on Cam Newton. They didn't make a lot of moves throughout the roster and they'll need him to be better.
Another obstacle the Panthers face in 2013 is that they play the toughest schedule in the entire NFL.
Considering how Newton played in the first 12 games last season compared to the last six games, which were against lesser competition, it's hard to imagine him leading this team to a winning record. That would mean three consecutive losing seasons as a starting quarterback for Newton.