For whatever reason, there seems to be more pressure on Cam Newton than just about any other player in the league.
Perhaps it is because the Carolina Panthers quarterback showed some signs of vulnerability in his sophomore season, or maybe it is because some are still bitter over the allegations surrounding his collegiate career. Part of the pressure may even stem from the fact that he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, but the fact remains that Newton has plenty of weight on his shoulders.
And while the natural process of spending time in the NFL, growing as a player and becoming more acclimated to the speed of the professional game will obviously help, the Panthers need to chip in as well.
The blunt truth is that Carolina has not done everything possible to put Newton in position to succeed. The running game behind him has been inconsistent at best, the receiving corps has a lack of depth (and that is being exceedingly nice) and the offensive line is in a constant state of flux.
These are tough hurdles for a quarterback to battle through, but Newton has risen to the challenge. He has thrown for 7,920 yards in two seasons with 40 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. Those would be impressive numbers for a seasoned veteran, but we are talking about a guy entering just his third year. And it would be wrong not to mention the versatility he brings to the position, highlighted by the following tweet from ESPN Stats & Info.
And yet the pressure mounts. People look toward the beginning of the 2012 season as a sign that Newton is not quite the Superman-like QB that he exemplified in his Rookie of the Year campaign. Through seven games, Newton had thrown just five touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. He looked uncomfortable in the pocket, made bad decisions and had only two games of 300 yards passing. And when Newton struggles, the Panthers struggle.
But Newton quickly turned it around and had just four interceptions the rest of the season compared to 14 touchdowns. He knows how to succeed and thrive under that constant pressure, but he is going to need more help heading into 2013 if the Panthers are going to move beyond their 7-9 record from a season ago.
This is a potential perennial All-Pro, and the first step toward making that happen is solidifying what is going on in the backfield alongside Newton. The three-headed-beast dynamic between Newton, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams looks intriguing on paper and has had moments of brilliance on the field, but all too often this trio falls flat.
Whatever the reason, Stewart and Williams have largely failed to recapture the magic they displayed during the 2009 season when they each had over 1,100 yards on the ground and combined for 17 rushing scores.
Hopefully the reported changes to the offensive play-calling and tempo will put a spark back in the partnership between these two. Both guys are still extremely talented backs, but Williams has hit 30 years old and time is running out for them to figure out what is causing the funk.
The aforementioned issues on the offensive line were also a problem last season, and fixing them should help alleviate pressure on Newton heading into 2013. Carolina has one of the most talented fronts in football, but missing center Ryan Kalil for half of last season was a serious detriment and was part of the reason Newton was sacked 36 times.
A healthy Kalil and the ever-reliable Jordan Gross will allow Newton to drop back more comfortably and develop consistency and rhythm. Keep in mind that Newton threw more touchdowns than interceptions, both against the blitz and in plays when he was under pressure, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
However, his completion percentage was a full 20 points higher on plays in which he was not under pressure. Newton is someone who may not make too many glaring mistakes under pressure, but he is much more accurate when he has time to dissect a defense and step into his throws.
He also needs players to throw the ball to, and that has been an issue throughout his first two seasons in Carolina. Steve Smith is a Pro Bowl wideout, but who else has there been for Newton to turn to? Greg Olsen has been a solid tight end, but Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy are not legitimate options at No. 2 and No. 3 on the depth chart.
If the Panthers' passing game is truly going to evolve and allow Newton to remove some of the pressure surrounding him, then playmakers must be added. Smith is 34 years old but is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons and shows no signs of slowing down. Will the additions of Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon provide the kind of complement he needs?
This seems like a tall order for two guys who have never been true stars in this league. Each will find a role, but Newton needs at least another top-level receiver to spread the ball to. Some still think LaFell can be that guy, but he needs to prove it sooner rather than later.
Still, it is hard not to be excited by the way Carolina finished last season. Seeing the Panthers win five of their last six games and six out of the last 10 overall was a tremendously positive sign and shows that the franchise has its bearings moving forward.
Perhaps making the playoffs this season would alleviate most of the pressure on Newton, but the fact remains that the Panthers organization can do its part to put him in a position to succeed. Streamlining the offense through offensive coordinator Mike Shula and retaining head coach Ron Rivera were the right moves, and now it is time to see what the on-field product can deliver.