Generally speaking, Year 3 is when young quarterbacks like Cam Newton break out of their shells and prove why they’re going to be among the best for years to come.
Greatness may not be achieved when the season’s over but a leap is usually made. Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, is a good candidate for making that next leap as he enters his third season in the NFL.
Newton had a bit of a sophomore slump in 2012 after a breakout rookie campaign. Newton’s numbers decreased in just about every major category, including passing yards (4,051 to 3,869), passing touchdowns (21 to 19), rushing yards and completion percentage (60 to 57.7).
For all of Newton’s shortcomings in 2012, there were still some positives that indicate his progress and growth. At times as a rookie, Newton was a nitwit, pouting after games and sulking to reporters. When the Panthers lose it seems no one takes it harder than Newton, who on occasion has looked like he just witnessed a kitten being run over by a truck.
Newton’s postgame demeanor is something he and his father, Cecil Newton, have publicly acknowledged needs work. With Newton at quarterback, the Panthers are 13-19 in two seasons. With the dwindling numbers and the poor record, it’s easy to think Newton doesn’t have what it takes to elevate his game to the next level.
Think again. Newton may have started slow in 2012 but that’s not how 2011 began, indicating there isn’t a trend for him to come out of the gate slowly. Newton finished the 2012 season strong, throwing just two interceptions in Carolina’s final seven games. The Panthers won five of those seven games, giving the organization something to build on for 2013.
The Panthers added receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, both of whom can make plays deep down the field when given the opportunity. The theory is the running game is fine the way it is, even though DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart haven’t produced in a big way since 2009.
But if the passing game can emerge as something more than just Steve Smith producing at the wide receiver position, then the running game opens up. When that happens, Newton can let his natural talent take over and direct the Carolina offense.
Can Newton recapture the magic that captivated fans when he was a rookie in 2011 and guide the Panthers into contention for an NFC South title? It’s definitely possible. Here’s a look at some of the good and the bad with Newton over the past two seasons.
The good: Season-opener in 2011 against Arizona, first quarter, 7:23
This play out of the shotgun formation isolates Steve Smith on the left side while putting three receivers to Newton’s right. Each member of the Cardinals defensive line is in a two-point stance, which indicates pressure’s coming.
In just his first NFL game it would appear Newton studied up on his opponent. Recognizing that a blitz is coming, Newton relays a signal to his offensive line. More than likely, Newton realized a corner blitz was coming from the offensive line’s left side.
After the snap, the Cardinals end up rushing only four and try to disguise where they were coming from, but to no avail. The left side of the line adjusts wide to prevent the cornerback from coming through. This leaves safety Kerry Rhodes in single coverage on Smith on the outside.
Even if Rhodes recognized Smith was running a go route, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. But Rhodes looks confused once Smith was alone on him. Newton fires a deep pass that Smith finishes off for a 77-yard touchdown.
The bad: Nov. 20, 2011, against Detroit, third quarter, 2:48
On a second-down play, Newton’s under center with two backs, two receivers and a tight end split just off the line of scrimmage.
Quickly after the snap, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh—who is the Cruella de Vil of the NFL—bullies his way through the Panthers’ offensive line and charges at Newton. Newton has to make a quick decision that doesn’t involve a turnover, whether it’s taking a sack or throwing the ball away. Unfortunately for Newton, that’s not what happens.
On the previous screenshot, you saw tight end Greg Olson breaking open to his left. That appears to be where Newton wants to go with the football. However, Suh gets to him fast, and Newton forces a pass in the direction of Olson, but the ball should’ve never left his hand on this play.
With the ball coming out as Suh is pummeling him, Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy is able to jump high for an interception.
The bad: Sept. 20, 2012, against New York Giants, second quarter, 1:29
Newton’s in the shotgun with Smith split out to his right, three targets to his left and a running back next to him.
The scouting report on Newton, at this time, was to bring pressure. Newton was rushing his throws and unable to handle the blitz. The Giants send six rushers on this play, which rattles Newton a bit.
As Newton’s beginning to throw, he’s standing upright. He doesn’t step into the pass at all, relying solely on arm strength. That’s a characteristic of rushing a throw. It’s not as bad as throwing off of your back foot, but it’s still a fundamental flaw that can affect accuracy. Receiver Brandon LaFell is open on the play, making it a good read.
But the pass itself is the reason why the play winds up in a turnover.
As you can see in the final screenshot, LaFell is reaching back for what should have otherwise been a completion to an open receiver. LaFell can’t bring the ball in and it winds up as an interception.
The good: Nov. 26, 2012, against Philadelphia, first quarter, 6:17
This play shows Newton at his best. The formation has Newton under center with two backs, a tight end and two receivers. From the onset, it looks like a run or a quick pass.
Newton takes a quick three-step drop and looks to his right for LaFell on a "sluggo" pattern. If it’s there, Newton has the option to take it. If it’s not, he extends the play. The Panthers quarterback decides the play isn’t there and continues on.
What makes this play great is that, even though Newton didn’t have Smith as an option, it holds Eagles safety Kurt Coleman on that side of the field. Now Newton drops back another three steps to continue the progression and redirects his vision in the pocket.
From the aerial view, you can see tight end Gary Barnidge breaking wide open down the left seam. With Coleman out of the picture, and Smith drawing cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Barnidge is able to sneak past the linebackers.
The result is a touchdown pass from Newton to Barnidge. Newton executes the play to perfection, showing why he can be a dangerous passer in the NFL.
Newton has the potential to become one of the better quarterbacks in this league. When he remains calm under pressure, he’s tough to defend. However, he has a tendency to panic under blitzes, which can disrupt his fundamentals.
If Newton can improve in this area, there’s no reason that he can’t have the same kind of success he had early on as a rookie. He finished strong in 2012 and should overcome doubts that he won't start strong in 2013.