Clark Kent and Superman were two very different individuals in the public eye. While Kent the journalist used his typewriter and wit to dig up dirt and break stories, all the while hiding behind his glasses, Superman swooped in just in time to save the day.
It’s not a secret that Cam Newton is Superman on the football field.
He rewrote the NFL record book as if he held stock in an eraser company. The all-time rookie record for passing yards (Newton finished with 4,051) fell. So did the rushing touchdowns (14) for a quarterback mark and the combined passing and rushing touchdowns (35) record. Newton also became the first NFL quarterback to throw for consecutive 400-yard games in the first two games of his professional career.
There’s no reason to keep the two personas separate. But while Newton does all the work to set the Panthers up for success, the football version of Superman rarely shows up to seal the deal when the team needs him.
In fact, in Newton’s 33 games as a professional quarterback in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers, he’s only won 13 games.
To continue with the movie Superman versus the NFL Superman analogy, Newton’s low win total through the first two seasons and one week of his NFL career is akin to movie Superman only beating Lex Luthor 40 percent of the time.
That’s not right.
Movie Superman wins all the time. And while it’s impossible for NFL Superman to have such a success rate, it’s about time for Newton to don the red superhero cape and win more than he loses.
Why has that been so difficult for the third-year quarterback?
When Newton was selected as the first pick in the 2011 draft, he didn’t arrive in Charlotte as a polished quarterback. In fact, the lockout forced him to hire help and work on his own to get ready for the NFL, according to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer.
Newton worked out in Florida at IMG Academies the summer before his rookie season with former Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke and a slew of NFL and college receivers. He wasn’t allowed to work out at the team facility because of the lockout and wasn’t permitted to get input or assistance from Carolina’s coaching staff.
Newton had the Carolina playbook and looked to Weinke and former NFL quarterback Ken Dorsey for help:
Weinke and former NFL quarterback Ken Dorsey, a member of Weinke's IMG coaching staff, watch each throw and offer suggestions on Newton's footwork, keeping his shoulders level, etc.
Dorsey, who played for Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski at the University of Miami and with the Browns, occasionally will discuss specific elements of the design of a play with Newton.
Weinke said he has made only minor tweaks with Newton's mechanics and has been impressed with the way Newton has approached the sessions in Bradenton.
Those minor tweaks to Newton’s mechanics aside, there have been two differing camps to the debate on whether or not Newton’s mechanics are bad.
Prior to the 2011 draft, Trent Dilfer watched Newton work out and predicted NFL scouts would drool over Newton as a passer and he’d skyrocket up draft boards, as reported by Tim Graham of ESPN:
The ceiling is so astronomically high for this player, Cam Newton, that the scouts, the GMs, the coaches are really going to be slobbering about the prospects of having him on their team.
Dilfer said the ball jumped out of Newton’s hand, his arm was powerful and from head to toe, Newton showed balance and “great foot energy”:
The third thing is that he has quarterback-passer DNA, and that's the thing we weren't sure about him because he was such a great athlete. This is a guy that in his workout threw about 30 very challenging throws, and each one of those throws he kept his eyes down the center of the football field, spun his eyes back to the perimeter and delivered the ball early with anticipation. This is a gifted, gifted passer.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk spoke with former NFL quarterback Jack Trudeau, who said Newton’s mechanics “suck”:
I love his arm. But his mechanics suck.
Trudeau explained that it was the mechanics and not timing issues with unfamiliar receivers that hurt Newton at the Scouting Combine. Trudeau also believes that Newton showed similar mechanical flaws at his media-only session.
Those mechanical flaws? Well, that also depends on who you ask.
ESPN’s John Keim noticed that Newton was tipping his hand in the zone-read passing game.
Broadcasters frequently allude to the fact that Newton locks onto his receivers, giving defenses an extra split second to make a move toward the intended target. Newton is also repeatedly trashed for footwork issues and release mechanics. But as Peter King of Sports Illustrated puts it, he must fix his mechanics because, “Newton’s innately quick, powerful, compact delivery is too special to be flawed.”
There’s not any one magical fix that Newton can make that will allow him to make the transition from potential elite talent to Superman. There’s no phone booth for Newton to step into and quickly change into his tights.
That’s possibly a good thing, though. When it all comes together, it could be a “light-switch” moment for the quarterback. One day, maybe that phone booth door opens, and Newton’s version of Superman will emerge.
The Offense Was Too Burdensome
Last season, the Panthers made a conscious decision to pare down the playbook and give Newton more of an opportunity to master a smaller section of the tome.
When Carolina played the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 12, Newton not only enjoyed the freedom of less complicated play-calling, but he started calling out audibles at the line of scrimmage, according to the Charlotte Observer:
One thing he did do a little bit more of yesterday was change a couple plays at the line of scrimmage. I think he’s starting to get comfortable with those things. As he improves and learns those things, I think he’ll get better and better.
The Panthers only lost once after Week 12, and Newton’s yards-per-game average rose from 217.72 to 245.6.
Not Enough Talent
Even though center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer guaranteeing a Super Bowl win for the Panthers in 2012, the truth was the team wasn’t quite ready from a talent standpoint.
Without a true No. 2 receiver to take pressure off Steve Smith and a defensive backfield that left a lot to be desired, Carolina just didn’t have the tools to keep up with the playoff-caliber teams in the NFC.
Carolina’s linebacker corps has been good for some time. Now that the unit is healthy, it could be one of the best in the NFL. With the way general manager Dave Gettleman beefed up the interior of the defensive line in this year’s draft, it’s going to become harder and harder to move the ball on the Panthers.
Carolina ranked fifth in the first week of the 2013 season, allowing just 2.7 rushing yards per attempt.
But this is as good as it’s been since Newton arrived in town. And the talent pool still has to get better around Newton for the Panthers to climb to the double-digit win plateau.
What else do the Panthers have to do to succeed? Where does Newton have to improve?
With all the talk about Superman, don’t think crazy thoughts when you hear this next statement: The Panthers do better as a team when Newton has zero turnovers than when he throws for 300 yards or more or is directly responsible for three or more touchdowns.
Newton is supposed to be Superman. He’s supposed to be able to put this entire team on his back and carry it to victory. It’s actually when he uses his super strength to hold onto the football that his team benefits the most.
Newton has played in 14 games during his career where he’s either thrown for 300 yards or had a hand in three or more touchdowns (any combination of rushing plus passing) in a game. The Panthers are 4-10 in those games.
There have been 13 games where Newton hasn’t turned the ball over, either with a fumble or by throwing an interception. When Newton stays mistake-free, the Panthers are 10-3.
Newton stayed mistake-free last week against the Seattle Seahawks, but Carolina came out on the losing end. It’s possible the Panthers shouldn’t have, and a turnover—even though it wasn’t a Newton turnover—was partially responsible. No one’s pointing fingers at running back DeAngelo Williams, but his fourth-quarter mishap was a brutal step of misfortune.
Turnovers are frequently harbingers of death. Newton’s success—or lack thereof when he’s offensively fantastic but coughs the ball up—when he maintains possession is incredible. One day soon, if everything does fall into place for the quarterback, Newton will be able to win games with just his athletic gifts and Man of Steel persona.
Until then, Newton must hold onto the football.
Keep It Simple (I’m Not Calling Anyone Stupid)
When Smith, the Panthers' all-time leading receiver, called out the offensive play-calling last season, instead of being vilified for airing dirty laundry, he was applauded.
According to Terry Blount of ESPN, Smith spoke his mind on a conference call with the opposing team’s media on Sept. 4.
He accused former offensive coordinator and now-Cleveland Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski of “positioning himself” for a new coaching gig by expanding the playbook and showing off on offense. Those moves ultimately hurt the offense, according to Smith:
At times, we got cute. We did things that weren't necessarily us, like the underutilizing of [running back] Mike Tolbert. But we're out of that. The past is the past.
I think Coach Shula is going to change things up, and he has so far. He just does little different things. Some of it looks small, but we're focusing more on the details, and that's the difference.
Smith has confidence in Mike Shula, the new offensive coordinator. Apparently, Shula is going to focus on more of a power-running game and wants to help Newton move the ball on offense through the air by utilizing the quarterback's strengths, not the coordinator's.
Newton has all the talent in the world. He might even be the most athletically gifted player in the NFL, a real Superman. But he’s yet to display all his gifts at once or shown the ability to alter the outcome of a game with just his skills alone.
Newton is wildly inconsistent from one week to the next, and finding a rhythm for a long stretch of games is a tall task.
With the assistance of his coaching staff, Newton made an adjustment last season, and he shined in the final six games of the season. With scheme and personnel changes this season, Newton should take another step. And it can’t be too long before Newton gains confidence and finds the answer key to his mechanical issues as well.
The personal Kryptonite that’s held Newton to a 13-20 record to start his career will soon disappear. It’s either simply going to vanish because of Newton’s experience, or something will click with the otherworldly talented quarterback to force a phoenix-like emergence.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.