Cam Newton has had his best overall season as a pro in 2013.
Let me start by saying that I absolutely love Cam Newton. I loved him at Auburn, where he strolled onto the field for one year and steamrolled through every challenge that was thrown his way. I love his toothy grin, his Superman touchdown celebration and his unparalleled swagger. You get the point.
But why do I find myself doubting his ability to lead the Carolina Panthers on a deep playoff run?
Remove yourself from the Panthers' remarkable game-winning drive on Sunday, which was capped off by a dramatic touchdown pass from Newton to Domenik Hixon. If you can, try and look past the late-game heroics against the Miami Dolphins and at home against the New England Patriots.
He's struggling against playoff-caliber defenses. I mean really struggling.
Against teams that rank in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense, which includes five of Carolina's 15 games this year, Cam has a combined QBR of 33.9.
Against everyone else? More than twice that: 73.7.
To put Newton's total quarterback rating against top 10 teams in perspective, Drew Brees has a rating of 57.0 in five games, and Russell Wilson falls at 51.5 in six games. Part of this low number can be attributed to the six turnovers that he's accounted for in these games.
But when I review the tape, it becomes quite clear that his comfort level seems to decrease against stiffer competition. He looks rushed, almost frantic at times, and has a harder time getting to his second and third reads.
As a fan of Newton, I've found myself yelling at him through my TV screen on a healthy number of intermediate to deep passes this season. He has an undeniable tendency to get flat with his throws and often puts more zip on his passes than he needs to.
A major component of this is surely NFL experience, but watching the contrast between Newton and Peyton Manning on throws of 15 yards or more is staggering. If Cam puts a bit more air under certain throws, particularly when he has one of his speedy wideouts in single coverage, he could generate even more big plays for the Panthers.
Moving back to the firm statistics, Newton is averaging just 188.6 passing yards in those five aforementioned games. That number is somewhat misleading due to a low collective number of pass attempts. The running game has also had a modest resurgence as of late, taking a bit of pressure off the quarterback.
But there's no way around the fact that they're having a very hard time consistently moving the football.
They had seven three-and-outs as well as a four-and-out in Sunday's win over the New Orleans Saints. Seven! Is this what you want to see from an offense heading into the playoffs? The Carolina defense has been playing at an incredibly high level, but they can only do so much.
Eventually, the offense has to put points on the board.
The Panthers' path through the NFC playoff bracket is littered with elite defenses. The Seahawks, 49ers, Saints and Cardinals (who will need help in Week 17 to get in) are all in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense.
With no playoff experience to fall back on and his inability to get the offense consistently rolling against elite defenses, I don't love his chances of creating an adequate number of scoring opportunities for the offense.
The third-year quarterback has come of age this year, and it's been a lot of fun to watch. Come January, I'll be pulling for him to prove me wrong.
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