Carolina Panthers: 5 Obstacles Keeping Cam Newton & Co. from NFC South Title
Newton, last year's Heisman Trophy winner and this year's leading candidate for NFL Rookie of the Year, has won national championships in the last two full seasons he's played. First, he won the junior college national championship at Blinn College, and then the NCAA BCS national championship at Auburn earlier this year.
Plain and simple, Cam Newton is accustomed to winning and he is doing all he can to make the Carolina Panthers the team to beat in the NFC South.
But NFL football is a team game and Cam Newton cannot lead the Carolina Panthers to the top of the division—no matter how gaudy his stats and no matter how super his heroics—without a little help from his friends.
Here are five challenges facing Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in their quest to rule NFC South.
Challenge No. 1: Overcoming the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers
The Carolina Panthers’ NFC South rivals, the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, each won at least ten games in 2010 with both the Saints and the Falcons making the NFL Playoffs.
The NFC South is among the most competitive divisions in the NFL again in 2011 with the Saints (6-3), Falcons (5-3) and Buccaneers (4-4) all winning at least half of their first eight games.
The Panthers held fourth quarter leads in each of their divisional games this year against the Saints and the Falcons, but they came up short both times.
New Orleans’ quarterback, Drew Brees, led a time-consuming drive late in the fourth quarter which culminated in the Saints’ winning touchdown with just over a minute left in the game in New Orleans’ 30-27 Week 5 victory in Charlotte.
Cam Newton played his worst fifteen minutes of professional football the following week in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons. His costly turnovers and inability to move the ball in the final period helped Atlanta team turn a 17-14 deficit into a 31-17 win.
The Panthers have four divisional games remaining this season, including two games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they will likely be the underdogs in all four divisional games.
Newton told reporters earlier this week that the Panthers are ready to "flush out the nonsense" and bring in a new attitude for the upcoming games, but they will need more than just a winning attitude to win. They will need to execute on every play.
Challenge No. 2: Ball Control and Finishing Drives
The Carolina Panthers don’t have any trouble moving the ball down the field.
That much is evident in the Panthers' offensive numbers. The Panthers currently rank fifth in passing offense (285.5 yards per game), eighth in rushing offense (129.6 yards per game) and fifth in total offense (415.1 yards per game).
However, the Panthers’ 23.1 points per game scoring average rank 16th best in the NFL.
The Panthers’ greatest offensive struggles in the first half were protecting the football and finishing drives.
The Panthers have improved at finishing drives with touchdowns as the season has progressed, but they are still slightly below average in the red zone despite having “Double Trouble”—DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart—in the backfield. Their big quarterback, Newton, has run for seven touchdowns and they have one of the league’s top receiving tight end tandems in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, so there is no reason the Panthers should not be among the NFL's best at finishing drives other than poor execution.
Cam Newton must continue protecting the football. He only had one fumble and zero interceptions in the last two games after throwing nine interceptions in the Panthers’ first six games.
Also, he needs help from his Panthers teammates to get the ball into the end zone more consistently at the end of long drives if the Panthers are going to become an NFC South power.
Challenge No. 3: Stepping Up the Defense
The Panthers are currently ranked 18th in total defense, but they are 28th out of 32 teams in scoring defense, giving up nearly 26 points per game.
The Panthers defense has been decimated by injuries this season, particularly to its linebacker corps, and it has affected their ability to stop the run, with teams pounding the Panthers on the ground to the tune of 133.2 yards per game.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers offense can continue to improve and become a top-ten scoring offense by the end of the year, but nothing the Panthers do with the ball will matter if the Carolina defense can't keep their opponents out of the end zone.
Challenge No. 4: Special Teams and Field Position
Simply put, the Carolina Panthers' special teams play in 2011 has stunk.
The problems haven't just been on the kickoff and punt coverage teams, where the Panthers have given up several long kickoff returns and a pair of punt returns for touchdowns to the Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson and the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester.
The Panthers' special teams futility extends to the kickoff and punt return teams, which have failed to improve Carolina's field position.
Football is a game of field position, and the Panthers are seemingly always facing an uphill battle in which Cam Newton and the Carolina offense play on a longer field than their opponents.
If Armanti Edwards or Kealoha Pilares could shorten the field for the Panthers's offense and extend it for the defense at least once or twice a game with a significant kick or punt return, it would likely be worth at least three points on each side of the ball.
In a season in which nearly all of Carolina's games have come down to the wire, a few more points for the offense and a few less points allowed by the defense, can certainly translate into wins.
Challenge No. 5: Get More Weapons
The Carolina Panthers are able to move the ball up and down the field as well as any team in the NFL, but they need more play makers who can get the ball in the end zone, whether from long range or inside the red zone.
Steve Smith is the Panthers' best playmaker and he can stretch the field as well as nearly any wide receiver in the NFL, but his big gains do not always translate into touchdowns and he is too small at 5'9" to be a formidable red zone option.
Cam Newton needs a big-bodied target along the lines of Randy Moss, Plaxico Burress or Calvin Johnson who can out-muscle, out-position and out-jump his defenders in the end zone. Otherwise, the Panthers will continue to move the ball between the twenties, scoring as many field goals as touchdowns.