Carolina Panthers: Despite Gaudy Stats, Is Cam Newton's Rookie Season a Failure?
Despite his gaudy stats and the fan base he's helping to resurrect throughout the Bible Belt, Newton's Carolina Panthers are in last place in the NFC South, they have virtually no chance of making the 2012 NFL Playoffs and Newton has thrown nearly as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (11).
Yes, from Cam Newton’s perspective, his first NFL season has been a failure, and he said as much in a November 9, 2011 radio interview with the "2 Live Stews" on Atlanta’s 790 The Zone when asked if he’s surprised with the amount of success he’s had in his first year.
“I always give the same response about, ‘Cam, are you really surprised with your performance?’ Whether it’s a reporter, whether it’s whoever that’s asking me, I’ve asked this question to them: ‘Have you ever put a large body of work into something and expected it just to be OK?’ … So why would I be surprised with my performances right now. If anything, I feel like I’ve failed myself due to this game is about wins and losses. And I’m not hanging my hat on no 2-6 season and we still have an opportunity to change that.” — Cam Newton on 2 Live Stews Radio Show in Atlanta
However, according to most football fans and most of the experts who write and talk about sports, Cam Newton's rookie campaign has been far from a failure.
Instead, it has been one of the most hyped and celebrated rookie quarterback seasons of all time.
So, who's right? Cam or the experts?
Cam Newton's 2011 in the Rear View Mirror
The Carolina Panthers’ rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, has had an eventful calendar year.
Just to get a handle on what has led Newton to this point in his young NFL career, let's take a look back on some of the key events in Cam Newton's football life in 2011.
January 2011—Cam Newton led the Auburn Tigers to a 23-20 victory over the Oregon Ducks in the BCS National Championship game to complete a perfect season after bursting onto the college football scene to win the Heisman Trophy in his only year as a starter at an FBS school.
February 2011—Newton signed the largest endorsement deal ever given to an incoming NFL rookie with Under Armour, surpassing fellow Heisman winner Reggie Bush’s $1 million per year deal with Adidas in 2006.
April 2011—Newton was drafted No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers thanks largely to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck’s decision to return to The Farm for his junior season. Luck was the consensus top pick among draft experts and NFL scouts, and he likely would have been chosen with the first pick in the draft had he gone pro this season.
On April 26, the NFL lockout was lifted for a day after the draft, so Newton met with new Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinki, grabbed a copy of the playbook and committed to studying before the lockout resumed the next day.
May 2011—Newton spent much of the next couple of months learning the Panthers' playbook and training at IMG Academy’s football training facilities in Florida with fellow Heisman-winning quarterback and former Panther, Chris Weinke.
June 2011—Newton took part in player-organized practice sessions at a Charlotte, NC high school, led by offensive tackle Jordan Gross, and practiced with his Carolina Panthers teammates for the first time.
It was during these player-led OTAs when Newton erased any doubts his teammates may have had about his passing skills and ability to digest an NFL playbook.
September 2011—Newton became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 400 yards in each of his first two professional starts and the nation took notice of a kid who was known more for his running ability than his passing skills while in college as a legitimate NFL quarterback.
Newton’s Panther lost both games, but he made a statement that he belongs in the elite fraternity of starting NFL quarterbacks and that he is ready to play, and play well, as a rookie.
The Panthers have continued to struggle, despite being in contention in all but last week's game against the Titans, but Newton has played well and is sixth in the NFL with 289 passing yards per game.
Not a bad start for a rookie.
Defining a Successful NFL Quarterback
There are many factors that define the success or failure of an NFL quarterback’s career.
When it comes to the best of all time, we consider passing statistics, Pro Bowl selections, win totals and Super Bowl victories to determine who will be enshrined and forever remembered in Canton, Ohio.
When it comes to the worst, we normally gauge their productivity against the heightened expectations we had for them when they entered the league.
Some quarterbacks are defined by their longevity and value to a franchise long past their prime while others have a few solid seasons before either flaming out or succumbing to an up and coming talent.
Still others wallow in mediocrity before finding themselves in an ideal situation with a talented team and are given the responsibility of simply steering the ship, managing the offense and minimizing crucial mistakes.
Defining the success or failure of a rookie NFL quarterback, though, is much more visceral and less about results than it is about poise, potential and persona.
It's discovering whether he can lead an offense, make difficult throws and perform in often hostile work conditions.
Most people would not expect a first-year Harvard Law grad to be the lead prosecutor for a multi-million dollar law firm; rather, they would expect her to regularly display the chops that got her there in the first place, and she would be expected to make partner after a few years of hard work and dedication to her craft.
Cam Newton is the football equivalent of a top-ranked Harvard Law grad who took a job at his grandfather's struggling firm.
He displays his brilliance on a weekly basis, but even his genius cannot right the ship overnight.
Rookie Quarterbacks Rarely Succeed
In one of the first articles I ever wrote for Bleacher Report over three years ago, I argued that rookie quarterbacks had no business playing in the NFL.
I wrote then that rookie quarterbacks are typically not ready to play successfully in the NFL and I used former collegiate All-Americans and No. 1 picks Joey Harrington, Alex Smith and JaMarcus Russell as my prime examples.
Instead, I suggested, it is better to bring quarterbacks along slowly and allow them to learn from the sidelines for their first few seasons as the Green Bay Packers famously did with their current All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was then in just his first season as the Packers’ starting quarterback.
Sometimes, though, putting a clipboard in the hands of a first-round rookie quarterback just is not an option, particularly when there is not an established veteran quarterback on the roster who can win games and lead the team while the newbie learns the ropes.
Occasionally, teams just don't have a choice when it comes to playing a young quarterback, and if you have a guy as smart, mature and physically gifted as Peyton Manning on your squad, you can probably get away with starting him early.
But Manning is a once-a-generation type player and the best pure passer since Dan Marino. And even he threw more interceptions (28) than touchdowns (26) in his first year out of a Volunteers uniform.
In those seemingly less rare situations, though, when team executives who have invested considerable resources in one player to be the future of their franchise; when the head coach has no better alternative on the roster; and when the fan base has been cuckolded by the organization and demands change, the rookie quarterback has to play.
Those three criteria apply to the 2011 Carolina Panthers and the organization had no choice to start Cam Newton from the opening game.
Fortunately for the Panthers, Newton has proven that he can play at this level and that the NFL game is not too complicated or fast for him, even as a rookie.
But Sometimes They Do
Cam Newton's rookie season is a failure, but only in the eyes of Cam Newton.
Newton is an established winner who's won big at every level he's played in until now, and his frustration with losing is apparent in every post-game, Monday morning and mid-week interview he does following a Carolina Panthers' loss.
Newton's passion to win, his desire to lead his team to success and his commitment to performing at his highest level each week are noticed and appreciated by his teammates, his coaches and Panthers fans everywhere.
The difference between this season's Carolina Panthers, excepting last week's 30-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans, and the 2010 version has been astronomical, and the key reason for the Panthers' change in attitude and improved performance lies in the hands of their rookie quarterback, Cam Newton.
People are talking about the Panthers again. Fans-in-hiding are coming out of the woodwork. The Carolina Panthers are relevant.
Cam Newton is competing, he's putting up big offensive statistics and he's playing better than any rookie NFL quarterback in recent history.
The only negative, and this is the most important thing in football, is that his team is not winning.
But that's not a Cam Newton thing, that's a Carolina Panthers thing. And as a rookie quarterback coming into a losing program, he gets a free year during which wins and losses can't be held against him.
This is the year that Newton's team can lose and it's really not the end of the world because the Panthers still have plenty of holes to fill and opportunities to improve in the offseason on offense, defense and special teams.
So, I'm sorry to say that Cam Newton's self-assessment is incorrect. His rookie season is not a failure.
And if it is, I hope to one day fail just as gloriously.