Cam Newton Must Elevate His Game for the Carolina Panthers in 2013

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IApril 3, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 30:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after throwing a touchdown pass against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 30, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Cam Newton was all the rage after his 2011 debut, which set NFL rookie records for several statistics.

Naturally, this meant higher expectations for the Carolina Panthers in 2012. When Newton turned in what was in many ways the same performance and results, it was no longer good enough for many of the people who praised his rookie season.

It did not take long for the sophomore slump articles, or for Newton to be passed over by newer, shinier toys like Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.

I never bought into Newton’s rookie season as proof he was a great pro quarterback, and it was the hype built from it that led me to select Newton as the most overrated player heading into the 2012 season.

Hardly anyone will be overrating Newton this offseason, which gives us a perfect opportunity to look at where he continues to struggle. We can also assess if 2012 was even a slump and how he can elevate the Panthers in 2013.

No matter who is ultimately right about Newton, his career continues to present a fascinating example of how players can be judged with such a wide range of thoughts. Still, there will be no talk of fake smiles here—just the facts.

Reality vs. Perception: Newton’s 2012 Was 2011 All Over Again

The perception was that Newton suffered a sophomore slump, but can you be in a sophomore slump if you turn in roughly the same performance from your rookie season that people raved about?

You can if your team is still not winning while other young quarterbacks are breaking your records and leading their team to the postseason.

That’s the reality of what happened to Newton in 2012. While the “zone-read option” and pistol offense were so trendy last season, Newton was already doing much of that as a rookie. It just received more attention because other quarterbacks were doing it more efficiently and for teams that were winning games.

The seasons turned in by young quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick made Newton old news. It was easy to write off Newton as a sophomore slump; facts be damned.

Sure, the Carolina offense fell from No. 5 in points per drive in 2011 (2.26) to No. 12 (1.96) last year, according to Football Outsiders. Newton did not have the flashy, volume numbers, failing to throw for 4,000 yards again and accounting for 27 touchdowns instead of 35. His completion percentage decreased from 60 percent to 57.7 percent.

However, his average yards per attempt was still really good at 7.98. He cut down on his interceptions with a 2.47 percentage compared to 3.29 percent in 2011. His rushing average was higher and he had the longest run of his career (72 yards).

Newton did improve slightly on third downs, crossing the 40-percent threshold while converting third downs on runs 24 times in both seasons. Kneel downs were excluded (one in each season).

In fact, there were an absurd amount of things that did remain consistent from 2011 to 2012. For starters, Carolina started 1-5 and 2-8 in both seasons, with Newton providing nearly the same level of play:

What’s the only real difference? More volume in 2011, mostly thanks to those early games that put his star on the map with back-to-back 400-yard passing performances. Of course, the lockout led to defenses getting rocked league-wide at the start of the year.

Newton has not passed for more than 314 yards in his last 28 starts after throwing for at least 374 yards in three of his first four games.

Newton’s initial hook was that record-setting volume as a rookie. But when other quarterbacks like Luck and Griffin started breaking those records, being more efficient and coming through in the clutch to win games, Newton’s seasons were left in the dust.

Reverse sweeping the Buccaneers and getting swept by the Saints, and you nearly have the same two seasons:

Newton is not beating the good teams, not finishing games late, and his statistics are about league average. Even some of the individual-game feats, like throwing multiple interceptions or having a passer rating over 100, are the same total each year.

Even his passing by length, according to STATS LLC, was very consistent:

Newton did throw short a little more often in 2012, so why the overall decline in completion percentage? The 20 drops were not a huge factor, as that total was the fourth-lowest in the league.

Newton threw 304 passes that traveled 10 yards or less in both seasons. I said to watch his high completion percentage on the passes thrown behind the line (79.6 percent) in 2011 as him inflating his overall percentage.

Sure enough, that number dropped to 66 percent in 2012, which had as much to do with his overall drop in completion percentage as anything.

Newton was actually better on the intermediate throws (11-30 yards) and hit one more bomb (41-plus yards) in 2012, but he struggled with the passes under 10 yards. Those are obviously going to make up the majority of every quarterback’s passes, so it is important to be doing better than Newton’s 62.8 percent.

So if not a slump, then where is the improvement? Newton is one of four quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton) in NFL history to start 32 games in his first two seasons. This makes charting his games nice and clean.

Using ESPN’s QBR, here are Newton’s two seasons with each week’s QBR plotted against each other.

After opposite starts in Week 1, Newton was up and down in 2012 (in red) until about Week 10. Similarly, he started to sustain success around that point in 2011 as well.

Newton’s “hot finish” last season that quieted much of the sophomore slump discussion was really just a four-game hot streak against suspect competition:

  • Week 12: 30-22 win over the Eagles during the “Todd Bowles Movement,” which was a historically bad six-game losing streak where the Eagles allowed a cumulative 142.4 passer rating.
  • Week 13: A 27-21 loss in emotional Kansas City (the worst team in the league), with Newton’s 53-yard completion to Steve Smith coming up eight yards short of the win.
  • Week 14: A 30-20 win over Atlanta, which was probably Newton’s best game of the season.
  • Week 15: A 31-7 win in San Diego; a team that slumped hard after Denver crushed its psyche in Week 6.
  • Then the season finished with wins over Oakland (4-12 and no pass defense) and a New Orleans defense that allowed the most yards (7,042) in NFL history.

So be very careful in placing value on the 5-1 finish Newton and Carolina had last season. Remember, the 2011 Panthers finished 4-2 with a win over the Colts (2-14), a sweep of the Buccaneers (4-12) and a win over Houston (10-6) with T.J. Yates. That did not carry over to 2012.

If you were to take Newton’s 16 games from each season and sort them from worst to best QBR, you get this:

Interesting. Newton had higher highs and lower lows in 2012, but it was essentially the same season in terms of the terrible, mediocre, good and great performances.

Newton’s 2012 was not a slump, but not much of an improvement either, which is still a problem.

Newton’s Continued Struggles

There is a nice irony in Newton’s “Don’t forget 60 minutes of play a day, right?” line from the Play 60 commercial with the little kid badgering him.

If there is any team that forgets NFL games are 60 minutes, it would be Newton’s Panthers, who have mastered the art of the close loss. It is hard to tell if Newton and coach Ron Rivera are really good at their jobs, but have bad luck, or if they are just the ultimate tease that continue to find different ways to fold under pressure.

Carolina’s 6-13 (.316) record in games decided by one score is the worst in the league since 2011 (regular season only).

It gets worse. Newton’s 2-14 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and 2-15 record at game-winning drive opportunities are among the worst records in the clutch ever documented.

A fourth-quarter comeback opportunity is when the offense has the ball in the fourth quarter and is trailing by one score. This table looks at 11 of the worst comeback records (on the left) ever documented, while the same quarterbacks are featured on the right for overall game-winning drive opportunities (minimum of 10 games).

Chris Weinke? Maybe it’s a Carolina thing, though Jake Delhomme was quite good with the game in reach. It is not like rookies or young players cannot excel in these situations.

  • Andrew Luck tied the regular-season record with seven game-winning drives as a rookie. He was 7-3 at game-winning drive opportunities.
  • Robert Griffin III was 3-5 when he had an opportunity in the clutch last season.
  • Russell Wilson was 4-5 at comebacks and 5-6 overall. He had four game-winning touchdown plays in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
  • Even Andy Dalton had four comebacks in 2011 and is 7-10 (.412) overall after two seasons.

As the table from the bottom of this article at Cold, Hard Football Facts shows, rarely does a quarterback with a poor record in these situations in his first two seasons recover to have a respectable mark.

While some of the losses have been out of his control, Newton can go from Superman to scam in one drive. After a 1-8 record as a rookie, Newton went 1-7 overall last season, only erasing an early one-point deficit over the Eagles for Carolina’s lone game-winning drive of the season. In 2011 the only clutch win came against a bad Jacksonville team.

It’s not just about coming back to take the lead, but closing the game in general has been missing in Carolina. The best example was in Week 4 at Atlanta last season. One first down away from a big win, Newton dives forward on a 3rd-and-2 play. He has the first down, but fumbles the ball. Its backward motion costs Carolina a yard and they decide to punt. Situational football is a major weakness for this team.

Cue the Matt Ryan comeback, and Carolina has another close loss. Some simple ball security from Newton and this one’s a win, and it would have been a comeback and game-winning drive for Newton.

A week later Newton was at home against Seattle and trailed 16-10. With a go-ahead touchdown pass waiting wide open in the end zone, he incredibly short-hops the ball into the ground. Chalk up another failed comeback.

For 2011 people blamed the defense, but whether the score is 34-29 or 19-14, Newton’s job remains the same in crunch time. The results have been the same: terrible.

This past season Carolina lost games by scores of 16-10 (Week 1 at Tampa Bay), 16-12 (Week 5 vs. Seattle) and 19-14 (Week 7 vs. Dallas). That’s hardly on the defense. A franchise quarterback finds a way to win games like that. They also do not lose to the worst team in football (Kansas City).

Those losses, along with a blown lead in Chicago, resulted in a 1-6 start, which meant good riddance to the playoff chances. By finishing 7-9, you start looking at those close losses as the small difference between making the playoffs and watching them on TV.

Carolina has been literally a couple of plays away from a 9-7/10-6 season each of the last two years. A record like that has gone on to win the Super Bowl in both years.

For this team to get over the hump, they need better quarterback play in crunch time. Better quarterback play in general will help them avoid playing so many nail-biting games.

Newton is known for being very competitive and hating to lose, but he sure has not done much to prevent the same results for his team.

Newton’s footwork leaves much to be desired. Bad mechanics will often lead to bad throws. Matthew Stafford is another No. 1-overall pick known for this. While not as mobile or elusive as Newton (or most quarterbacks in the league), Stafford still manages to throw more effectively under pressure.

According to STATS LLC, Newton has had passer ratings of just 14.7 (2011) and 26.5 (2012) when passing under pressure over the last two seasons. Stafford was 56.9 (2011) and 30.5 (2012).

No quarterback is going to be very effective under pressure, but Newton’s passing takes a bigger nosedive than most in such situations.

A new offensive coordinator (Mike Shula) may be the change Newton needs right now, though when the game comes down to making a play or not, coaching is only a small part of that result. Newton has to start making the plays that win games.

How Newton Ran and the Rushing Touchdowns He Missed

One thing Newton does often is run with the ball. He even narrowly led the Panthers in rushing with 741 yards (DeAngelo Williams had 737).

But I noted last year his NFL record of 14 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback was largely a fluke due to an inflated amount of undeserved opportunities.

In 2012, Newton ran for eight touchdowns. That is a respectable follow-up season, but it is hardly 14 again, and Newton was still getting a lot of opportunities despite the team signing short-yardage rusher Mike Tolbert.

Of Newton’s 22 career rushing touchdowns, 20 happened on designed runs. That includes 15 of the 16 runs inside the 10-yard line, with distances ranging from just 1 to 6 yards. Only two of Newton’s rushing touchdowns have come from more than 16 yards away.

Again, short touchdown runs by a quarterback are more about opportunity than rushing skill. The 72-yard touchdown run Newton had against Atlanta required skill that few players possess. But these little two-yard plunges? It is padding stats on plays the running backs should be getting.

Newton is not significantly great on such plays, evidenced by his low percentage of touchdowns on carries inside the 10-yard line (kneel downs are excluded and data is regular season only):

Those are seven Super Bowl winners, roughly the top nine or 10 quarterbacks in the league, along with a few interesting comparisons. Let’s just say a lot of quarterbacks would be racking up the rushing touchdowns if their teams called their numbers as often as Carolina does Newton's.

After taking 23 (56.1 percent) of Carolina’s carries inside the 10-yard line last season, Newton was at it again in 2012:

Though still taking an abnormally high 20 (43.5 percent) of the team’s 46 carries inside the 10, Newton missed out on a few touchdowns he would have had in 2011 thanks to the effectiveness of Tolbert, who had seven touchdowns of 1 to 2 yards.

With most of those plays going to Newton in 2011, you see how it could have been another 14-touchdown season for Newton on the ground if the team used him that way. But with how good Tolbert is there, why continue to risk your quarterback?

Newton is a bigger runner than the likes of Wilson, Kaepernick and Griffin, but he still should not be taking as many shots as the running game opens him up to. I looked at those other three quarterbacks in detail for how they run with the ball.

Now let’s look at Newton’s 2012 season and how he ran the ball:

Newton’s official rushing stats are 127 carries for 741 yards. I have 128 because of a play against the Giants in which Newton started to run (for no gain) after doing the zone-read option, then pitched the ball back to Williams for seven yards. Apparently this is not a run for Newton.

He actually did that a second time last season, but this time he was credited for a 1-yard run before pitching it back to Kealoha Pilares for 12 more yards. So two of his 42 carries with the zone-read involved laterals.

Newton compares best to Griffin in that both run via the zone-read option more than other quarterbacks. They also both increase their rushing average more on scrambles than Wilson and Kaepernick.

Though Newton averaged 7.62 yards per carry with the zone-read option (that does include a 72-yard touchdown), there were many times he was too indecisive and held the ball too long, resulting in a bad play. Eighteen of the 42 plays resulted in a gain of no more than 2 yards.

Newton was very dynamic as a scrambler, moving out of intense pressure situations and running for what he could.

There is a very thin line between the dive and the draw for Newton. The draw indicates his first step was backwards, while the dive is a straightforward run after getting the ball. But you could almost combine the two together for Newton based on how he uses them, which is fairly often, especially in the red zone (six touchdowns).

Newton had one failed sneak (Week 2 vs. New Orleans) that saw him try to find a hole to the left on a 4th-and-1 play, but there was nothing there and he tried to lateral the ball back, resulting in a fumble and ultimately a turnover on downs.

Certainly one of the league’s best rushing quarterbacks at 6.38 yards per carry (total with kneel downs excluded), Newton’s 2012 rushing average still trails that of Wilson (6.42), Griffin (7.29) and Kaepernick (8.75).

Newton also trails them in passing efficiency, which can make getting to the NFC playoffs rather difficult with these other dual-threat quarterbacks in the same conference, along with big-time passers like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Tony Romo.

That is why Newton has to take his game to a higher level if he is ever going to lead the Panthers to the postseason.

How Carolina Can Improve in 2013

This third season for Newton will be a crucial one as more of the same should not be accepted. He has to show the improvement you would expect from a No. 1-overall pick.

That does not mean the team will try to move on next offseason, though you can bet Ron Rivera will be out the door with another losing record. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has already left to coach the Browns, so that will be something new for Newton this year with Mike Shula calling plays.

The problem is the NFC South being loaded with two superior quarterbacks—Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are not going away any time soon. Sean Payton will be back to coach the Saints as well. Even Josh Freeman has adequate weapons in Tampa Bay and outplayed Newton twice last year in a season sweep.

But it’s not like the Panthers are not competitive with those teams and just about everyone else they play. The problem has been finishing.

Carolina must find ways to win close games. Instead of having Newton lead scoring drives or drain the clock, it may simply come in the form of adding talent to get ahead earlier instead of being in tight games so often.

Steve Smith is still playing at a high level, but at age 34 he is in the danger zone for wide receivers. He can drop off at any time, making it essential for the team to find a No. 2 receiver who can potentially be a future No. 1. Surely the Panthers can do better than Brandon LaFell, Louis Murphy, David Gettis and Ted Ginn Jr.

The running backs are solid, as is Greg Olsen at tight end, but that big receiver addition will have to be in the draft as Carolina passed on what was available in free agency. In fact, Carolina has done very little at all in this free-agency period.

The defense took a step forward last season, but more talent will have to come in the secondary. Chris Gamble was injured after four games and is now retired. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was a good building-block pick for the defense in the first round last season. The Panthers need to find at least another player of that caliber in this year’s draft to ascend to the top half of the league on defense.

However, it is a quarterback-driven league, and the fate of the Panthers will still rest heavily on Newton’s shoulders. We know he has a unique running ability and has been durable. He can produce big passing plays down the field.

But the other traits of a quarterback and the consistency to make those plays when the team needs them most are still not where they need to be.

Having written enough words about Newton, I will let him wrap this one up. This was Newton from his post-game press conference after his close loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

I sound like a broken record. And I just keep this taste, this vibe, I’m not buying it man, and I don’t know what it is, but something going to have to change. Something going to have to change real fast in order for us to make that next step, because it’s the same old thing—the same old thing.

Some NFL fans were already forgetting Newton after the “same old thing” in 2012. To the dismay of the little boy in that commercial, Panthers fans may not forget him as quickly, but this league that’s all about winning sure will.

The success of other young quarterbacks speeds up the clock on Newton to take Carolina to that next step.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.