It’s the ultimate chicken-and-egg game right now in Carolina, but the Panthers aren’t playing it with just any player — they’re playing with the 2015 Most Valuable Player.
It’s a very short list of NFL quarterbacks who have won MVP this century, and they all look (and sound) like all-time greats. Quite obviously, Newton being on a list with Brady, Manning, Favre, Warner, Rodgers and, as of last season, Matt Ryan, is a major accomplishment. And despite his dreadful Super Bowl performance against that incredible Broncos defence, Newton was only 26, had just finished a fifth full NFL season, and seemed poised to continue tearing up the NFL and maybe even revolutionize how we all viewed “running quarterbacks.”
Well, something happened on the way to “legendary” status, and the Panthers suddenly seem stuck with a broken Cam Newton. Now the team is left with two options, neither of which are all that appealing: Keep trotting Newton out there hoping he works out his accuracy and consistency struggles, or give him the time off (maybe the rest of the season) that more and more observers are thinking he may need.
Plenty of quarterbacks have surgeries to repair things and return relatively quickly amidst positive circumstances and results. But Newton’s off-season shoulder surgery, performed in late March, seems to have rendered the former All-Pro a weak and damaged shadow of his former self.
There have been too many Newton throws that have been risky and low-percentage, and not enough big plays to make up for the mistakes. Those now-missing big plays for positive yardage and scores were Newton’s calling card in his first 50–60 professional games.
Now, it’s hardly a lost season for the Panthers, given they’re 2-1 and their defence looks far more like it did in 2015 than it did in 2016. They’ve finally recovered from their mishandling of star cornerback Josh Norman at the end of the Super Bowl season — first franchising him, then releasing him — and star linebacker Luke Kuechly seems as healthy as he’s been since midway through the 2015 season.
But no one can argue the Panthers’ early success is because of Cam Newton. Last week’s dreadful 34–13 loss to New Orleans featured several bad decisions by Newton, leading to a three-interception game for the 10th time in a fairly young NFL career.
For context, Tom Brady has thrown three or more interceptions eight different times in a much longer career, and Aaron Rodgers has done so on only three occasions for the Packers. Newton’s lack of accuracy has often been his biggest criticism, but as mentioned, this year he isn’t counter-balancing it with anything overly positive with either his arm or his feet.
Newton is obviously hesitant to “tuck and run” either spontaneously or by design. Two seasons ago he was averaging more than nine rushing plays a game, racking up 4.8 yards per carry. This year so far, he has just 16 carries and is barely averaging three yards per attempt.
Though Newton doesn’t look himself, having some of his favourite targets go down isn’t helping. Kelvin Benjamin missed most of the Saints’ loss with a knee injury, but is expected to play in Foxboro Sunday. The news isn’t as positive for tight end Greg Olsen, who has a broken foot and was placed on injured reserve.
That leaves Newton even more dependent on rookie Christian McCaffrey, who leads the Panthers with 23 targets and 18 catches, most of which were safe and short connections.
And the next three quarterbacks going against Newton? Tom Brady on the road, Matt Stafford on the road and then back home in Charlotte against Carson Wentz. Is Newton going to outplay any of them? Expectations are now pretty low the rest of the season.
Though New England hasn’t exactly played shutdown defence in their first three games, I’m not sure why we’d expect Newton to suddenly break out of an obvious slump on Sunday. No passing touchdowns the past two weeks and no 200-yard passing games so far this season — it’s clear he isn’t right.
What the Panthers do to get him right, if at all possible, is a really intriguing question the rest of the way as he looks like the worst starting quarterback in his division after Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Jameis Winston. Who in the world could’ve seen that coming 18 months ago, coming off his Super Bowl defeat?