Panthers Are Cam’s Team
August 29, 2013
All the quarterback talk around the NFL this summer has centered around second-year signal-callers: Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. It seems like the name Cam Newton no longer draws any attention.
Before everyone rushes to put the just-mentioned quartet into the Hall of Fame, they may want to take a step back and look at Newton’s numbers as a rookie. You may recall Cam was absolutely sensational as a rookie in 2011, throwing for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 706 yards and another 14 scores. His numbers last season were actually very similar, 3,869 yards and 19 touchdowns passing, 741yards and eight touchdowns rushing. None of guys I spoke of earlier can match those numbers.
Take the numbers out of it though and I can understand why Newton is slipping out of the limelight. He and the Panthers are not winning games like Luck, Kaepernick, Wilson, and RGIII.
This can change in Year Three. If Newton can recognize his superstar tools, the Panthers now have additional strengths, at running back and on the defensive front, to contend every week. But the change can also go the other direction. If Newton does not improve his consistency, especially in the fourth quarter and in close games, the Panthers have weaknesses at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield that could hold them back.
The optimism around Charlotte seems guarded at best this year. There is clearly pressure on third-year head coach, Ron Rivera. One would have to think that he has to make the playoffs in 2013 to keep his job.
Rivera’s background is on defense so he will likely count on his defense to keep the Panthers in games before relying on Newton to win them. Carolina turned to the draft again to pick up its defense. The Panthers need first-round pick Star Lotulelei to be an actual star on the defensive line. Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly is already one of the best linebackers in football.
Kuechly and Lotulelei should pressure opposing offenses enough to allow the Panthers’ primary weakness in 2012, the secondary, to improve. Carolina could not stop anyone’s passing game late in games and it cost them many close games. The defensive backs, and the coaches, were afraid to give up the deep ball so they played soft.
Result, teams went up and down the field against the Panthers’ defense.
There will be some changes within Carolina’s defensive backfield. Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore, and Mike Mitchell. All three could end up starting and will definitely create more competition for playing time. Rivera is looking for more pass rush to take some pressure off of his secondary. Kuechly clearly leads the linebacking corps. He will be in the middle and will be flanked by Thomas Davis and Jon Beason. There was once a time when the future of Davis and Beason was as bright as Kuechly’s.
However, Davis missed 39 games from 2009 to ’11 with a trio of ACL tears. Beason, over the last two years, has missed 27 games thanks to a 2011 torn Achilles and simultaneous knee cartilage damage and shoulder labrum tear in 2012. Both veterans are still very capable of making stops in run defense and short-area coverage. If both can manage to stay healthy within the same season, Davis and Beason can help make this the top linebacking trio in football.
Newton and the Panthers’ offense has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Shula. He may be the only change because the personnel is basically the same. Newton is going to have to make his teammates better. Often injured Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are back.
Carolina has actually been fortunate that it is rare that both miss games during the same week. This season, Stewart will start the season as the injured back and Williams will begin as the healthy back.
Steve Smith, at the age of 34, is still the team’s number-one receiver. The Panthers seem to be looking for a compliment to Smith virtually every year. This season is no different. As has been the case since Muhsin Muhammad left, Smith will basically have to go it alone as none of Carolina’s other wideouts strike fear to opposing defenses. Fourth-year man Brandon LaFell finally showed promise early last season. Still, at season’s end, he only accumulated just 677 receiving yards. Hardly the numbers one would expect when Smith garners so much attention. Even with all the attention sent Smith’s way, he caught 73 passes for 1,174 yards. Tight end Greg Olsen is back after finishing second on the team with 69 receptions and 843 yards last season.
Protecting Newton will be an above average offensive line centered around Pro Bowl veterans Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil.
Most of the concern about Newton has pertained to his leadership.
Beyond the captivating smile, critics keep talking about how the 24-year old sulks when things do not go well and is arrogant when things go well. It is true that the face of a franchise would be better served to display consistent behavior to his team and his fans.
I see Newton taking positive strides with his intangibles this season.
Remember, he is only 24 years old. It is time for him to take the next step and find ways to win games. That is what the great ones do. And they do it by making their teams better.
Bottom line with me. I do not think it would be shocking if the Panthers gave us a worst-to-first type story in 2013. There are always one or two of those types of stories in every NFL season. I do think it is unlikely, however, as the weaknesses that have plagued this team the past few years, at defensive back and at receiver, still exist.
However, the NFL is becoming more and more a quarterback’s game and Carolina has one of the most talented ones in the league.