At this time last year, Newton was on top of the world. He was the reigning MVP and coming off a 15-1 season that included a Super Bowl appearance. With the return of Kelvin Benjamin to the league’s highest scoring offense, everyone expected Newton to turn in another strong season.
Unfortunately for us Panthers fans, last year was a disaster.
Newton couldn’t stay upright for more than two seconds, Benjamin disappeared for long stretches, and the offense failed to adapt. On top of all that, Newton battled injuries throughout the year.
After a 6-10 year and more concerns about his maturity and leadership - an issue that is unlikely to go away until Newton wins at least three Super Bowls - Newton and the Panthers might be the biggest wild card in the NFL.
Most media outlets have the Panthers finishing fourth in the division. The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a Super Bowl appearance and are returning the majority of their roster, with additional improvements. Everyone is high on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers young talent on offense. And Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints will always get an extra amount of respect.
As for Newton, he saw his stock slip mightily after last year. He went from being ranked as the best player in the league by his peers to 44th in the annual NFL Network Top 100 list. MMQB’s Andy Benoit, who ranked the 400 best NFL players, listed Newton as the 14th best quarterback, behind Carson Palmer and barely ahead of Jameis Winston.
This year is Newton’s redemption season. A chance to prove that last season was an anomaly and that it’s probably not a good idea to doubt a player who has been the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.
It would be easier to feel better about things if the Panthers weren’t revamping their entire offense. This is where the mystery surrounds Newton.
Since entering the league, Cam Newton has been the same guy: a big arm quarterback and a threat to run on every play. He’s been criticized for his accuracy and penchant for holding the ball too long. For the Panthers and Newton, to be successful in 2017-18, those two things must change.
With the addition of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers are hoping to be more of a quick-strike offense. The big plays will continue to be there for the likes of Benjamin and Greg Olsen, but the focus is now on screens and flares out of the backfield, something they’ve rarely done in the past. The Panthers plan to cut down on designed runs, using quick passes as their run game ala the New England Patriots.
Newton’s ability to adapt to the new scheme will determine Carolina’s fate.
Offseason shoulder surgery and days off in training camp only slow Newton’s progress. He can still study the playbook and read the defense from the sideline, but completing throws he’s never been asked to complete can only happen through live repetition.
Rushing the franchise quarterback would be a mistake. But the more time he misses, the further the offense falls behind.
We’re going to see the true mental make-up of Newton and the Panthers this season. I don’t blame “experts” for overlooking the team given what happened last year and the changes that are expected this year. But betting against Newton has lost people a lot of money over the years.
By Jeremy Lambert
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