Newton’s inconsistency costs Panthers once again

Along with two touchdown passes, Cam Newton fumbled and threw two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.

Kirby Lee/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There Carolina stood at the Seattle 13 in the late stages of the fourth quarter of an NFC Divisional playoff game Saturday night. A touchdown by the Panthers would make it a one-score game and keep alive their hopes of a win.

On that drive to get inside the Seattle red zone, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was throwing with laser-like precision to lead his team down the field in quick fashion. He was 4-for-5 for 46 yards. It seemed relatively likely that the Panthers would get the touchdown.

However, then came the problem that has plagued Newton the entirety of his four-year career: wild inconsistency.

Upper echelon quarterbacks in the NFL all have the same thing in common when it comes to performance. For the most part, you pretty much know what you’re going to get from pass to pass and series to series. There usually isn’t guessing.

With Newton, it’s been anybody’s guess. 

On that all important drive late in the game, Newton was quintessential Newton.

After leading the team to the doorstep of the end zone, Newton took the snap out of the shotgun, looked briefly to his left then turned to his right, where he stared down tight end Ed Dickson, and threw as hard as he could toward the right sideline. Only problem was Seattle strong safety Kam Chancellor was waiting for such a throw. 

Chancellor stepped in front of Dickson to intercept it and raced 90 yards for the touchdown to all but end the game and advance the Seahawks into the NFC Championship Game.

That one series singlehandedly summed up Newton’s career thus far. He makes good plays followed by inexplicable plays. One needs to look no further than what he did last week against Arizona, when he routinely threw off his back foot and missed wide open targets with regularity.

Last season, Newton received a lot of praise for his performance even though he ranked 16th in each of the following categories: yardage, completion percentage and quarterback rating. 

And that was his good year. 

This season he’s 29th in completion percentage (58.5), 26th in passer rating (82.1) and 21st in yards per game (223). 

Newton is big and strong and can throw the ball through a brick wall. The problem is you just aren’t sure which brick wall the ball’s going to go through. And that is a key reason why this Carolina offense has struggled all season.

Yes, the offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL for two-thirds of the season and the wide receivers are nothing to write home about. But those same excuse-makers said the exact same things last season about former Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell.

During his time with Newton as his quarterback, LaFell was ripped constantly because he never caught more than 49 passes in a season and never more for than 677 yards and five touchdowns. In his first year in New England with Tom Brady, LaFell put up career-bests with 74 receptions for 953 yards and seven touchdowns. 

All along, it looks as though it was the quarterback and not receiver.

It could be that this is as good as Newton gets. Maybe this is who he is. Maybe he doesn’t make those around him better, but rather needs others to make him better.

The point of it is, it’s very difficult to rely on a quarterback to win a game throwing when you have nearly as good of a chance as the pass being a bad one as it is a good one. 

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman apparently understands this. Back in July of 2013, Gettleman was asked by a reporter if Newton was the quarterback to build this team around. Before answering, the newly hired executive gave a seven-second pause that was heard around Charlotte and the Carolinas. He eventually said yes, but that pause spoke volumes.

While other young quarterbacks are signing newly extended contracts, Newton has yet to do so. Newton is in the final year of his $22 million rookie contract. The team has already picked up the option for 2015, which means Newton will get roughly $14.6 million next season. 

Whether or not he’s offered a contract extension may very well depend if Newton has progressed or regressed, like many said he did this season. 

Follow Brett Jensen on Twitter at @BrettJensenFOX