CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton walked off of the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., a little over two years ago with a loss in his NFL debut, but left behind a rookie statement and emphatic proclamation that he’d soon be joining the NFL’s quarterback elite.
After that passing debut of 422 yards, the Panthers seemingly had their guy after 16 years of searching for a franchise quarterback.
Newton walked off that same field last Sunday — but this was so much different.
The third-year quarterback threw three ill-advised and rally-killing interceptions. Now, the questions that seemed unfathomabe two years ago are being asked:
Do the Panthers need to bench Newton?
Is Newton really the guy for this franchise to build around?
NBC analyst and former player Rodney Harrison openly said in a broadcast Sunday that he would bench Newton in favor of backup quarterback Derek Anderson.
There’s zero chance of that actually happening, but it reflects the type of year Newton’s having — or not having. He ranks 25th in the league in passing yards per game (221) and completion percentage (58 percent). Even more concerning is the offense, as a whole, ranks sixth worst in the league, putting up only 18.5 points per game.
If the Panthers were 4-0, none of that would matter; but they’re 1-3 and haven’t scored in the second halves of two losses to projected bottom dwellers. Carolina’s only win comes against the 0-6 New York Giants.
“I’m not sure [what second half issue is],” Newton said. “I think it’s more on my behalf that I just got to focus in and hone in on my skill and say, ‘Let me focus more in the second half and get the job done’ because it’s a pointed stat that is very vital. We think if we’re going to make this next step, I have to step up my play in the second half.”
Fresh off undefeated seasons in junior college and Auburn (2010 Heisman winner) and possessing a skill set unseen in the NFL to that point, a number of dual-threat quarterbacks have entered the league over the last three years.
However, Newton remains the only guy in the NFL with a 6-foot-5, 245-pound build, running back speed and elite arm strength.
But when you self-anoint yourself “Superman” and open the chest up like him on every touchdown, you also open yourself up to questioning and critics. You leave an expectation of winning, and Newton hasn’t done that.
The recent losses have fostered an irrational, ludicrous idea like benching Newton. But the 6-10 and 7-9 seasons are stern reminders that Newton’s numbers don’t necessarily lead to victory.
In 2011, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 21 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and 4,051 yards — tremendous numbers that didn’t even include the 706 rushing yards. But the numbers stall there.
In 2012, he completed 58 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 3,869 yards. Through four games, Newton has incurred another dip in production — 58 completion percentage, six touchdowns, five interceptions, 885 yards and a QB rating of just 33.9.
Is Newton still the guy to lead this franchise forward?
“I think so most certainly … Without a doubt in my mind,” head coach Ron Rivera said.
There’s no question about that among teammates, as well. They have seen the improvement in a number of areas and admire his drive to win.
“He’s better in the pocket and more consistent, leadership-wise. He’s the same guy start to finish as the game goes on,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “The guys believe in him, trust him, and the guy’s tough as nails. That’s the one thing I’ll say about him: He takes big hits running the ball or throwing the ball and you never see him limping around or complaining about that.”
Even though Newton was sacked seven times against the Buffalo and six times versus the Cardinals, he still has complete confidence in the offensive line, claiming he should have gotten the ball out quicker or thrown it away at times.
To Gross, the offensive line is more at fault.
That’s the same message Rivera conveys: Outsiders should point the blame at the entire offense, not one position. Rivera admittedly would like to see more consistency from Newton, referencing the first drive of the Cardinals game, his two-minute drive in Buffalo and his overall play against the Giants as the expected standard for each drive.
Those Newtons possessions were electric, succeeding with his feet and arm. That hasn’t been the case throughout the season, though, and the defense has played well enough for wins in each of their four games. The offense simply hasn’t done its share.
“When you access quarterback, you have to access the rest of the team. When Cam is playing well, we’re protecting well, we’re running well, we’re getting open, we’re catching the ball, we’re throwing the ball where it needs to be. When we’re not he doesn’t have the time that he needs or he’s delivering the ball not where it needs to be and we’re not getting open,” Rivera said.
“Has he played better? I think he has at times. He’s just got to continue to work at it and what we’d really like to see is the consistency.”
There are holes on the offensive line, for sure, and the weapons Newton has leave a lot to be desired. But he’s also had issues with overthrows and hasn’t been the threat to run, as in previous seasons. Newton’s only on pace for about 60 percent of his established output.
“I feel like I can be more consistent, whether obvious consistency or just something like carrying out my fake, or putting the ball a little more out on in front of them, or in a position where my receiver can get it or not, making smart decisions. In my position, throwaways are smart,” he said.
“When I go back and look at the game I feel like [offensive coordinator Mike] Shula has enough faith in me if the play’s not there to throw it away or get us into a better play. I didn’t and it showed. That’s something I can work on and I will work on.”The defense has assumed the new identity of the Panthers. They’re even willing to shoulder more of the load, wanting to score more like they were able to during the preseason.
That sounds good, but that’s not a strategy to rely on for the long term. The Panthers scored only seven and six points on the Seahawks and Cardinals, respectively, and their red zone struggles have been especially problematic, in defeat.
Running back DeAngelo Williams fumbled inside the 10 late in the fourth versus Seattle. Graham Gano kicked three fourth-quarter field goals in Buffalo; and against the Cardinals, the Panthers missed a 4th-and-1 inside the Arizona red zone. Plus, Newton was twice intercepted inside the Cardinals’ 35.
“You’re not going to win in this league kicking field goals,” Rivera says.
That’s the gift and the curse: They Panthers been good enough to remain in every game but haven’t been able to finish. When it matters most, the expectation is they’ll will fold up.
“It’s frustrating because of what we can be or what we should be. But the truth of the matter is you are what your record says. That’s what’s frustrating because I really don’t believe we’re a 1-3 football team,” Rivera said. “I think there’s enough good football players in that locker room, they should be infectious.”
That has to start with Newton. He’s their leader now, and there’s no denying his desire to win. So what gives him confidence this offense and this team can right the ship?
“That’s a long-term goal,” he said. “I think right now we have to set personal goals and goals that we feel as if we feel can be attained earlier rather than later. Our No. 1 goal right now is trying to become 2-3.”
To get the win over Minnesota on Sunday, it’ll be a group effort.
Carolina’s hopes of turning it will likely involve Superman being more like Superman … and less like an average NFL quarterback.