As the Carolina Panthers have charged to 10 wins in their last 11 games, clinching a playoff spot and needing only to beat the Falcons to secure a division title and playoff bye, there has been a common media meme: Cam Newton is developing into a star quarterback under the guidance of offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Really? I’ve never bought in, and I’m still selling today.
If what Cam has done this year is progress, I’d hate to see regression. To be sure, experience has allowed him to make some smarter decisions – and the team is 11-4. He did lead a stunning drive in just 5 plays Sunday (and one of those was a spike), and he also beat the Patriots with a late TD drive on a Monday night as well. This is awesome, but to me, this is Cam being Cam and running on instinct. What happens in the first 59 minutes of many games, however, is Cam being hamstrung by Mike Shula to be, well, Trent Dilfer.
Allow me to clarify that being Dilfer is awesome – for most guys on the planet. He’s a Super Bowl-winning QB after all, and now a top NFL analyst for ESPN. Dilfer’s life is rarified air, and he’s living the dream. However, two years ago, Cam’s rookie season was being compared to that of Peyton Manning’s – not Dilfer’s. The Panther offense was creative, explosive and dangerous. They were 5th in scoring, 7th overall and 13th in passing. Moreover, Cam was the first rookie to pass for 4000 yards and rush for 700, and ran for more touchdowns than any QB in history. In his first game, he passed for more than 400 yard, crushing all rookie records. As he displayed at Auburn, his astonishing arm, great size and running skills and creativity made him an “undefendable” threat. The Panthers had many problems, but offense and excitement were not among them.
That Cam is rarely seen now, and while there are some areas of mental improvement, I submit it is not on net that positive.
This year, even as Carolina’s incredible defense has propelled the team into the top tier of the NFL, the Panther offense has been pedantic and stale. Cam looks robotic at times. Their offense is 24th over all and 28th in passing. Dilfer’s Raven offense of 2000, considered mere hangers’ on to a team totally carried by Ray Lewis’ defense, was significantly better than Cam’s offense is this season. Instead of allowing Cam to open up a defense with numerous 50 yard lasers downfield a la 2011, he’s now “managing” games by attempting to fire 8 yard bullets on every third and 7. In 2011, Cam generated 66 pass plays of over 20 yards, more than twice the 31 they have this season. Even in his “slump” season of 2012, his arm produced 59 chunk plays.
And yet, with the Panthers rolling for almost three months, and Cam’s sideline demeanor under control, the sports pundits have proclaimed him an improved product. I’m not so sure. In Sundays 17-13 win over New Orleans, the Panthers offense did everything possible to lose the game. They were oh for 9 on third downs, punted 8 times, had a red zone turnover, had 8 “three and outs” – which lead to the Saints keeping the ball for 37 minutes and running 81 plays to 44. Only an heroic effort by the defense, led by the ‘surely that’s a misprint’ figure of 24 tackles by Luke Kuechly, allowed Carolina a chance to win.
And Cam produced on that chance. He was suddenly throwing long lasers. He was working off instinct. He was not “managing” anything, and he was not an over coached robot. He was Cam being Cam. If the Panther’s ever figure out that it’s perfectly okay to have a great defense — and let Cam be Cam at the same time — the Panthers may not be beatable. If they keep Cam under wraps, and over handle him, they will have a short run in the playoffs.