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Panther Problems

The dilemma with the Carolina offense isn't Cam Newton — it's everyone but Cam Newton

It’s open season on quarterback jobs that before the season seemed locked up for years to come. Matt Schaub is on the scalding-hot seat in Houston. Eli Manning is not about to be benched in New York, but his awful start to the season has raised questions about how long he’ll remain the starter. And down in Carolina, the local faithful are beginning to stir for the head of Cam Newton, the former first overall pick who appears to have stagnated at quarterback for the Panthers. After a three-interception performance against the Cardinals in an ugly 22-6 loss last Sunday, the buzz about Newton losing his job began to build on local sports radio and Twitter. Those are admittedly two of the worst places in the world to look for coherent, logical opinions, but it’s fair to say that a notable subset of Panthers fans aren’t satisfied with Newton’s play.

To them and those worried about Newton’s development: chill. This is probably going to work out, because Newton is playing pretty well right now, just as he has over the course of his pro career. And even if Newton doesn’t end up being the long-term answer in Carolina, consider that the guy who would be picking up the starting duties for the Panthers would be one Derek Anderson. You know, the guy who is last in completion percentage and passer rating and third-to-last in yards per attempt among passers with 1,000 attempts or more since he joined the league in 2006. The guy who lost jobs to Brady Quinn, John Skelton, and Max Hall the last time he got NFL reps. Did Panthers fans see what Mike Glennon did for the Buccaneers and decide they needed a more mature, less-promising version to take over their team? Newton could be the Wayne Brady to Josh Freeman’s Dave Chappelle and he would still be a better choice at quarterback than Anderson. So throw that idea away.

It does seem like a good idea to establish just where Newton is right now in his career. A lot of the negativity involving Newton points to his team, which is perpetually disappointing, and uses that to paint Newton with the same brush, but things are far more complex. Newton is not a finished product, but he also hasn’t been placed in a situation that is particularly amenable to success. It might take fixing that base around Newton to get the sort of success Panthers fans were hoping for when they drafted him, and by the time Carolina does that, it’ll have to make a big bet on Newton’s future.

Let’s start with that game from last week, because it’s instructive in figuring out how doubters might perceive Newton. His three interceptions last week were, to be fair, not great throws. He underthrew Steve Smith on a go route,1 was robbed by a hidden Daryl Washington, and was hit in his motion for a meaningless late-game pick from Karlos Dansby. That’s two bad throws and a third play when he should have gotten the ball out quicker.

That’s not great, but remember that Arizona had the league’s second-best pass defense a year ago, and while it’s down at 15th this year, last week was the first game back for Washington, its star linebacker, who was returning from suspension. It’s a tough team to play. With two of those interceptions taking place in the red zone and Newton also taking a safety, skeptics decried his situational football awareness.

With that being said, consider Carolina’s first drive of the game. Newton marched the team 70 yards downfield by completing five consecutive passes, and on the final third down of the drive, he lined up on the 4-yard line and Smith did this:

On the first play of Carolina’s next possession, Smith did this:

Then, a couple possessions later, Newton was surprisingly stuffed on a long third-and-1 try and Ron Rivera actually went for it on fourth-and-inches. The Panthers went with play-action, and you’ll never guess what Brandon LaFell did:

That’s a touchdown, a first down with plenty of yards after the catch coming, and a fourth-down conversion in the red zone, all dropped by receivers whom Newton hit in the hands. Every quarterback deals with drops, but this was a particularly brutal set of drops, costing the Panthers 10 points early in a game when Arizona’s offense was awful.

That’s where the faulty supporting cast around Newton starts: those receivers. For three years now, we’ve known the Panthers have needed to upgrade the receiving corps. Smith is tough as nails, but he’s 34 and likely stretched as a starting wideout. He wasn’t supposed to be the no. 1 guy by a significant margin at this point. The receivers around him have been players who didn’t make it off special teams elsewhere in the league, guys like Legedu Naanee, Louis Murphy, and Ted Ginn. LaFell has settled in as the starter next to Ginn, but he’s a raw player who has failed to exhibit many signs of refinement, even after starting 24 games as a pro. Tight end Greg Olsen is a competent starter, but everyone here is stretched into a role they’re not good enough to handle. Smith would be a great second wideout, but he’s a below-average top wideout. Olsen would be an excellent safety valve and occasional seam-splitter, but here he has to do his bad impression of Owen Daniels. LaFell would be a fifth wideout on some teams. Ginn wouldn’t take offensive snaps for half the league. That’s not the case in Charlotte.

Carolina hasn’t been able to add to Newton’s supporting cast for fiscal reasons; ex–general manager Marty Hurney sunk the team into salary-cap hell with a number of enormous contracts before Newton arrived, and it has been over the cap each of the past two offseasons, forcing the Panthers to restructure deals and even let players go to get under the mandated cap. Hurney drafted two wideouts while he and Newton were still in town together, but 2011 fifth-rounder Kealoha Pilares is on injured reserve, and 2012 fourth-rounder Joe Adams caught just one pass before being released. New general manager Dave Gettleman needs to acquire a superior weapon for Newton to work with, but he’s had to balance the checkbook before doing so. As I’ll get to in a bit, the checkbook also has a major transaction on the way.

It’s also fair to say Newton isn’t currently in the best coaching situation available. While Colin Kaepernick gets to study under Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck works with his former Stanford offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, Newton is stuck fighting with coaches who appear insistent upon playing against his strengths. Some of Newton’s success during his rookie season is unquestionably owed to then–offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who implemented the read-option as part of the Carolina playbook to ease Newton’s transition into the NFL. A year later, it swept the league by storm with its success in Washington and San Francisco, but the Panthers spent the second half transitioning to a more conventional offense, a path they further traveled after Chudzinski left for the head coaching job in Cleveland and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula took over. The traditional scheme Shula set out to run was so boring and blasé that they’ve had to implement read-option plays just to give the offense a boost.

Shula’s boss might be the biggest reason why Newton is struggling to win over the fans. I’ve written many times about how Rivera’s conservative nature has cost the Panthers late in games, most recently in the Week 2 loss to the Bills. The Panthers are a whopping 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less with Newton and Rivera in town, and while Newton isn’t immune to the occasional bad pass late in games, there are several contests amid these 16 that simply aren’t Newton’s fault. There’s the loss to the Bills this year, when Rivera spurned a game-sealing fourth-and-1 at the end of the fourth quarter to punt and let his defense hold up. They gave up a game-winning touchdown with six seconds left. That wasn’t much different from the Falcons game in Atlanta from the previous year, when the Panthers held the lead deep in the fourth quarter with a chance to seal things, only for the Panthers to punt and promptly give up a game-winning touchdown less than two minutes later. If Rivera were making optimal decisions deep into the game, they wouldn’t be this bad in close contests. And if they weren’t this bad in close games, the fans wouldn’t be anywhere near as hard on Newton as they might be right now. They might have had a 9-7 team last year and a 2-2 team right now. They would have seen a team with a steadily improving record and projected that onto Newton instead.

The quantitative truth is that the output of Newton’s game really hasn’t changed very much since his rookie season. His completion percentage is a little below-average, coming in 57.5 percent this year after finishing right around an even 60 percent during his rookie season, but he makes up for it in a more subtle way. Newton produced 7.9 passing yards per attempt during his first two seasons in the league; over that time frame, only Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees produced more yards per pass attempt. Those are pretty lofty heights. Newton is down to 7.0 yards per attempt this year, while his sack rate has spiked to 10.6 percent. That’s a four-game sample that pales in comparison to the previous 32 contests, but it’s something to watch for as the season goes along. And while he had three interceptions Sunday, Newton had only two picks through his first three games. It seemed like a bad day, and even then, a bad day spurred on by bad work from the receivers.

So, let’s say Newton plays better against the Vikings and nobody bothers him about the job thing for a while. After this season is up, the Panthers will have to start figuring out whether they want to commit to Newton in the long term, and there will be virtually no road map upon which to base a new deal. Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, was in the first draft class that signed under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, which drastically cut rookie contracts and changed their structure. Instead of receiving in excess of $50 million guaranteed, as the Rams paid Sam Bradford in the final draft under the old CBA, Newton’s rookie deal promises him only $22 million over four years.

Once the 2013 season is up, Newton’s representation will be allowed to open negotiations on a new contract with the team. That will come between the third and fourth years of his deal; while Newton’s contract runs out following the 2014 season, the Panthers have a team option that would allow them to sign him on a one-year extension for the 2015 season, at the rate of the average cost of the league’s top 10 quarterbacks. Otherwise, the Panthers will need to agree to terms on a long-term deal for Newton before he hits free agency.

It remains to be seen what that contract will look like. To some extent, your current contract value in the NFL is dictated by your draft class and previous salary, but this is an extreme case. While the likes of Matthew Stafford got mammoth “second” contracts because their rookie deals were already so large, there’s no obvious need to push Newton’s compensation to that level. The Panthers could try to establish a new class of draft players by offering Newton a deal that’s somewhere between his rookie deal and the second contracts offered to the Staffords of the world. The league certainly hopes that’s the case, since such a move would save franchises tons more money over the next set of deals for their young talent. I suspect that it’s a line the Panthers will try to toe before giving up; Newton’s just too valuable, and he’ll look better a year from now than he does today. Panthers fans would be well advised to wait on Newton; he’s the guy holding up a middling offense, not the other way around.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, Carolina Panthers, People, Teams

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell