Last season’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton, hasn’t enjoyed similar success in his sophomore season. He’s on pace to produce well below his 2011 output and has had his leadership and motivational skills questioned by the media and by fellow teammates.
Through five games, Newton is on pace to finish about 10 percent lower in passing yards, almost 40 percent lower in touchdown passes and see a slight drop in completion percentage as well.
So, what’s going on with Newton this season, and better yet, how does he fix his problems and re-establish himself as an elite quarterback?
First and foremost, Newton has to get right in the head. He’s an athlete with as much physical talent as anyone in the league, maybe even more. But the way he approaches a game from a mental standpoint leaves much to be desired.
During the offseason, Newton was quoted in a Yahoo! Sports article bashing himself for his antics. When asked about his sometimes moody reaction as losses piled up, Newton said:
I was very immature. I'll be the first one to tell you, the pouting and the moping, I kind of overdid it. I know that. I was a bad teammate. I shut off to some people who gave unbelievable effort...That's where I have to mature.
Newton promised to change, to become more of the leader the Panthers need him to be. And during training camp he was every bit the part.
But something changed once Newton and the Panthers hit the field for real. Maybe it was the fact that Newton could handle the upbeat leadership role when nothing was on the line (training camp), but when wins and losses mattered, the level of leadership diminished, maybe even vanished.
Newton still mopes around on the sideline and even pulled himself from the final drive of a game, a lost-cause Thursday night contest against the New York Giants.
A few of his teammates whispered displeasure; Steve Smith even voiced it loud and in public. Newton has to become a better leader, someone who can handle adversity, both on the field and off.
Fixing his off-field antics (the moping, sitting by himself with the towel on his head) is necessary to change, but it might not be as important as changing some of the mental mistakes he makes on the field.
While Newton is a little ahead of pace with just five interceptions compared to six last year at this time, he’s already fumbled as much in 2012—five fumbles, two lost—as he did all last season. The reason why, at least partially, was explained by his head coach Ron Rivera on Monday in the Charlotte Observer. He said:
I think he's pressing, personally I do. He wants to make things happen so much. He's trying very hard to do those things, do the right things. It's all part of him developing as a football player.
Most second-year quarterbacks are still in the mistake-making phase of their career; it’s just the natural progression of a passer. But Newton is wound so tight that any mistake—or more importantly, a string of mistakes—sends him into panic mode, which then leads to shut-down mode.
It’s when Newton shuts down that he’s useless to his teammates. And that’s when mistakes happen. Mistakes like the fourth-quarter fumble in Atlanta that the Panthers recovered, but left them short of a first down and forced them to punt. The ensuing possession was Atlanta’s game-winning drive.
That’s a perfect example of Newton trying to do too much.
What Newton should be doing is exactly what most young quarterbacks focus on—limiting mistakes. Most first- and second-year quarterbacks are told they don’t have to win games, but they can’t lose them. It’s a cliché, but an important lesson.
Newton needs to slow down with trying to put the weight of the Panthers and the city of Charlotte on his shoulders and focus more on simpler accomplishments. There’s no need to “press” and cough up the football on early downs. (Two of Newton’s five fumbles have come on second down.) He needs to avoid those big hits and slide or drop to avoid a hard sack.
There’s no “live to fight another day” in Newton because everything has to be done immediately. Where that might be OK for a veteran passer like Drew Brees or Tom Brady, second-year studs-to-be should play it safe.
I truly believe that Newton is shooting himself in the foot, and his fall from elite status has little to do with skill.
Newton has to do less with the football. He’s got to stop throwing into double and triple coverage because he needs a first down. Live to fight another day, Newton.
He also has to learn to become less frustrated on the field.
We know he's a great dual-threat quarterback, but once we bottle it up and frustrate him, we know he's going to tank a little bit. We were able to do that today.
Every defense game-plans for the opposing quarterback. It’s the nature of the game. But when one of the defense's key strategies revolves around frustrating a passer because he's not mentally strong enough to withstand the pressure, well, that’s bad.
In a perfect world Newton would get help in solving the issues he has in dealing with loss and frustration. And he’d step onto the field and be the leader the Panthers need. A quarterback needs to have a very short-term memory. Mistakes are OK. Mentally checking out when one is made is not.
In a perfect world the Panthers would take away every towel from the sideline. Newton shouldn’t be allowed to hide underneath. Heck, he should try to solve the underlying issue and not want to hide beneath a towel and disappear into his own private world.
In a perfect world Newton would understand the limitations he has as a second-year quarterback and that his team is a not-quite-ready-for-the-playoffs franchise. By better understanding those limitations, he could properly game-plan for doing what he does well. Winning will come after that.
In a perfect world Newton can lose a game and be angry, yet not be distraught. No one likes losing, but Newton seems to think a loss is supposed to hurt him more than anyone else.
And no one sits at his locker under a towel after a tough loss and holds up the team bus. No one spends 15 minutes applying lotion to his legs while the media waits, while the league waits and his teammates wait crammed on a bus.
Most would expect that there are some fundamental “Xs and Os” ways for Newton to get back on track and become an elite quarterback. And there definitely are. (An example would be for Newton to stop throwing deep off his back foot.) But Newton won’t be truly elite and won’t be ready to shoulder the burden he feels he needs to shoulder (imagined or real) until he gets right in the head.
If Newton can change the way he acts, the way he thinks and the way he reacts, then his all-world athleticism will take him to heights only few could imagine.