Originally written August 10, 2012 on The Sports Headquarters:
I may have been one of the harshest Cam Newton critics coming into last season.  I knew he had talent, it just wasn’t conventional talent that typically translated to immediate NFL success, and I am not afraid to admit when I am wrong. He had a historically good rookie season, putting up gaudy statistics, and winning over skeptics from all over the vast sea of haters known as the internet. Then you look at the wins/losses and maybe you sit back and say, was he really that great? To that I say no, that’s why I said he was historically good, not historically great, and though he did have the big numbers, and award winning smile, he wasn’t winning enough games, which is really what it’s all about. That leads us to our Carolina Panthers 2012 Season Preview, and the question that everyone is asking… What can he do for an encore? What can we expect from Newton this season? What more can be said about Newton’s 2011 season?  Well a lot actually let’s dig into the numbers just a little bit. In the six wins the Panthers pulled out last season the Newton average line looked like this: 191 yards passing per game (1146 yards total), 24 attempts per game, 15.5 competitions per game, 64% comp, 8 TDs, 0 INTs, for a 107.5 QB rating (I know QB rating is not a favorite of many, but it is an effective tool in comparing the same player over a different set of games so we will include it here). Those are very, very good numbers, that show a consistent, effective performance. They may not be as flashy as the other numbers we will see in the losses, but what it allowed to happen was the best 1-2 running back combo in the NFL was able to dominate the ball, slow down the game and let Newton make plays when given the opportunity instead of forcing him to make plays to win games. Why do I say forcing him, well look at the difference in the ten losses? 290.5 yards passing per game (2905 yards total), 37.3 attempts per game, 21.7 completions per game, 58.5% comp (That is a huge drop in accuracy for Newton there of 5.5%), 13 TDs, 17 INTs and a 75.6% QB rating. The Panthers were asking Newton to throw the ball 13 more times per game in losses than in wins, and that means taking away 13 possible carries for the DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart wrecking ball combo. What I want to see from Newton, and more specifically the offensive coordinator this year, is a commitment to letting the running game set up Newton in the passing game and then allowing him to make plays when the defense is on their heels from that ferocious RB combo. If they can find the balance of about 30-32 attempts per game instead of having him throw the ball 45 times one game and then 20 the next to get to those 32 attempts a game on the season, and allow the immense offensive talent they have to all get opportunities, I think Newton may not put up nearly as many yards, but you could see him be a better quarterback overall. Give them the rock! I know I am spending a lot of wordage on the offense of the Panthers, but honestly they are so scary with the talent they have that I think it is only fair that I talk about the running backs as well as the golden boy. To say I was disgusted with the lack of carries that Williams and Stewart received last year would be an understatement. Williams high for a game in carries was 15.  Read that again, the most carries Williams received in a game last year was 15! He had games where he averaged over 12 yards per carry, and in those games only managed 9 carries in one and 7 carries in the other. Then you have Stewart, who had a high in attempts of 14 carries. Stewart also had a game where he averaged over 12 yards per carry, and he too only received 7 carries in the game. I know what Panthers fans are thinking, “We drafted Cam first overall, let him throw the ball around the field and win games for us.”  To that I say… He can’t win games throwing the ball around the field, at least not yet. The strength of the Panthers is still their rushing attack, and the two backs combined for 18 carries a game last year.  No, not 18 carries each, 18 combined carries per game. They aren’t winning more games if they don’t realize that they have two of he most devastating weapons in the league rotting from under use. So give them to rock, and let them carry this team until Newton is fully ready to take over. Where’s the defense at? You know one of the reasons I am sure the Panthers felt the need to give Newton the reigns like they did and let him air it out?  377.6 was the number of yards per game given up by the Panthers last season. That’s an astonishingly bad number, four teams were worse, but two of those teams were the Packers and Patriots, who have quarterbacks that lend themselves to the shootouts. The other number is 26.8, which was the points given up per game by the Panthers. While that number can mean a lot of different things taken out of context, how many of those points were results of short fields as a fault of Newton INTs, the two combined tell the story.  This defense couldn’t stop anyone last season. Enter Luke Kuechly, and a healthy Jon Beason (I know just saying that is horrifying). The Panthers have the potential to have one of the better linebacker units in the NFL, and that is where the defense will begin to make up for last season. While this is without a doubt a passing league, and the Panthers were abysmal at stopping that as well, when you cannot stop the run or the pass, well you have to focus on one. The Panthers, maybe unwisely based on the division they are in, went with the running game. If Kuechly can be the tackling machine he was in college, and Beason can just stay on the field, they should immediately improve to at least middle of the pack against the run. With space eaters Ron Edwards and Terrell McClain occupying blockers up front, and Mr. Everything defensive end Charles Johnson still causing problems, the defensive front seven may not be a weakness anymore. As for the secondary, well that’s a whole other story. Overall:  I love, love, love the offensive talent of the Panthers, but that is partially because I love smash mouth football. If the Panthers are willing to play some of that smash mouth style, and allow Williams and Stewart to grind it out, and then let Cam loose on a wearing down defense, I think we could see a flip of last year. If they go the opposite direction and allow Newton to play like Brees, Brady and Rodgers, well then I think you could see even worse results from last year, but hey at least Newton will have all those yards to show for it.
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