Originally written on The Rhino and Compass  |  Last updated 11/18/14

When I woke up this morning, on the couch after falling asleep to the 3AM SportsCenter, Stephen A Smith was yelling at me. Not literally, but on First Take on ESPN2. Stephen A was aghast at the inherent racism of the above picture. As a white kid growing up in what was then rural Minnesota, who didn’t even meet any black people until I hit high school, I have no stake in a debate on race relations, but I couldn’t see race as a factor in this image.

If you haven’t parsed your way through it yet, this is the editorial image from the Charlotte Observer, representing Cam Newton that I referenced in a link this morning. Cam does this thing when he scores a touchdown or has a big play where he tugs at his collar like Clark Kent removing his suit to reveal that he is Superman. The artist depicted Hello Kitty, a significantly less heroic figure.

My interpretation is that this comes from a place of high expectations, rather than one of racism or anything like it. He was the number one pick in 2011 and had a great season last year. The Panthers didn’t do much else to get better in the last couple of seasons, keeping a very similar offense and making some tweaks on defense, but not many wholesale changes. It didn’t seem like they needed to make those changes though, because everyone expected Cam Newton to carry the team, to be Superman. Charlotte thought he could do it, the Panthers thought he could do it, and the ever confident Newton thought he could do it. In a fantasy league, I drafted Cam ahead of Eric, with my second pick. I thought he would be great. Eric thought he would be great. At this point, it looks like I suckered him. At the time, I wasn’t sure. The point is, this season, albeit only through 3 games, Cam Newton hasn’t lived up to expectations. I know there is an undercurrent of racism still in the south, and Newton has been subject to some tacit and overt racism so far in his amateur and professional career, but I don’t think that the above cartoon has anything to do with it, nor does the context suggest that it does.

That said, through three games, Cam Newton is a disappointment, surprisingly so. Eric and I are stunned, to say the least. But is Cam’s performance this season the most surprising of all quarterbacks this year? Some quarterbacks are doing better or worse than thought at the beginning of the year. I’ll put Newton as the 2nd most surprising performance this year, but not for good reasons. There are three more that should be mentioned (including the guy I think is putting together the most surprising performance so far this season). First, we’ll start with the negative.

Michael Vick: The Eagles should have a diverse, explosive offense with wide receivers like Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson, along with tight end Brent Celek.  Still, the offense was supposed to run through LeSean McCoy. At least, that’s what most experts and McCoy’s fantasy experts suspect. Vick has the third most passing attempts in the league this year, suggesting that there is something seriously wonky with the play calling in Philly. While Vick hasn’t been accurate (throwing a league high 6 INTs), he hasn’t been used properly either.

Now for a couple guys who have really surprised me this season.

Christian Ponder: The Vikings QB struggled last season after being thrown into the mix halfway through the year.He was likely drafted too high, which led the world to preemptively label him a bust. This year, he is 5th in QB rating, throwing for a 70% completion percentage. He has been very good so far. So why am I not putting Ponder number one on this list? Well, I have said some things about Ponder in the past, namely that I thought he was a good fit for the Vikings, and that he was smart and could take over immediately. If anything, my real surprise is that Adrian Peterson is healthy, and Minnesota is using Ponder as he should be used: as a cog, rather than as the machine.

Now, the player that is completely blowing me a way with his success so far this year….

Blaine Gabbert: Gabbert was the classic “Big Arm” draft. He didn’t impress me in college, he didn’t impress me in interviews, and he was abysmal last year in Jacksonville. He has the lowest number of attempts among passers in the AFC this season, but that doesn’t explain how he has 4 TDs but no interceptions. His decision making is better than I could have ever expected, and he has been able to perform in the clutch, perhaps even a little too effectively in games against the Vikings and Indianapolis Colts. And sure, the Jags got Justin Blackmon, and have a pretty good ground game, but so far, Gabbert is making a star of Cecil Shorts. His completion percentage is still only in the 50% range, but this is all about him not throwing interceptions and keeping the Jaguars in games.

Interesting, isn’t it? This post started with talking about how Cam Newton hasn’t met expectations this year, because he isn’t carrying the Panthers on his back, while Blaine Gabbert is exceeding expectations, because he hasn’t been a complete train wreck. That’s the thing about expectations. They are tougher to reach if you are really good (like Cam Newton is)

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