Blanket Coverage: The Panthers' problems go well beyond Cam Newton

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Thursday December 15th, 2016

To be completely honest, I went to the film of the Panthers’ three most recent games wanting to bury Cam Newton for his 2016 performance. I mean, how does a player go in one season from league MVP to having the longest streak of games (four) with completion rates below 50% since 2011 Tim Tebow (six)?

Considering the supporting cast is virtually the same, you’d expect a lot of the blame to fall on Newton’s shoulders. We’re talking about a guy who spent part of this summer filming a TV show in Los Angeles and who was benched for one series against the Seahawks for not conforming to the team dress code. It has all been a bad look, one that could indicate Newton was resting on last year’s MVP award and NFC championship.

So I thought I’d be writing a column about another young NFL superstar not dealing with success well, that the failures of the Panthers (5–8 and counting) fell largely on the shoulders of their mountainous franchise quarterback. But even with those completion rates of 42.4, 48.3, 43.8 and 37 in his last four outings, I can’t say that. Newton has not been terrible. Newton has not completely fallen off either with his preparation or his mechanics.

But I will say this: Newton needs to be better. When you have a great defense (sixth in points and yards, first in turnovers) and rushing attack (second in the NFL) like the Panthers did last season, you can get away with certain things at the quarterback position: holding onto the ball deep into the down, throwing a lot of 50-50 balls, not taking the easy checkdown and operating with iffy mechanics.

However, when the defense slips (26th in points, 23rd in yards, eighth in turnovers), the running game is not as good (14th) and the protection has suffered from questionable personnel decisions and injuries on the offensive line, the franchise quarterback needs to be there to make a difference. Newton has not done that, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a failure. He just hasn’t been Superman. Maybe he’s not Superman.

In looking at the Panthers’ last three games—losses to the Raiders and Seahawks, and Sunday’s victory over the Chargers—I grouped Newton’s play into three categories: positive plays (good plays and big-time plays), negative plays (held onto the ball, threw into coverage, didn’t step into a throw, threw high or threw late) and neutral plays (easy throws, throwaways, drops or other incompletions that were the receiver’s fault and pressures).

In total, Newton had 22 positive plays, 37 negative plays, and 31 neutral plays. Is that great? No. If you’d compare Newton to, say, Tom Brady, the ratio would basically flip. But it’s difficult to compare the two players because they’re two different types of quarterbacks in two completely different schemes. Brady probably wouldn’t do as well in the Panthers’ scheme because it relies on limited options and shot plays. Newton would probably do a little better with the Patriots if he were versed in taking what the defense gives you.

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Overall, the Panthers don’t need Newton to be the most efficient quarterback in the world like Brady, considering they are a run-first and defensive team. They just need him and the passing game to be a little bit better. The difference between this year and last lies in just a handful of plays each game, and Newton’s not the only person those plays depend on. A quick look at everywhere the Panthers need to be better:

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula: The Panthers are still too reliant on isolation routes and deep shots considering the state of their offensive line (which, contrary to popular opinion, is not that bad). Carolina’s offense can’t take deep shots consistently because the line can’t hold up.

Kelvin Benjamin: After he missed all of last season with a torn ACL, the Panthers had high hopes for Benjamin to be a true No. 1 receiver, building off his 73 catches and 1,008 yards as a rookie in 2014. Benjamin’s numbers are a little off his rookie pace (51 catches for 765 yards), but he needs to be a lot better. He is a 6' 5", 240-pound receiver that plays like a 5' 11", 180-pound receiver. He is bothered way too much by contact, and his technique is still way too raw. Benjamin needs a lot of work in the off-season, and he needs to play much stronger. The Panthers could also use an upgrade at the slot receiver position to give Newton some easier and earlier options.

Offensive line: Everyone in the world saw in the Super Bowl that the Panthers needed to improve at both tackle positions, but GM Dave Gettleman stayed the course, and with the injury to LT Michael Oher, they have regressed. Carolina needs a serious investment at both tackle spots in the off-season.

Newton: In terms of his negative plays, Newton’s biggest struggles come from throwing into coverage (which happened 17 times in that three-game stretch), not stepping into throws (eight times) and throwing late (seven). The good news for him is that they’re all related to the same problem: Newton takes way too long to get back in his drop. If Newton wants to be the type of quarterback that can elevate a team struggling in other areas, he needs to do some serious mechanical work on the off-season. He needs to start with his footspeed, or at least the time it takes him to get back from center. Everything is too slow, from the time it takes him to ask for the snap (it shouldn’t take that long because he’s a see-it, throw-it quarterback, not an anticipation thrower that needs to dissect the defense before the snap) to his actual drop-back. If he gets to the top of his drop quicker, he has more time to find a better target, anticipate the coverage and throw a little bit better. That can make a huge difference.

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Another thing: Newton needs to stop stepping to the sideline when he’s trying to rip a pass. Some of it has to do with the protection, but it happens too often and leads to high throws or passes to the sideline losing steam. Newton’s going to be 28 next season. It’s time for him to mature as an NFL quarterback both in the mental side and his mechanics. Newton needs to be more decisive, and he needs to step where he’s throwing.

The Panthers have regressed in just about every area this season, and those issues are going to trickle down and affect the quarterback if he’s not on point. Newton may not be at this point in time, but he’s not that far away. He’s been able to get away with certain things coming into this season, but now the Panthers need more from him, and they should expect more. With a lot of work this off-season, Newton can deliver in 2017. But it’s up to him.

Blanket Report

Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing NFL storylines this week:

Go crazy, folks

Good for Sherman: If NFL players are so unhappy with Thursday Night Football, they should take the lead of Richard Sherman, who didn’t hold back when asked about the team’s appearance this week. “Poopfest. It’s terrible,” Sherman said. “We got home like one o’clock in the morning, something like that on Monday and then you’ve got to play again. Congratulations, NFL, you did it again. But they’ve been doing it all season, so I guess we’re the last ones to get the middle finger.” If there’s one thing we know about Roger Goodell’s NFL, it’s that it will only react to public and corporate pressure. If enough NFL players speak out, they can turn the tide on the Thursday night package. So please, guys, speak out.

Cardinals had no choice on Floyd: If Michael Floyd had been a model citizen this season, then Arizona could have dealt with his DUI, and the punishment would have been handed out by the league in the off-season. But Floyd, who had his playing time cut at various points this season, was one of the many problems with the underachieving Cardinals. Too many players rested on their laurels from last season, didn’t put in the work, and the team suffered. Floyd was one of those players, so with free agency coming in the off-season and only three games left in 2016, it was time for the Cardinals to move on.

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Slow your roll

The feel-good Lions might not make the playoffs: With their eight comeback victories and the play of Matthew Stafford, the Lions have been a great story as they’ve gone 9–4 to this point. There’s been a lot of talk about Stafford’s MVP candidacy and Jim Caldwell’s chances at Coach of the Year. Give the Lions credit, because they’ve done well against the schedule they were given. But the fact is, they’ve had an easy road to this point (the 26th most difficult schedule through 14 weeks, according to FootballOutsiders.com) and it’s about to become much harder (second-hardest in the NFL in the final three weeks). Detroit hits the road to play the Giants and Cowboys before hosting the Packers in the season finale. There’s a very real possibility that the Lions don’t make the playoffs at all, and that would render all the award talk moot.

The Rams are a desirable job: Many look at the travails of Jeff Fisher and the slow start of No. 1 pick Jared Goff and figure that candidates should be wary of the Rams’ opening. In fact, in talking with league sources, the Rams’ job is very desirable—as long as the Rams don’t make Goff part of the deal. Maybe Goff can be rescued, but the team can move on from him after the 2018 season. The Rams are a good job because it’s Los Angeles, where the off-field earning potential is off the charts; because they’re moving into a new stadium and will have deep pockets; and because owner Stan Kroenke has shown that he’ll be very patient. They should be looking for the best coach and worry about Goff later.

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10 thoughts on Week 15

1. Expect the Dolphins to still be successful offensively with Matt Moore in for the injured Ryan Tannehill. Moore takes a few more chances than Tannehill, and his arm is not what it once was (which could get him into trouble), but he’s a good quarterback, and there are few coaches better than Adam Gase at making the game plan work for his quarterback.

2. Marc Trestman was fired as offensive coordinator by the Ravens in October in part because he didn’t run enough. Under new coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, the Ravens ran four times in the first half against the Patriots, who punted on their first three possessions. To make things even worse, the Baltimore game plan was so unimaginative against the Patriots’ zone defense that it was probably ripped right from Mornhinweg’s tenure with the 49ers from 1997 to 2000. Not until very late in the game did Mornhinweg send two vertical routes at the Patriots’ safeties, and the deep passing game is Flacco’s biggest strength. So the Ravens didn’t run, nor did they throw deep. John Harbaugh is going to have to make another coordinator change in the off-season. That would make six in seven years—only Jim Caldwell finished two seasons as a coordinator in Baltmore since Cam Cameron was fired during the ’12 season.

3. The Eagles need to take some cues from the Patriots and stay with the ground game against the Ravens. Carson Wentz attempting 40 passes or more is not a winning proposition for Philadelphia. They’ve done that five times in the past seven games and are 0–5 in those games.

4. Looks like the Bears have stumbled onto something with Matt Barkley. He doesn’t have the biggest arm in the world, but he’s shown himself to be smart and decisive. Reminds some of former Jets and Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington.

5. Everybody will be focusing on linebacker Vontaze Burfict against a host of Steelers (Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, mostly), but the real matchup is Cincinnati DT Geno Atkins against Pittsburgh RG David DeCastro. The two are at the top of their game, and it will be a treat.

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6. The Titans’ offense has a good chance to hang with the Chiefs’ defense because Tennessee’s offensive line is so good, but I have a hard time seeing the Titans containing WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce, two huge matchup issues.

7. Everyone knows that the Lions have won eight games with game-winning drives. Well, the Giants’ defense has snuffed out eight game-winning drives. Detroit can’t get off to another slow start on Sunday, and Ezekiel Ansah needs to dominate the game against embattled Giants left tackle Ereck Flowers.

8. The big reason why the Patriots lost in Denver last year was because New England couldn’t run the ball at all when the Broncos played subpackages. Thanks to improvements made by offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, the Pats can do that now, but expect them to use a lot of two tight-end sets. The Broncos are 29th against the run this year, and they have struggled mightily when they have had to play in their base 3–4. Expect RBs James White and Dion Lewis to make big plays in the passing game against the Broncos’ inside linebackers.

9. There aren’t many defensive lines than can hold their own against the Cowboys’ offensive line, but the Bucs are one of those teams. Led by veterans Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers and rookie Noah Spence, that unit has been outstanding against both the run and pass, and it’s the biggest reason why Tampa Bay is red-hot.

10. The Cowboys need Dez Bryant to start playing a lot better. He has 80 targets and only 38 catches, and not all of the blame goes to Dak Prescott. Bryant’s routes have been imprecise. It’s not from lack of effort, it’s from Bryant trying too hard. He needs to go out with confidence and just do his job. That will help Prescott and the rest of the Cowboys’ passing game.

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