In Newton's regression, shades of another recent fall from grace
The comparison grows a little more obvious and well-defined as the weeks pass, and so do the concerns. When you watch the early-season struggles of last year's rookie sensation quarterback, Carolina's Cam Newton, it's hard to fight the feeling that perhaps we've seen this plot twist before.
Consider the similarities: Both quarterbacks won hugely celebrated national titles in their final collegiate season, then entered the NFL to great fanfare and acclaim, becoming the first passers selected in their class and going on to win the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award and earn a Pro Bowl trip.
With their size, speed and blend of running and passing skills, both inspired breathless talk of "re-inventing the position'' at the NFL level, taking by storm a league that's always on the lookout for the next big thing, especially at the game's glamor spot. But by year two in the pro game, questions and issues about their maturity level surfaced, and their response to the inevitable failures that come with life in the NFL started to provide a stark contrast with their ultra-successful collegiate careers. Their learning curves steepened, and opponents discovered, with study, new ways to defense their rare play-making skills.
While the spotlight this time is highlighting Newton's inability to live up to his monster rookie season in his second time around the league, five years ago right now, weren't we beginning to ask some of the same types of questions about Vince Young? In the first half of 2007, coming off his breakthrough rookie season of 2006, Young's play was entirely underwhelming. In his first seven games of action that year, Young threw just three touchdown passes against eight interceptions, and never once topped 184 yards of passing. He had just one rushing game of more than 25 yards, and four times posted passer ratings of 50.3 or lower.
Newton and Young's quarterbacking talents are, of course, not completely synonymous, with Newton's passing skills as a rookie far exceeding Young's, and Newton's running game setting a new standard for quarterbacks of any era. But in a big-picture way, it's more than a bit familiar watching the rest of the league catch up to Newton 2.0 in much the same manner it did Young 2.0.
Despite sky high playoff hopes -- and even Super Bowl predictions within the Panthers locker room -- Carolina has staggered to a dismal 1-4 start, with three consecutive losses and mounting scrutiny on Newton's sub-par performance. The Panthers' 16-12 home loss to Seattle on Sunday represents Newton's nadir so far in his 21 games as a pro: 12 of 29 passing, with career-worst showings in terms of completion percentage (41.4) and passing yards (141). Newton failed miserably with the game on the line against the Seahawks, missing wide-open tight end Ben Hartsock in the end zone on 4th-and-goal with 3:47 remaining, grounding the pass well short of his target to essentially seal the defeat.
If there were a signature moment of disappointment for the 2012 Panthers and their underachieving second-year quarterback, that worm-killer in Hartsock's direction would be it. The Panthers and Newton feel so close to the success they covet, and yet remain so far from living up to their own lofty expectations.
Newton's passing yardage totals have decreased each week of the season (he's 456 yards behind last year's pace), and through five games his four touchdown passes, five interceptions, five fumbles (two lost), 13 sacks, and 58.8 completion rate make him look nothing like the quarterbacking phenomena he appeared to be at this point of his stellar rookie season. A week after his key late-game fumble provided the impetus for Atlanta's comeback win over the Panthers in the Georgia Dome, Newton, against Seattle, led an anemic offense that failed to score a touchdown, producing just 190 yards and 13 first downs, and absorbing four sacks.
With Carolina either mercifully -- or cruelly, depending upon one's perspective -- drawing its bye this week, the dissection of Newton's sophomore slump has begun in earnest around the league. The topic is naturally ripe for over-reaction and over-analysis, but it's probably naive to say the discussion is premature. After all, Young once looked to be the league's most promising and cutting-edge quarterback prospect, and he's already out of the league after six up-and-down seasons. The Not For Long mantra of the NFL isn't just a pithy little joke.
Looking for an experienced NFL observer to offer insight into Newton's struggling game, I called ex-Colts general manager Bill Polian Monday night. Not only does Polian understand a Carolina market that's up in arms about Newton's declining fortunes, from his days spent in Charlotte as the Panthers' first GM, but also he knows the travails and triumphs of drafting a first-round franchise quarterback, be it Kerry Collins in Carolina or Peyton Manning in Indianapolis.
"Here's the bottom line: People have had a year to study him and study his skill set, and study how they built this offense around him,'' said Polian, now one of ESPN's army of NFL analysts. "And in doing so, they've figured out ways to counteract his unique skill set of being able to both throw and run the ball. So now he has to make sure he gets the help he needs and makes the appropriate adjustments.''
At Panthers training camp this summer, Carolina quarterbacks coach Mike Shula spent time describing to me how Newton's improvement in his second season would come with better footwork in the passing game, which would lead to greater accuracy and the ability to more consistently challenge a defense's pass coverage. But Newton has seemingly regressed in that department, and his accuracy is at times woefully lacking.
"I'm not a quarterback expert, but I have studied him on tape and he has accuracy problems,'' Polian said. "That's usually due to footwork, and I've seen some footwork issues. And he's a little hesitant in delivering the ball at times.''
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on Monday said Newton is "pressing,'' trying to make too much happen downfield, rather than taking what a defense is giving him. That greedy approach resulted in Newton targeting Carolina's top receiver, Steve Smith, a season-high 13 times against the Seahawks, completing just four of those passes for 40 yards. Newton also has been guilty of holding the ball too long, seeking the perfect window before he throws. In the NFL, those windows rarely appear, and close quickly.
In short, Newton hasn't made the necessary second-year adjustments to his game, like a batter who doesn't see the same assortment or pattern of pitches he did as a rookie, because the pitchers have learned how to accentuate his weaknesses and stay away from his strengths. What worked for Newton last year, loosening defenses up with his rare running ability, and then hitting them with big plays in the passing game when they cheat toward the line on run defense, isn't working this year. The weekly chess game is being won by the other guys, and Newton's abundant confidence is suffering for it.
"I heard his press conference remarks after the [Seattle] game, and I said on the air I thought he was both courageous and on point, because he said, 'This is my fault,' '' Polian said. "I'm paraphrasing now, but he said 'I've got to get it corrected and I've got to get back to work during the bye week on mechanics, on basic reads, on my throwing motion.'
"Essentially he broke down the things that had gone wrong during the ballgame, so I thought that was a tremendous step in the right direction. He knows what has gone wrong and needs to set about fixing it. That's half the battle, and that's a good thing.''
But as there was with Young when he first struggled with failure at the NFL level, there are more issues than just mechanical or decision-making problems to consider with Newton. His maturity has been found lacking at times, most notably in his well-chronicled penchant for postgame or sideline sulking. Newton's trademark response to defeat led Carolina team leader Steve Smith to take exception with his quarterback's deflated demeanor late in that Week 3 embarrassment at home against the Giants.
According to some media reports and speculation, some of Newton's teammates, and perhaps the Panthers organization, have growing concerns about his approach to the game and commitment level, charges that tend to take a life of their own in today's 24/7 coverage atmosphere. Young heard much the same thing when his tenure in Tennessee was starting to unravel.
Has it really come to that already for Newton in Carolina? Hailed as the quarterbacking savior and face of the franchise at the start of training camp, Newton's difficult follow-up act has led his father to come out in defense of the continuing marriage of Cam and the Panthers? That's the sort of thing that can quickly develop when a quarterback struggles, and in the process loses 14 of his first 21 starts in the NFL.
But Polian, who had his early challenges with Kerry Collins in Carolina, and then hit a grand slam with the Manning pick in Indianapolis, said the Panthers must close ranks behind Newton. Because he needs it now much more than he did last year, when he was the toast of the town.
"As far as the organization is concerned, whether it's Peyton Manning, RGIII, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck or Kerry Collins, you need to support him through the tough times,'' Polian said. "And there are going to be tough times. The hype these kids come in with is so unrealistic and so beyond the pale that they can't possibly live up to what is expected of them.
"And then, like Cam, when you have a modicum of early success -- and it really, it was only a modicum of success, due to his ability to run, which is unique and exceptional -- then he's built up to be something he can't possibly develop into. So that's even worse. So you've got to support him through all of that in the early going.''
While the Carolina organization shows every indication that Newton will get its support during this early-career trial, how the second-year quarterback fares at home against Dallas in Week 7 now shapes up as a pivotal test, at least in terms of keeping the Panthers' fading playoff hopes alive in 2012. But as Young's once-promising career in Tennessee illustrates, nothing is guaranteed. At least not for long. They mean that well-worn mantra in the NFL.