Thirteen games into the 2015 season, the Panthers were 13-0 and Cam Newton was completing almost 60 percent of his passes during what was an unexpected MVP campaign. Thirteen games into the 2016 season, the Panthers are 5-8 and Newton is completing an NFL-worst 53.5 percent of his passes (including less than 50 percent in each of his last four games) and is unlikely to be one of the first 10 quarterbacks summoned for the Pro Bowl.
So what happened?
It dates back to Super Bowl 50. The Broncos noticed something on film that week: Newton really wasn’t a scrambler. Almost all of his runs were by design, not improv. Which meant teams had been defending Carolina’s offense all wrong. Afraid that if they blitzed and it didn’t get home, Newton would burn them with his legs, defensive coordinators opted to keep bodies back in coverage. Wade Phillips went the other way. When the Panthers left a running back or tight end in to block—which happens regularly in coordinator Mike Shula’s downfield scheme—the Broncos sent that player’s man-to-man defender after Newton, on what’s called a green dog blitz.
This wiped the lipstick off what was Carolina’s pig of an O-line. A big reason Shula kept extra bodies in to pass-block is most of his linemen aren’t nimble enough to survive on an island. Running backs and tight ends could essentially be double-teamers. That is, unless there was a blitzer for them to block.
Even more lipstick has been wiped away this year. Defenses continue to blitz a Panthers O-line that, with injuries to Michael Oher and Ryan Kalil, has had to reshuffle and rely on backups to win one-on-one. With pressure becoming more of a factor, Newton’s passer rating against the blitz has fallen from 109.1 last year to 69.3 this year.
Newton, in theory, can handle being blitzed. He’s well-sized and often keeps his eyes downfield, even when the pocket starts to crumble. That’s what you want in a dropback passer. But you also want someone with refined footwork and consistent release mechanics. That’s where Newton is flawed. He’s always had a tendency to strong-arm the ball and get away from relying on his torso and feet. That’s why, when he misses, it’s usually high and wide. (Imagine yourself chest-deep in water and quickly throwing an ovular, round object. See it sailing errantly to the upper right?)
Newton is so incredibly talented that some of his ugliest mechanical throws still hit the mark. (See Ted Ginn’s 88-yard touchdown against the Raiders.) But more often, they hit the air surrounding his receiver’s catching radius. And one significant thing about bad quarterbacking fundamentals: They’re likelier to resurface under adverse conditions.
Poor O-line play isn’t the only adverse condition surrounding Newton. Carolina’s defense is giving up 6.8 more points and 39.6 more yards a game than last year, putting greater demands on the offense. And it’s an offense that’s more often playing out of three-receiver sets, rather than the two-back and two-tight end sets that defined it in 2015.
This has a host of consequences. Most notable is the detraction from the ground game. With two backs and/or two tight ends on the field, Carolina has, by far, football’s most tactically formidable rushing attack. Because of Newton’s mobility, the run plays have multiple options within them. That’s why you see so many moving pieces: pull-blockers, receiver misdirection sweeps, etc. Along these lines, using multiple backs and tight ends allows the offense to relocate, and even create, run gaps after the snap. There’s simply more that a defense must defend.
Most three-receiver sets have just a single man in the backfield. Yes, this can make for more space and a lighter defensive box, but it also makes for fewer options. Especially if the defense chooses not to lighten the box and instead goes with a traditional 4-3 or 3-4 front. That’s another thing Denver did in Super Bowl 50. Wade Phillips said point blank afterwards that the Panthers can’t run the ball in this scenario. The numbers, spacing and angles become compromised.
The Broncos were comfortable playing a seven-man box against Carolina’s three-receiver sets because they had a trio of premiere cover corners. No other defense is so lucky—though at times, against the Panthers they can appear so. Because the other problem with this offense is the receivers aren’t playing well. Kelvin Benjamin has been slow and plodding coming off his ACL injury. Second-year man Devin Funchess isn’t developing as quickly as hoped. Ted Ginn has improved markedly since early in his career but still does not classify as “reliable.” And Philly Brown has just plain vanished. His production is down by more than 50 percent.
The Panthers still play two tight ends and two backs as much as any team in the league, but they’re doing it less than last year and, frankly, not nearly enough. They’re now a predominant three-receiver offense. This means, besides having a reduced ground game, they’re also seeing more nickel and dime defensive packages, which is where most blitzes come from.
Newton is caught in an ugly cycle. But it’s here where true stars rise. Yes, Newton’s supporting cast must play better, and his coaches must call more runs. But if Newton is to be more than just a snazzy puzzle piece – which is what this season, and really the bulk of his career, suggests he is – he must develop a firmer foundation of fundamentals.
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