It’s been an ugly last couple of games for the Panthers’ offense, and there aren’t many beauty products on the shelf to save their immediate future. Here’s the situation:
Coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula decided over the offseason that Cam Newton’s completion rate had to improve. It dropped to a career-low 52.9% in 2016. To help, they drafted scat back Christian McCaffrey in the first round and gadget slot man Curtis Samuel in the second. The two rookies would give Carolina a quick-strike passing attack. Shula even explained to our Peter King that the team was looking to create the type of Tom-Brady-to-James-White opportunities that lifted New England to victory in Super Bowl 51.
This would be a gargantuan change for a team that had long featured one of the NFL’s deepest dropback passing games. Specifically, it would be a gargantuan change for Newton. The idea of creating easy completions for your quarterback is great in the abstract, but the reality is that Newton is not Brady. Newton throws with sheer power, not precise timing and accuracy.
A more apt comparison for Newton might be Ben Roethlisberger, another hulking QB who sheds would-be sackers and can make late-in-the-down plays. Roethlisberger successfully transitioned to a quicker-strike system after offensive coordinator Todd Haley came to Pittsburgh in 2012. But Newton isn’t Roethlisberger either. Big Ben’s unique playmaking prowess overshadows the fact that he is one of the best pure throwers the game has ever seen. Newton, on the other hand, is mechanically inconsistent. There are instances every game where his footwork doesn’t match his upper body. The result is usually the type of wild, high fastball that happen regularly enough to have inspired Carolina to draft tall, far-reaching wideouts Kelvin Benjamin (first round, 2014) and Devin Funchess (second round, 2015).
Yes, Newton, like Roethlisberger, is capable of jaw-dropping throws that highlight his arm strength—but that’s not what we’re talking about. The question Carolina needs answered is whether Newton can become a more controlled precision passer. Little from his first six NFL season suggests he can.
There’s also the matter of Newton learning to play out of the spread formations that propagate quick-strike throws. Because the ball has to be out so promptly, a quarterback must diagnose the defense before the snap. Waiting until after the snap takes too long.
The Panthers-Saints Week 3 film showed how undeveloped Newton is in this aspect. There were defined presnap reads that he didn’t recognize and immediate post-snap reads that he failed to process—most notably on the Marcus Williams interception. On that play, the ball that Newton threw a tad too high to McCaffrey (who tipped it) should have gone to Russell Shepard on the shallow cross.
These are not uncommon growing pains for a QB undergoing radical change. And it should be noted that the Panthers have not fully transformed their offense. At this point, they’re just dabbling in the new tactics.
Still, Newton is not a comfortable QB right now. He threw well but struggled against some basic zone looks against Buffalo in Week 2. He was better here against the Saints, but there were still coverages he failed to diagnose. One came on Kenny Vaccaro’s fourth-quarter interception. It was man-to-man to Newton’s right and zone to his left. He had a shallow crosser coming from the zone side over to the man side, where there was no defender to pick him up. The offensive concept defeated the defensive concept. Newton not only failed to identify this, he also failed to understand that with no downfield routes on the zone side, Vaccaro, the zone safety, became a free defender. He read Newton’s eyes, which took him to the middle of the field, where Newton threw late (a cardinal sin of quarterbacking). This was a somewhat complex coverage by the Saints, but one you still see every Sunday, and one that they had shown earlier in the game.
The point of this article is not to pile on Newton. He was a legitimate MVP two seasons ago; there are things he does well. It’s unrealistic to think any QB can change his playing style after just one offseason, especially an offseason that was spent rehabbing a shoulder injury.
Most likely, the quick-strike stuff will be shelved until 2018. That’d be Carolina’s best move. McCaffrey and Samuel can still fit the old offense. McCaffrey, with his shifty and patient running, works in Carolina’s multidimensional, man-blocking ground game. Samuel is built to prosper on the misdirection tactics that were once reserved for Ted Ginn Jr. Both men were sharp in these capacities early against the Saints, but after falling behind, 24-6, the Panthers had to abandon that plan and play catch-up.
Making McCaffrey a newer, better Darren Sproles or Julian Edelman will have to wait; he needs to be this team’s version of Danny Woodhead and Chris Thompson. Put him in the slot and out wide occasionally, but feature him mostly on screen passes and checkdowns. Those concepts come out of the slower-developing, downfield aerial passing game that is familiar to Newton. And one thing Newton did well against New Orleans was work to his checkdown when zone coverage took away deeper options.
Checkdowns will be common because the Panthers don’t have much vertical speed. Ginn is now a Saint, and no receiver has shown he can influence safeties. The Panthers navigated these circumstances in 2015 by leaning on Greg Olsen, who could threaten safeties down the seams. But Olsen is out with a broken foot.
In 2015, let’s remember, the Panthers were second in the league with 143 yards rushing a game. This needs to be their profile again. They moved the ball out of heavy sets against the Saints. There was talk about Newton running less in 2017, and so far he has, averaging just 4.7 carries a game. (His career average is 7.3.) But he’s still been a part of the run designs, which feature multiple options built into one play. That’s smart coaching; it’s a major offensive advantage when a run defense must account for the quarterback.
A run-first approach and a deep dropback passing game that lends itself to play-action and checkdowns—that’s where Newton is comfortable and best suited. If the Panthers want to compete in 2017, they’ll put his evolution on hold and use him this way.
Film Room Elaboration
This is the type of play I’m reluctant to tweet about. There’s much more to it than 140 characters. First off, understand that it was an excellent play by Marcus Williams. He identified the backfield timing, read the route and jumped it. Some analysts whom I respect have blamed this interception on Newton. Their reasoning is he didn’t read Williams. I initially thought this, too—and yes, it’s obvious, Newton did not factor Williams into the throw. But consider the play’s design. Shotgun play-action. Newton has the option to throw or run. He can also throw a bubble screen to the slot. He bases his decision off of the stack linebacker and slot defenders. The stack ’backer on this play, A.J. Klein, fully reacted to the run. The slot defender, Kenny Vaccaro, honored the bubble screen. This created a huge throwing window for Devin Funchess’s slant. Yes, Williams is sitting on the slant. But you can understand how a QB on a quick-timing play who must eye the linebacker and slot defender would not have a great feel for the outside corner’s positioning. A receiver cannot let a defender cross his face on a slant pattern. Newton was assuming that the 6’4”, 232-pound Funchess would stay in front of the 6’0”, 194-pound Williams. And he should have.
Oversized interior defensive linemen Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown and rising undrafted rookie Adam Butler (who has supplanted Branch as the starter) are critical, overlooked pieces to New England’s scheme. Their significance stands out every week on film.
Keep an Eye On
Deshaun Watson. His performance against New England was intriguing. Watson did not use his mobility as a crutch; he stayed in the pocket and kept his eyes downfield. You can tell that his instincts sometimes scream, Run! He fights that, which is important for an NFL quarterback’s growth. Not that Watson should ignore running completely. He made several plays, particularly in crunch time, off of movement—by design and improvisation. Those were a bit overshadowed, unfortunately, by two missed third-down throws in the fourth quarter. Watson must tighten his accuracy. He’s not an insanely talented raw passer, but he can be sound enough. Some of his errant passes stemmed from playing too fast, which young QBs are prone to do. As the game slows down for Watson, his mechanics should stabilize.
Cause for Concern?
The Ravens are averaging 16 completions and 121 yards a game through the air. I can’t remember ever seeing an offense with an accomplished veteran QB start like this. Joe Flacco has not been sharp (obviously). That’s concerning given that, last year, he wasn’t his usual sharp self mentally or physically. More concerning is the lack of identity on offense. Clearly, the Ravens want to be a run-first team, which is wise. But their running game has no profile. Is it a zone scheme? A man-blocking scheme? What are its staple concepts? These are questions you sort out during the first week of training camp, not Week 4 of the regular season.
The loss of Darren Sproles accelerates Philly’s offensive transformation. This is turning into more of a deeper dropback passing attack. Sproles, with his shiftiness and receiving versatility, was a big part of the misdirection and short-area passing designs. There’s no one on the Eagles to fill his role. Expect Doug Pederson to drift even further away from the quick-timing throws we saw in 2016.
The Non-Football Thing on My Mind
This time of year, if I miss one game, then I’ve missed 1/3 of that team’s season. So each game must be studied. Life will be hectic until bye weeks begin. Here’s one trick I’ve learned to manage the chaos: when you make your to-do list (and everyone needs a to-do list), have the first item on that list be “make my to-do list.” That way, as soon as you finish writing your list, you can cross off its first item. Now the ball is rolling. You’re feeling confident. You’re loose. You’re a quarterback who has just completed a 12-yard screen pass on the game’s first play. Go march down the field.
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