Once upon a time, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton Won NFL MVP in 2015. After throwing for 3,387 yards, rushing for 636, and accounting for 45 touchdowns (10 rushing), Cam Newton led the 15-1 Panthers to their second Superbowl appearance since their inception in 1995. Although the outcome of that Superbowl wasn’t favorable, the 2015 Panthers season was still the epitome of one of Cam’s best.
However, the 2016 season proved to lean towards the opposite extreme. Cam Newton put up the NFL’s worst completion percentage (52.9%) while accounting for only 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. It was by far Cam Newton’s worst career year. Rather than rising out on top, Cam fell straight to the bottom. It was not the best looking year for the former NFL MVP.
So, what exactly went wrong? Why was the NFL’s #1 scoring offense so inept after a historic 15-1 season? More importantly, will Cam Newton rebound this year?
The simple answer to the last question is yes. After all, it would be pretty tough to even match as low of a year as Cam had. Logic points towards Cam simply trending up.
However, don’t expect Cam Newton to just stop at “being better than last year.” Sure, that will happen, but he has potential to do more than just that.
In fact, go ahead and expect Cam Newton to surpass his 2015 MVP performance with a career year. Yes, that year where he nearly won unanimous MVP and led one of the NFL’s worst wide receiver corps to a Superbowl.
Expect him to exceed his all-time passing highs and completion percentage with relative ease after one of his worst seasons to date.
Not convinced? Well, take a look below.
So, What Happened In 2016?
Imagine trying to throw a pin through a small pinhole in a small time-frame of 2 seconds on the spot. Now imagine doing that while avoiding big rag dolls thrown right at you. Add on the fact you have to wait three seconds for the hole to even open, and you can see why this is quite the difficult task.
That was Cam Newton all last season. Mike Shula tasked Newton with the job of manning an offense revolving around the run game and deep ball. On record, Cam Newton threw five or more yards downfield on 67.67 percent of his throws; the league average was 52.13 percent.
This led to Matt Harmon‘s observation, saying Cam Newton operated in an offense that “creates a higher degree of difficulty” and “requires Newton to hit high-degree of difficulty passes both deep and outside the numbers.”
Sure, throwing downfield most of the time is indeed rough, but even that wasn’t the major issue. After all, Cam Newton was the fourth most accurate in the NFL at throwing five yards down the field, at an impressive rate of 68.46%.
So clearly Cam’s accuracy wasn’t the issue. The real issue comes when the offensive line and wide receivers are incapable of sustaining this style of play.
Throwing Needles Through Pinholes
Against the Panthers, teams played man to man defense the 3rd most in the NFL, only behind Green Bay and Detroit.
At first glance, this statistic may not mean much. However, comparing this statistic with Cam’s performance against zone vs. man says a lot.
What this statistic indicates says more about the wide receivers performance rather than the quarterback. If teams employ man coverage against an offense more often than normal, that generally describes a trend where the receivers are usually poor separators, route-runners, or just bad at winning one-on-one match-ups.
To further substantiate that topic, check out how much separation these wide receivers got on average.
Matt Harmon of NFL.com sums it up nicely:
“No starting quarterback threw into tight windows more than Cam Newton in 2016, as 24.9 percent of his pass attempts went to a receiver who had less than one yard of separation.”
“Benjamin checked in with the lowest average separation on his targets (1.8 yards) and Funchess, who barely got on the field anyway, came in with the fourth lowest (2.0) among receivers who saw 20 or more targets.”
Let that sink in for a moment. 24.9 percent of Cam Newton’s total pass attempts went to a receiver with less than one yard of separation. He essentially tried to fit a pin in a pinhole on 24.9 percent of his passes.
Think Cam Newton had it bad already? Don’t worry, this is only just scraping the surface.
Separation? What is that?
Perhaps one of the most daunting statistics is how many times Cam Newton was blitz’d on the year. PFF provides a nice look on that below:
Cam Newton faced the blitz on 40% of his snaps, first in the NFL. He sustained a passer rating of 70.8, impressive considering context.
The Panthers never had a true slot receiver in 2016. In fact, the Panthers had to use TE Greg Olsen the most in that role. While Olsen’s certainly a top tier TE, he’s not at his best from the slot.
Greg Olsen performed better out of the slot than in it. That’s largely due to his nature as a vertical threat who attacks soft spots in zones. The Panthers shouldn’t be using their All-Pro Tight End in this role.
What this does show is the lack of an option who can release quickly at the line of scrimmage and get separation down the middle.
ESPN analyst Cian Fahey puts it best when talking about the Panthers receivers.
“Newton’s receivers … don’t adjust well to the ball in the air and they can’t create separation. 59 times last year Newton threw an accurate pass only to have his receiver ruin the play.”
“Last year Newton played in an offense … with linear receivers who couldn’t run shorter routes to get open. Throwing downfield was difficult … especially so because his receivers struggled to get open … constantly delivering the ball from condensed pockets.
“Throwing short was an even greater challenge because receivers such as Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn aren’t good at releasing from the line of scrimmage. Even Greg Olsen is largely just a vertical threat.”
Cam Newton’s receivers were poor options in the short game and couldn’t get separation downfield. Film only stands to substantiate these claims.
Breaking Down Film
The Panthers receivers are terrible at getting separation, or even being half decent as a checkdown option. Teams often blitz’d and lined up in man coverage against the offense.
Take the following play:
Chiefs line up in man coverage and show blitz. Shula has this bright idea of drawing up a long developing play for Cam in this situation. The result? No one gets separation, and Cam’s only short option wasn’t even quick enough to release and work in the short game.
During the season, Cam’s checkdown receivers consisted of Tolbert, Fozzy, and Stewart. Tolbert’s already a known dud, and Stewart’s rarely even considered as an option. Fozzy was supposedly the Panthers primary “checkdown receiver,” but even he was never any more consistent than the rest of them.
On the example above, Cam Newton throws a picture perfect pass to Fozzy Whittaker. There should be no excuse for this play to not be a positive. However, Whittaker elects to drop the ball, thus adding to his repertoire of ineptitude.
Without any receiver who can separate or any reliable checkdown option, it’s no wonder Cam Newton was one of the most blitz’d quarterbacks and why so many teams played man defense. With an injured offensive line and poor receivers, Cam’s life as a quarterback was rough.
However, from the looks of things, this may be a thing of the past now as the Panthers enter 2017.
How Does The Panthers Offense Change For 2017?
Over the offseason, former General Manager Dave Gettleman committed to what many Panthers fans consider as one of his best offseasons to date. Not only did Gettleman plug in every weakness from 2016 with a solid starter, he also helped engineer a new offensive philosophy by bringing in new players from free agency and the draft.
The Panthers offense no longer revolves around long-developing plays. With guys like Russell Shepard, Curtis Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers can finally include short passes AND create mismatch nightmares.
All three of the guys mentioned above are solid slot receivers. They release at the line of scrimmage well and get open quick down the middle. They run routes well and are reliable.
For Curtis Samuel, his big asset is his speed and quickness. He can release quickly at the line of scrimmage and work the slot well in the short game.
As seen above, Curtis Samuel releases quickly and gets open fast. All the QB had to do was quickly throw to his most reliable receiver who gets open fast and makes a play. This is precisely the kind of slot play Cam needs.
In Christian McCaffrey’s case, he’s also another very reliable checkdown option. He’s able to get open quickly down the middle and make plays.
As seen above, Christian McCaffrey gets open quickly in the short game. Showing incredible burst and quickness, he sets himself open for the short pass. This should definitely help Cam’s completion percentage.
During the preseason, Cam Newton dumped the ball off to McCaffrey. A rare sight in the past now possible with McCaffrey.
The Panthers finally have true checkdown receivers who release quickly at the line of scrimmage and get open horizontally. This should only serve to increase Cam’s short throws and completion percentage overall.
Defenses will no longer be able to blitz the Panthers, as now they have the personnel to pay. Pit any linebacker one on one on a guy like McCaffrey, and bad things will always happen. If a team blitz’, all Cam has to do is throw right to his wide open receiver.
So, adding these receivers already help Cam’s accuracy in it of itself. However, the potential for this offense should only serve to better Cam’s season overall.
A Potential Nightmare For Defensive Coordinators
While adding receivers good in the short game will already help, Cam should also find himself in one of the most diversified offense in the NFL. Consider the core of the offense:
- QB/RB Cam Newton
- RB/WR Christian McCaffrey
- WR/RB Curtis Samuel
- TE/WR Greg Olsen
- Power RB Jonathan Stewart
- Big Receiver Kelvin Benjamin
- (Potential) Speed WR Damiere Byrd
The Panthers could incorporate a whole host of mismatch options on the field. With the threat of Christian McCaffrey or Curtis Samuel interchanging/in the slot, this forces defense to account for their presence. So many pieces and ways this offense can confuse defenses.
Add in the fact Olsen will finally play where he works best from with Kelvin Benjamin as well only serves to create headaches for any defensive coordinator game-planning against the Panthers.
Oh, and Cam Newton can still run. There’s always that mismatch.
Bold Prediction: Cam Newton Will Have His Best Completion Percentage In 2017
Cam Newton will have a career year in accuracy and many more statistical areas. He may even get himself a second MVP. As long as the offense remains healthy, the sky’s the limit.
The Panthers fixed every issue they had last season, working to engineer a culture of play-makers and role players. Now that Cam has weapons, expect the NFL to pay.
Cam Newton will have his best season ever this year.
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