Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney sat tucked away in a corner of a player’s lobby one day during training camp, talking about the process. The Cam Newton process: How the quarterback was progressing from offseason shoulder surgery; how he was going to dial back to his MVP form; and, most specifically, what the Panthers needed to do to make that happen.
“Protection,” Hurney said in August, expanding on points of emphasis. “Protecting Cam and also protecting Cam from himself. Doing that consistently.”
Two games into the season, that goal is running at a 50-50 clip: zero sacks and solid protection in a season-opening win over the San Francisco 49ers, followed by six sacks and a general pounding in a 9-3 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. By Hurney’s estimation, that’s not going to cut it – this half-on, half-off start.
Cam Newton likely won’t survive another season of that. You need only see him lying face down with a sprained ankle on Sunday or limping to the medical tent to understand it. And he most definitely won’t thrive behind the “sometimes” effectiveness of his protection, either.
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Yes, the Panthers are 2-0, but the consistency of protection is still a problem. Newton is still taking poundings every other game. And it continues to make him an enigma at his position.
While it’s fair to suggest Newton is shaking off rust following offseason shoulder surgery, there’s a pressing reality here. Newton is 28 years old – effectively in the middle of his NFL prime – and it’s still impossible to be sure whether his 2015 MVP season is a normal expectation or an outlier in a good-but-not-great career. In the arena of elite consistency, he’s still undone. As much as we want to believe he can ascend into the same territory as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, he’s yet to lock in even the statistical consistency. And this is in an era when passing numbers are absurd for even the middle-of-the-road guys.
Kirk Cousins has averaged over 4,500 passing yards the past two seasons. Andy Dalton put up back-to-back passer ratings of 106.3 and 91.8. Matthew Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011 and Derek Carr has been a pinball machine. There’s an argument to be made for taking Newton over all of those guys, yet in his previous six seasons, he has one year with a quarterback rating over 90. Granted, his ability to run makes him great, but it’s also one of the aspects that Hurney is talking about when it comes to protecting Cam from Cam.
But in all of this, there is still one befuddling thing that can’t be ignored. Newton gets drilled with regularity. How much? One NFL executive in the NFC South showed Yahoo Sports some of the franchise’s internal numbers on quarterbacks in August. One of the breakdowns was inside the division, and Newton was by far the most battered quarterback amongst his peers – to the tune of an average of 10-plus hits per game since 2011. Over a 16-game season, that’s monumental. Particularly when you consider Newton typically suffers the most brutal hits in the league at his position. So much so that Carolina periodically tries to make his protection a point of emphasis when the league office reviews game film each week for officiating purposes.
Regardless of what the league does, this ultimately falls on the franchise. It fell on former general manager Dave Gettleman, who attempted to get by for a few seasons with cheaper, flawed offensive tackles. Then Gettleman signed an expensive (but oft-injured and pilloried) left tackle in Matt Kalil, whose departure from the Minnesota Vikings is still privately considered addition by subtraction by that front office. The hope was that Kalil would help solidify the Panthers’ line by finally providing an anchor at a left tackle spot that has been notoriously inconsistent since Jordan Gross retired following the 2013 season.
While Kalil looked solid in the preseason and also Week 1 against the 49ers, the entire line was a mess against the Bills on Sunday. At least part of it could be attributed to Buffalo coach – and former Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott – having intimate knowledge of the Panthers offense, not to mention the defensive alignments that Newton struggles with. Some of that showed, too, with Newton missing a few open looks badly and generally still looking out of rhythm.
“I’m disappointed in myself but happy for the overall team,” Newton said Sunday, with an eye toward the silver lining of a 2-0 start.
Asked why he was disappointed in himself, Newton responded, “Just the accuracy. Missing [some] layups like that – it’s uncalled for. I wish I had two or three balls back.”
Some of that frustration can be blamed by missing an entire offseason in the passing program. And some of it can be attributed to still regaining confidence in his repaired throwing shoulder. But that’s also the thing here. Over the years, the on-the-rails and off-the-rails regularity has always been blamed on something. Either the line was bad, or the skill position players weren’t good enough, or Newton wasn’t healthy, or the play calling was poor … it’s always something.
Maybe the only sure thing that existed in all of this: Newton was unquestionably getting hit. A lot. And even when there were spates of good protection, it was only a matter of time where there was a horrific game. Through two games this season, that’s been true to form. The San Francisco opener was a hopeful start for the line. The Bills win was a significant letdown – to the point that Newton could have suffered a serious injury on his twisted ankle. On Sunday, the Panthers also lost tight end Greg Olsen, one of Newton’s most trusted targets, to a broken foot.
Right now, there’s no telling which game is the true barometer of what kind of line Newton has or whether he’s on his way to another 10-hits-per-game average. For now, Newton is in a familiar place – trying to stay healthy; trying to stay upright; and trying to transition from the Cam Newton process to the elite quarterback company that everyone expected seven years into his career.
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