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Will Atlas Shrug?

Few young players in the history of the NFL have been depended on as much as Cam Newton, and none have produced more offense through three seasons. But that dependence only seems to be growing with time … and it comes with sizable risk for the future of Carolina Panthers football.

(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

A disclaimer-slash-mea culpa:

I was a legitimate and unapologetic Cam Newton hater until the 2013 season. I was a Cam hater during his record-breaking rookie season, I was a Cam hater throughout the draft process, and I was definitely a Cam hater when he was at Auburn.

I loathed everything about Newton for a while, ranging from tangibly relevant (the allegations of recruiting impropriety) to downright frivolous (his blatant rip-off of MJ’s “Secret Stuff”). I hated Gus Malzahn’s deceptively complex offensive system that he dominated in — a scheme that I derided at the time as being a one-read gimmick since I was 18 and still didn’t know shit about football. I hated Newton’s million-dollar smile and his Shrek-sized ears, I hated the fact that two players had essentially won a championship by themselves, and I really hated Gene fucking Chizik for being the beneficiary.

Basically, I was voicing similar sentiments to the majority of the country in the fall of 2010.

The media was on Newton’s “I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon” quote like sharks smelling blood, and the narratives persisted through his first two years in the NFL. The Panthers went 13-19 in those seasons and lost an odds-defying 12 of 13 games that were decided by seven points or less; Newton earning the choker label was as predictable as him being skewered for his towel-donning habit.

I bought the criticisms hook, line, and sinker because they fit my own caricature of the guy. Cammy Cam was a pouter and a brat, a punk who couldn’t handle losing since he’d simply overpowered kids in college — the dude seemingly refused to win anything meaningful at the next level.

But then something amazing happened … something that reminded me that I can be just as blind and capricious and malleable as the media members I so often criticize:

Cam Newton started winning.

Basic statistical norms dictate that any team — no matter how bad — shouldn’t go 1-12 in close games, and that trend finally reversed itself in 2013. After starting the season 1-3, Carolina won their next five games that were decided by a touchdown or less and finished 12-4 overall, claiming the NFC South over Drew Brees’ Saints.  Newton’s effusive grins and playful antics suddenly didn’t seem like that of an immature bonus baby; he was the bold and brash leader of a division champion. The Panthers’ ground-and-pound offense and smash mouth defense were welcome additions to a league that had never been more addicted to passing.

But it shouldn’t have taken Luke Kuechly’s emergence at linebacker or an inevitable U-turn in close-margin outcomes for Newton’s accomplishments to be recognized. The rap on him as a rookie was that he played on a shitty team and compiled gaudy numbers because he was constantly playing from behind against soft-zone defenses, but the fact remains that Newton’s worst season is very clearly his one spent as a winner.

Year Comp Att Yards TD INT Y/A AY/A* Y/C Sk% NY/A* ANY/A*
2011 310 517 4051 21 17 7.8 7.2 13.1 6.3 6.87 6.24
2012 280 485 3869 19 12 8.0 7.6 13.8 6.9 6.96 6.65
2013 292 473 3379 24 13 7.1 6.9 11.6 8.3 5.90 5.69

2013 was painted as a year of maturity for Newton in which he rebounded from the dreaded “sophomore slump”, but in reality he played a little bit worse and won five more games in spite of it. His rushing totals decreased as well, running for 156 less yards than he did in 2012 while seeing his per-carry clip drop from 5.8 to 5.3.

Analyzing the trend of Newton’s year-by-year rate efficiency isn’t the point of this piece, though. The fact that he threw less and ran the ball fewer times is a good thing for Carolina since they had relied on him as a source of offense far more frequently than should be reasonably expected from a quarterback in his early twenties, but I fear that the Panthers may be asking more of Newton than ever going forward.

(Dave Martin/AP)

Since the NFL added two games to its previous 14-game slate in 1978, there are four quarterbacks in history that have started all 16 games in their first three seasons in the NFL — Newton, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, and Peyton Manning. Only three more are added to that number when you relax the criteria to 45 starts (in theory, missing one a season), and they would be Mark Sanchez (47), Matt Ryan (46), and Warren Moon (45), although Moon was 28-years-old and a CFL legend by the time he finally entered the league.**

When adding together each quarterback’s passing and rushing figures over those seasons, it is simple to determine what share of their team’s offensive output each player was responsible for:

Years Passing Yards Rushing Yards Total Yards Team Yards % of Offense
Warren Moon ‘84-‘86 9,536 498 10,034 14,685 68.33
Peyton Manning ’98-‘00 12,287 251 12,538 16,983 73.83
Joe Flacco ’08-‘10 10,206 320 10,526 15,969 65.92
Matt Ryan ’08-‘10 10,061 275 10,336 16,684 61.95
Mark Sanchez ’09-‘11 9,209 314 9,523 15,741 60.50
Andy Dalton ’11-‘13 11,360 455 11,815 16,332 72.34
Cam Newton ’11-‘13 11,299 2,032 13,331 17,077 78.06

Given that Newton has attempted all but seven passes for the Panthers from 2011-2013 (and with three of those coming on trick plays from Armanti Edwards and Legedu Naanee), I believe it is a fair assumption to make that he has had more of a direct statistical impact on his team than any other quarterback in the last 35 years.

There is no way to exactly quantify how much of a boost Newton’s presence on the field is to Carolina’s running backs, either, but it is probably not a coincidence that DeAngelo Williams’ yards-per-carry number spiked from 4.1 in 2010 (albeit on an 87-rush, six-game sample) to 5.4 after Jimmy Clausen was replaced. Jonathan Stewart jumped from 4.3 to 5.4 as well in Newton’s rookie year.

But while his impact is undoubtedly positive for so many aspects of the offense, such a load will naturally carry consequences.

That’s unsettling.

Newton staying healthy enough to start all 48 games for the Panthers is a mix of luck and genetics. He’s fortunate that he hasn’t shredded a knee, suffered a concussion, or begun to experience skeletal disintegration from repeated blows to the body, but Newton is also the most physically competent human on Earth who plays his position. At six-five in height and 250 pounds in weight, the 24-year-old is a modern Adonis of a man that has no peer in combined speed, strength, elusiveness, and arm talent.

However, the mere fact that he possesses these traits does not mean that kind of bodily harm can be sustained in the future. Reports broke on March 18 that Newton would be undergoing surgery on his left ankle that would keep him off the field until mid-July at the earliest, ending speculation that he is invincible but igniting questions over whether he is Achilles reincarnated.

The news came amidst a shockingly bad offseason for a team that had just tied the franchise record for regular season wins, and every move (or non-move) made by general manager Dave Gettleman has seemingly been done at the expense of his franchise quarterback. He is forced to do so thanks to his predecessor’s spending spree three years prior, who thought it was wise to lock up the core of a 2-14 ball club and subsequently bankroll the team into salary cap oblivion for the next half-decade. Every receiver that was a mainstay in Newton’s stable — Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell, and fan favorite Steve Smith — was wiped from the payroll, and installed in their place so far are Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood. They’ll join Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt as Newton’s top targets for the 2014 season … as of the publishing of this article, at least.

Gettleman is probably making the right decision by sacrificing in the short term to get the team out of a financial abyss in time for what should be his quarterback’s prime, but Newton is still developing as a passer. He needs consistency in the receiving game to take the next step as a franchise signal-caller. The thought process is that Carolina will bide its time until some of its more egregious contracts come off the books, but Kuechly and Newton will soon be up for extensions that will make them among the highest paid at their positions. Gettleman is toeing a fine line and betting on his young core remaining competitive in the league with the most parody in organized sports, hoping that pass-catchers he scrapes from the bargain bin will be enough for Newton to carry back to the playoffs. Carolina will inevitably take a receiver early in the draft, but rookies face arguably their toughest transition at the position. The Panthers will be fine if they nab 2014’s version of Keenan Allen, but good luck finding him.

The offensive line needs a complete makeover as well, as Newton’s mobility has long masked the unit’s struggles. Stalwart left tackle Jordan Gross is retiring at the peak of his game, and the current favorite to replace him is Byron Bell, a spot starter on the right side that went undrafted in 2011. Carolina can target a pass-blocker with their first-round pick (No. 28 in the draft), but they would do so with receiver being the opportunity cost.

I really can’t write much more on this without mentioning how god-fuckin’-awful Stewart’s contract is. I mean, when your team goes 2-14 and you have the option to hand your oft-injured, second-string running back $11.5 million guaranteed (and do so in the most confusingly cap-killing way possible)  … in the words of Bill Simmons, you have to do it.

Panther fans could wax poetic for days on how terrible of a GM Marty Hurney was, but as a fan of football I have no interest in continuing to pile on the financial struggles of a team that I look forward to watching in the future. Kuechly is a potential Hall-of-Fame talent that can captain one side of the ball to excellence; the same can be said for Newton, although sports fans like to cry “Too soon! Too soon!” at the mere mention of a young quarterback’s HOF candidacy.

With every roster decision under more scrutiny than ever, as fans invariably pay more attention to the maintenance of a division-winner than the slow assembly of one, Gettleman is taking a calculated risk in assuming Newton will be a 15-year pro and a perennial Pro Bowler. That much is apparent, at least; you don’t stock the cupboard full with Cotcherys and Underwoods if you think the face of the franchise can’t handle it.

But so much has already been demanded of Newton. He produced a whopping 76.3 percent of the Panthers’ offense as a rookie — after widely being projected as a long-term project coming out of college, I might add — and they promptly asked him to do even more in 2012 as a 23-year-old (79.9 percent while leading the team in rushing). He will be rewarded handsomely for his services in the 2015 offseason when Gettleman hands him a $100 million contract without a blink of an eye, but 2014 will be Newton’s fourth year in the NFL. After a 12-4 season and a baptism by fire against San Francisco’s defense in the divisional round, it’s time for Newton & Co. to set the bar at Lombardi.

And those expectations are all because of Carolina’s quarterback. Defensive savants of Kuechly’s caliber have occasionally wasted away their primes in football purgatory without much indignation from the national media — Cortez Kennedy, Jason Taylor, and Mario Williams come to mind — but the legacies of a Fouts or Kelly or Marino are often as mourned as they are celebrated for never being blessed with a ring. A Hall-of-Fame-level quarterback without a Super Bowl win is akin to a Siberian tiger aimlessly circling a zoo exhibit in captivity or a Polar Bear standing helplessly on a shrinking ice cap … it’s a waste of something precious. A life not fully lived.

Even though the Panthers’ chances at matching their 2013 season look bleak, I am not insinuating that they have squandered their playoff hopes for the immediate future. But title windows can be unexpectedly small and mercilessly fickle. When Joe Montana’s 49ers defeated Dan Marino’s Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX, most observers certainly thought they had watched the next great NFL dynasty that January night, but they were talking about Miami. Even though San Francisco went 15-1 in 1984 and had won two of the last four Super Bowls, the Dolphins boasted a 23-year-old quarterback that was treating NFL defenses like Sherman’s March to the Sea and a coach that already owned two Super Bowl rings. They were the team of the ‘80s, because who the hell was going stop Marino once he hit his prime?

We know how that turned out, though. Not only did Miami never win a Lombardi Trophy in Marino’s career, they never even made it back to the big game. And Dan the Man is still pretty fucking bitter over it.

My point isn’t that Newton is the next Marino or that Carolina will be the 1985-1999 Miami Dolphins, as neither has shown to be at that level yet; my point is simply that playing for the future in the NFL can be risky business when your most important asset is already in place. Maybe it’s worth keeping your team in cap hell as long as Newton is throwing to an NFL-worthy receiving corps. It’s certainly not desirable to continue bolstering his burden when he has already shouldered the most weight of any three-year starter in recent history.

Among the other 45-plus start quarterbacks from Manning onward, all of them other than Newton were given either a strong running game, an elite receiver, or a combination of both early on in their careers***. Cotchery’s double-digit touchdown year in Pittsburgh was likely a fluke****, and if so, Greg Olsen will be Newton’s most reliable target in 2014. DeAngelo Williams kinda sucks nowadays, and Carolina will be lucky to get ten games out of Stewart. I fully expect Newton to be the best runner on the roster for the fourth consecutive season.

I think Newton is capable of handling and excelling with what will be asked of him, but I worry about a breaking point — whether that is a stagnation in his development or an injury that could result in something worse than ankle surgery. Anyone that considers themselves a fan of the game should hope that Gettleman surrounds Newton with the necessary talent once the cap is finally clear of the old regime’s waste, because he deserves the same support that Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson are being provided with.

The post-Peyton-and-Brady era can be a hell of a decade if all four phenoms are reaching their full potential. Newton fits squarely in that picture … as long as he’s got some bodies to throw to.

* As in past articles, any unfamiliar acronyms are explained in my first piece.

** Carson Palmer started 45 games in his first three seasons as the man in Cincinnati, but the Bengals essentially redshirted him in 2003 and kept him on the bench. He didn’t attempt a pass as a rookie.

*** To illustrate my point, the 1998-2000 Colts had Marshall Faulk, Marvin Harrison, and Edgerrin James at some point in time. Matt Ryan was drafted to a team that already had Roddy White at receiver and just signed bell cow Michael Turner in free agency. Tony Gonzalez was acquired via trade in Ryan’s second year, while the same season for Flacco saw the emergence of Ray Rice at running back. The Jets were top-five in rushing offense during Sanchez’s first two seasons (leading the league in 2009), and Dalton was blessed with the green light to chuck shit up to AJ Green from day one in the league.

**** Before he broke out at the curious age of 31, Cotchery had reeled in eight touchdown combined over the last four seasons.

Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.

About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

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