GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 11: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers throws a pass under pressure from Darnell Dockett #90 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL season opening game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Carindals defeated the Panthers 28-21. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Let's get this out of the way right now: I think Cam Newton is an absolutely amazing talent, put forth the best rookie season we've ever seen, and is the catalyst for the Panthers' successes moving forward. That being said, just as Newton himself isn't resting on his laurels, so too we need to be receptive to discussing his weaknesses, and facets to his game that need improvement. Part of being a well informed and intelligent fan is having a willingness to have an open dialog about underdeveloped areas of the organization or players, not just always focusing on the good.
If you spent time watching Cam Newton at Auburn you'd probably notice two things- firstly, one of the most electric single players we've ever seen play college football, but also a player who was a mess mechanically, especially if he was looking to make the jump to the next level. This was the catalyst for so much pre-draft fear and doubt leading up to the Panthers' selection. Thankfully, Newton proved that doubt to be misplaced, as he showed the drive and determination needed to become receptive to coaching. One of the biggest hurdles for college stars can be an unwillingness to be developed, and coached. In this aspect Newton was brilliant- working in perfect harmony with private QB coach George Whitfield Jr., Chris Weinke at IMG academy, and finally Mike Shula with the Panthers in order to completely re-work his footwork, field vision and movement in the pocket. That ‘grade A plutonium' that Jim Harbaugh spoke about last year? Well, the Carolina Panthers are only now just harnessing that energy.
The Cam Newton you saw in training camp wasn't the same player we saw in college. His release was better; he drove his passes through his front foot more, looked more comfortable moving around a dirty pocket, and had a much better sense of when he needed to find an outlet when a play was breaking down. Despite all this, Cam Newton is still not perfect. There are elements to his game that still need to be honed, and after the jump I'll be looking at five ways he can make a bigger impact in year two with some slight corrections.
More after the jump
Fighting the habit of throwing off the back foot
Watching tape on Cam Newton from last year is very reassuring for his future as a quarterback. If you go back and look at early tape of Joey Harrington or Ryan Leaf you see players who don't have a feeling for where they should go with the football. Their interceptions are a direct result of not having the awareness of where the defense is. With Cam Newton the vast majority of his interceptions in 2011 came from throwing off his back foot under pressure. What's relieving about this is that you can see where he's trying to go with the football, and you can see logical, sound thought patterns behind what he's looking to do; however, he has a tendency to fall back on old habits and rock back on his back foot when throwing. This is turn causes the pass to come out high, and without as much velocity- two things that are tantalizing to an NFL defensive back. If he learns how to stop doing this we'll see a drastic reduction in his turnovers.
Becoming more aware at the line of scrimmage
This is something that will naturally come with time, but it's clear that Newton still doesn't have a complete command of NFL defensive schemes pre-snap. While he was comfortable calling audibles, there were other times where he failed to notice a blitzing linebacker pre-snap and adjust the protection. Given his propensity to be a tireless student of the game, this will come with time- and when he figures out how he can use his versatility as a mismatch with defenses he's seeing, watch out.
Knowing when it's okay to give up on a play
This is always a contentious issue among fans- when is it okay to give up on a play? Over the last two years we've run the gamut from Jimmy Clausen, who threw the ball away far too early, to Newton whose competitive fire almost never lets him give up. Past players like John Elway are lauded for their never-die attitude, but there is a happy medium where a player can extend the play in crunch time, but also know when it's okay to fight another day; Eli Manning has this understanding.
It's time to hang up the towel
In and of itself, I don't have any problems with Cam Newton leaving the field after a stalled drive and ruminating on the past with a towel over his head, however this can have negative effects on the rest of a football team. If Cam is mad, upset, furious then he should externalize it, take his grievances to his teammates and rally them for the next drive. Part of being a leader is being willing to tell the rest of the players what he needs as a QB, and as long as it's done tactfully it can be a galvanizing event that fortifies the offense. It comes with youth, but separating himself is not the right move, even if he's furious. I suspect we'll see a lot less of this in 2012, and more of him emulating a player he admires- Peyton Manning; a quarterback who is a fierce competitor, but when something goes wrong he simply trots off the field and immediately starts breaking down the photos with coaches, looking to correct what went wrong.
Hold the mustard!
Comparing Cam Newton to a puppy is no way intended to be derogatory, but it's a comparison that I think it apt. Last season he didn't show an understanding of his own strength as a passer, often putting way too much into his passes- particularly on a short field near the red zone. While he was able to find TEs in small spaces, he didn't show great touch on passes to receivers on slants, outs and drags inside the red zone. Thankfully we had a backup plan, because Newton was able to simply scamper into the red zone when needed. In order to become a complete QB he'll need to get a better understanding of when and how he can put touch on the football. This is another improvement I think we'll see sooner, rather than later.
All in all, Cam Newton is light-years ahead of where he should be developmentally, but he's still a quarterback who is putting it all together. If Mike Shula and co. can coax these small improvements out of him I have little doubt we could see a mammoth year from the young QB, avoiding the ‘sophomore slump' in the process.