If Newton can continue to work on his footwork the sky's the limit (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)
The unsung hero of the Carolina Panthers' 2011 season was quarterback coach Mike Shula. Obviously Cam Newton and Chris Weinke deserve praise for their work, but Shula has too often been swept under the rug when we discuss his role in developing Cam. As the season progressed we saw Newton improve as a quarterback, even though it didn't always show in the box score. Rob Chudzinki was slowly able to diversify the playbook as Newton developed the ability to throw more and more complex routes. At times this hurt his completion percentage, but make no mistake-- far more was asked of Cam in the second half of the season.
Despite these more demanding requests, Cam improved as a player. He committed eight turnovers in the second half of the season compared to nine in the first, and improved his completion percentage from 59.7% to 60.3%-- minute improvements to be sure, but encouraging nevertheless, and in large part due to Mike Shula's tutelage.
Excitement is at a fever pitch as we move towards training camp which starts this weekend, and we'll look a little further on how Cam Newton can, and will improve this season.
I've seen a lot of QBs play, and none have the arm strength Cam Newton has, and what's scary is that most analysts haven't even realized it yet. When yearly discussions take place about who has the biggest arm we always see guys like Matthew Stafford and Michael Vick get praise, and rightfully so. However, if you saw Newton play in 2011 you saw scary, near-impossible passes where he would get the ball 50-60 yards down field while running backwards and throw off his back foot. Oftentimes these would be terribly innacurate passes, but impressive nonetheless.
Herein lies the first element Cam is currently working on-- his footwork. During the mini-camp following the 2012 draft, reports were that Newton was spending a huge amount of time on his backpedal, setting his feet, and driving through his passes. This will be the biggest difference for Newton in his second season. Those back-foot 60 yard passes were impressive, but ineffective. When Cam is able to set his feet correctly and really drive the ball through his front foot we'll see his passes go further, and with more accuracy.
Decision making can be difficult even for the most seasoned of quarterbacks, but for Newton he showed far better ability in this area than most rookie QBs. His ability to read and diagnose defenses quickly was a huge reason why he saw such success in 2011. This year Chud will be further opening the playbook and adding a lot more complexity. Those more difficult routes that Newton threw in the second half of the season will now be commonplace, and that will require him to be smarter with his passes. There are times Newton falls in love with his arm and tries to squeeze the ball into impossible windows. Granted, there were occasions where he made impressive passes, but also times where he missed easy yards in favor of forcing a more difficult pass that went into the arms of a defender. Newton's 17 interceptions must be lowered if the Panthers hope to hit the post-season in 2012.
We can over-analyze Cam Newton as a QB, but when it's all said and done these two key areas are all he needs to improve. Should he be able to advance his footwork and decision making he'll make that vital step from very good to elite, and with Mike Shula and the rest of the Panthers coaching staff helping him, this goal is attainable.