Unquestionably, quarterback is the most important position in football, and quite possibly, professional sports. Over the span of his two-year career in Charlotte, the Panthers have relied heavily on Cam Newton. So Cam goes, the Offense goes.
By and large, Newton has been phenomenal. Holding numerous records, including the most passing yards of any quarterback in their first two seasons, under the direction of Mike Shula and Rob Chudzinski, Cam led the Panthers to the twelfth ranked offense in 2012 (360.7 yards per game; edging out Aaron Rodgers' Packers, Joe Flacco's Ravens, and Eli Manning's Giants), behind a less than shaky offensive line.
However, Newton certainly had his low points in 2012, including the game versus Seattle, which, aesthetically speaking, was the worst game of his career; if not for a second-half drive, Newton likely finishes with a sub 30% completion percentage.
For the purposes of this review, we'll focus exclusively on Newton. Backup Derek Anderson is established, and showed very well in relief of Newton during the season finale versus New Orleans. Jimmy Clausen, while often maligned by fans, is more than capable as the third string quarterback; it's only a matter of time before he's competing for a job elsewhere. The camaraderie between the three QB's is nice, and isn't worth breaking up for a single roster spot, or to save a million dollars in cap space, at least in my opinion.
An athletic freak, a weapon from the pocket, and in the running game, Cam Newton is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. But in order to reach the apex of his position, he must master the minutia of quarterbacking. For the most part, Newton is a technically proficient quarterback; he undoubtedly understands the fundamentals of the position, and is able to execute them in-game.
There is no single glaring error to Cam's game, where, "If he fixes this, then he'll be elite." Like a Brady or a Manning, Newton must now employ his mechanics on every single play.
If/When Newton does not utilize proper mechanics, or awareness, on any given play, disaster could strike, as in this case versus Chicago.
The following play is the fourth quarter pick-six versus Chicago; a timing route in which Newton takes a three-step drop and is supposed to hit Steve Smith on a curl route.
Immediately as he takes the snap, Newton has committed his first cardinal sin. On three-step drops a QB should keep his head straightforward, not allowing defenders to get a read on his intentions. By immediately keying on his target, Newton alerts the CB covering Smith that the ball is probably coming his way.
As Newton finishes his drop, he's still staring down Smith.
The Bears DB takes note of Newton's gaze and makes a break on the ball. Of course Smith stumbles, and Jennings is able to make an uncontested play on the ball.
It's unlikely that Jennings is able to make the interception with Smith upright, but the point remains that Newton must not stray from his fundamentals.
This isn't a recurring problem. Here's a counterexample from Week 14 versus Atlanta.
As Cam takes the snap his head is forward and he is staring down the free safety. His intended target on this timing route is Steve Smith on a skinny post from the slot.
Newton finishes his three-step drop before turning to Smith, who is making the break on his route.
Finishing his drop, Newton plants his right foot in the ground, brings the ball back to his launch point and releases the pass to Smith.
Smith makes the catch and picks up a gain of 10 yards.
By no means is Newton is slacking off, or dogging it, but every single play commands absolute focus. Just a single misstep can result in a turnover.
Newton does a pretty good job at reading coverages, but like most young QB's, is susceptible to reading a coverage wrong.
This play occurs on a key third down late in the fourth quarter of the Panthers matchup versus Dallas, Week 7. On this 3rd down and 10, OC Rob Chudzinski has called a snag concept. I'm led to believe Newton's read on this play is high to low, meaning his progression should move from TE Greg Olsen on the flag route, to Louis Murphy on the comeback route.
Pre-snap Newton reads the Cowboys FS, whose positioning suggests that he will cover the top of Olsen's 7 route. However, just seconds before the snap, the FS moves into the box, a sign of his intended man coverage on Olsen.
As he takes the snap, Newton misses the FS's movement, and instead zones in on Murphy. In this instance, the CB covering Murphy reads Newton's eyes, and closes tighter on the WR.
The CB makes a great break on the ball and disrupts the pass, ending the Panthers drive.
Missing a golden opportunity, just as Cam releases the pass, Olsen gets behind the Dallas FS, the Cowboys last line of defense.
The primary receiver on this play, and a foot race away from the endzone, Olsen is visibly upset.
One problem in pocket presence that Newton does experience chronically is his ostensible aversion to stepping up into the pocket, as in this case versus New Orleans, Week 17.
From this 12 personnel set (1 RB 2 TE), I Left formation, the Panthers run a play-action bootleg.
Again, not a recurring problem, but Newton and Williams do not do a great job of selling the fake; the ball does not enter Williams' proverbial bread basket, and Newton is too quick to pull it away.
On all bootlegs, or waggles, the QB should have his head up and watching the defensive end on the playside, so that he can abort the waggle, or stretch it out farther (we'll touch on this again later). In this instance, Newton is not watching the DE.
Consequentially, Newton doesn't become aware of the DE until he has beaten RT Byron Bell, and is seconds away from sacking him. Even still, Newton still has a clean pocket to step into and find a receiver.
On this play, both Greg Olsen and Gary Barnidge are wide open as they make their breaks. Should Newton 'climb the ladder' he could hit either TE for a first down.
Newton instead takes his eyes off of the play, and attempts a spin move on DE Cam Jordan.
Cam is able to evade Jordan, and gain three yards on a scramble, but he missed the better play.
Here is a similar play versus Denver, in which there isn't such a palatable ending.
On this play-action fake, Williams is moving away from Newton before he even reaches the RB.
Miller sheds the block, and Cam still has his eyes on a receiver. Had he taken note of Miller, now would be the perfect time to plant his feet and get a throw off.
Finally seeing Miller, Newton stops his momentum.
Newton attempts another spin move, this time just barely escaping the more athletic Miller's grasp.
Newton, with Miller in hot pursuit, rolls back into the pocket, staring down WR Brandon Lafell the entire time. Not pictured here, DB Quinton Carter reads Newton's eyes and is already breaking on the ball before it is thrown.
Carter undercuts the route and makes the interception as Newton is tackled by Miller.
To the utter shock and displeasure of this member of the event staff, Carter scores a touchdown.
On normal drop backs, we don't want Newton to have his eyes down watching pass rushers, but when he is rolling out, completing a waggle, Newton needs to gauge the progress of the playside DE so he can adjust accordingly, if necessary.
Perhaps a sign of his relative inexperience as a QB, Cam doesn't always have the smoothest drops. Footwork is paramount for a QB. If a QB doesn't make a clean cut drop, it becomes much harder to make an accurate throw. For the most part Newton does make good drops, but, especially in the red zone, achieving a smooth drop is critical, with the compressed area of the field, and the tighter passing lanes.
Common in the Panthers red zone offense, Newton fakes a draw after he receives the snap.
Rather than completing a three step drop, Newton makes two quick hops backwards. Without knowing what was going through his head at this moment, Cam needs to know that he has time to complete his drop. On this play the Panthers max protected with Olsen and Mike Tolbert staying in to block.
Practically parallel to the line of scrimmage, Newton whips a pass to Steve Smith, who is breaking on his crossing route.
Consequentially, the pass sails five yards over Smith's head.
Playing back to that central theme again, Cam knows how to make a smooth drop, Cam has made hundreds of smooth drops. It's just a matter of implementing that fundamental skill on every single play applicable.
Fundamentally sound plays aren't always exciting, or memorable, but without them the offense stagnates. Here is one such play.
Back to Week 14 versus Atlanta, the Panthers are facing second-down and ten. From this 12 personnel set Newton's first two reads are TE Greg Olsen and WR Steve Smith. Countering with Cover 3, Atlanta will effectively take away both Olsen and Smith.
Newton takes the snap and completes a perfect three-step drop, staring down the Mike LB and the FS as he completes his hitch-step.
Promptly realizing that his first two targets are covered, Newton finds his auxiliary receiver, Mike Tolbert, planting his feet and hitting his checkdown.
With a free release, Tolbert is able to pickup seven yards before being tackled.
Instead of being stuck in third-down and ten at midfield, the Panthers are now faced with a more than manageable third-down and three, on the fringe of field goal range.
Cam Newton is well on his way to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He has the skills, and he has the mechanics, now Newton must implement the fundamentals every down. As the game slows down for him, this will only come easier. The experience Newton has accumulated over the past two seasons has been invaluable. With an improved offensive line, which should lead to a consistent running game, Newton should be ready to make it back to the Pro Bowl, and hopefully lead his team to the playoffs.