Jonathan Jones over at the Charlotte Observer wrote an interesting article Monday detailing a growing competition between the Carolina Panthers' two young figureheads; namely, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. Apparently quite the rivalry is forming as Cam, the 2011 Offensive Rookie-of-the-Year and our very own Superman, works to ensure that the Panthers' identity going forward is that of his high-flying offense.
"We have our own way of communicating and challenging each other, knowing that you know I just don't want to throw a pick to him. Anybody else - no I just want to protect the football. If I were to throw an interception, it's not going to be in 59's hands, just being that he has so much control over that defense." - Cam Newton
Kuechly, on the other hand, has been affectionately dubbed "Clark Kent" by some here at Cat Scratch Reader as Cam's alter-ego on the other side of the ball. After helping the Panthers' much-maligned defense rebound in 2012, the reigning Defensive Rookie-of-the-Year -- and quarterback of the defense -- seems unwilling to be overshadowed.
Let's go back and take a look at how this friendly rivalry has come to be and analyze its potential effects on the team as a whole...
The Rise of Superman
A little over two years ago the Carolina Panthers were in the worst state of disarray they had ever experienced. The George Siefert debacle was bad, but the 2010 season was nearly impossible to watch. Between the pre-CBA veteran purge, John Fox's lame-duck status, Marty Hurney's numerous failed draft-day gambles and the seemingly perpetual visits from the injury bug, the 2010 Panthers were the NFL's version of the "Bad News Bears". Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen was thrown to the wolves, and whether you believe he was a bad selection or was just put in a terrible situation, he undoubtedly bore far greater than his share of the blame for a team that finished with a league-worst 2-14 record.
Enter 2011. New coach Ron Rivera needed to get off on the right foot, and that meant injecting some life into one of the most anemic offenses of all-time. He needed wins, yes, but more than that he needed a plan. The roster was depleted, and even if he and Hurney had been able to strike gold on every single draft pick the Panthers were not realistically expecting to compete in 2011. What they needed was something to build around. With Andrew Luck returning to Stanford unexpectedly, the mantle of "Lynchpin" fell on the wide shoulders of Cameron Newton.
Newton answered the call and took the NFL by storm in his tumultuous rookie season. He is an insanely talented young man, and it certainly showed as he stood in the pocket with uncanny poise and broke nearly every meaningful rookie passing record. He likewise ran his way into the record books with the most rushing touchdowns in a season by any quarterback in NFL history. However, the 2011 season wasn't all roses. For all of his heroics on the offensive side of the field, Cam could not fix the Panthers' defense. We allowed nearly 27 points-per-game, putting us near the bottom of the league in that category. We also had a tendency to lose momentum in the second half of games as Cam compensated for the defense's failings by trying to do too much, instead of taking what opposing defenses would give him. All of this culminated in the Panthers' second losing season in as many years, and many pundits and fans loudly questioned Cam's leadership abilities and at-times "sulky" demeanor.
Much like Superman, the character on which he bases his on-field persona, Cam is a larger-than-life individual and truly seems to think of himself as an invincible super-hero. He takes the weight of the world on his broad shoulders and often refuses to share the burden with those in a position to help. Of course, these negatives hardly detract from Cam's unrivaled gifts. There was a play during Cam's rookie season, and even though it was a broken play I remember it being the moment that I first thought "this guy is not human". I believe we were playing the Saints, and we had just crossed the 50 yard line. Cam dropped back to pass and stood in the pocket as a defender flew through the line untouched and drilled him right in the abdomen. Cam went down, but much more slowly than seemed possible due to the force of the hit. The truly amazing thing, however, was that Newton seemed to merely flick his wrist and slung a bullet almost 60 yards downfield and through the back of the endzone as he was falling backward! We all know how the season ended, but it is safe to say that regardless of wins and losses fans had to be excited about what we were watching unfold.
In 2012, Superman's nemesis finally made an appearance. Just as we were all beginning to think that the only person who could stop Cam Newton was Cam Newton, Rob Chudzinski AKA Lex Luthor stepped in to prove otherwise. The first half of the 2012 season was an unmitigated disaster, and Chud's star-crossed foray into the read-option was uglier than my thrice broken little toe. Consequently, halfway through the season Marty Hurney was sent packing. With a new-found fire lit under him, Chud apparently decided to peruse the comment threads here on CSR and abandon his ill-advised offensive scheme for a more north-south rushing attack, mere months after we lowly plebes had gently suggested such a move. Okay, maybe it wasn't so gentle...
Chud: But, I...I have Cam and he likes to run the read-option, and when it works it looks so damn good.
Hurney: BUT IT'S NOT WORKING ROB! WE SUCK RIGHT NOW!
Too late to save the season, Chud finally seemed to figure things out, and when he altered his play-calling Cam put together a very strong run to end the season with a 5-1 record, 1474 yards passing, 347 yards rushing, 14 total TDs, and only 2 INTs through the final six games. An apparent Iron Maiden fan, Chudzinski took some sage advice from one of their most famous songs and "ran to the hills" of Cleveland as fast as his legs would take him.
Moving forward, as far as I am concerned Cam has earned the right to call himself "Superman", and I will watch with glee as he symbolically rips that shirt open every time he breaks the plane of the end-zone. The pantomime is boisterous and audacious, and very fitting for a guy who loves to draw the enemy's crosshairs on himself; at once daring anyone to take him on while also redirecting their attention away from his friends and allies. These are all unarguably the traits of a superhero.
Clark Kent's Revolution
Luke Kuechly was a value pick in the 2012 NFL draft. On paper linebacker looked like a strength for the Panthers, but multiple injuries each to Jon Beason and Thomas Davis made the waters quite a bit murkier. Coming off of Cam's huge rookie season, the offense looked to be much farther along than the defense, and we needed a playmaker in a big way. Keek was considered to be the most pro-ready player in the draft and a pretty sure-fire pick, and there was little speculation that Hurney was looking at anyone else at number nine. When the selection was made, every Panther fan rejoiced. The rest of the nation seemed to think "meh... They did what they were supposed to do; so what?"
Luke lived up to every inch of his billing and then some. He showed up to training camp ready to work, he learned his playbook quickly, and he said and did all the right things. When the season started he accepted being moved to the weak-side with grace, never complaining or giving any indication of unhappiness; and when Beason went down and he was asked to take over the Mike he stepped in and became the stud we all expected him to be. For the first time since Beason's legs began to betray him the Panthers had a quarterback on the defensive side of the ball. While the offense suffered under Chud's insanity, the defense blossomed under McDermott's plan paired with Keek's leadership. After all was said and done, Kuechly led the NFL in tackles for the season. The Panthers' defense improved from 28th in yards and 27th in scoring to 10th and 18th respectively, and going into the 2013 season we have national experts predicting Kuechly to become the next great linebacker.
A Good Problem to Have
Superman casts a long shadow, and I sometimes wonder if Clark Kent ever got an inferiority complex; of course, that is not the kind of "thought bubble" that would have ever been included in the comics as it would have made the Man of Steel seem too human. Regardless, I have watched enough movies about cops going too deep undercover to realize that a long-term duplicitous lifestyle can take a toll on one's psyche. Luke Kuechly is how I imagine Clark Kent would be if he just decided one day that he had had enough of taking a backseat to Superman, and that he was going to fight back in his own way.
The consummate pro, Clark Kent is in many ways the antithesis of Superman. He is understated and known to be intelligent, organized, and a great leader. Superman is known for flying around in a loud blue unitard with a flowing cape and is strong, fast, and fearless. Clark always makes sure everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there, and Superman just tries to make sure everyone stays out of his way while he takes care of business. Clark wears glasses; Superman wastes a lot of buttons... The one thing that should never be forgotten, however, is that Clark Kent has every bit of Superman within him, just hidden under a few extra layers of cloth...
And Rivera said communication on the defensive side of the ball during workouts is the best it's been since he became the head coach in 2011. A lockout-shortened preseason in 2011 and injuries to former middle linebacker Jon Beason in 2012 means there was plenty of room for improvement, but Rivera said Kuechly's communication in the huddle has "gone to the next level."
Ultimately, unless our Superman has made some unprecedented strides this offseason in being able to lean on his allies for help, I am going to have to cast my vote for Clark and Monsters, Inc. becoming the new "identity" of the Carolina Panthers... For now. Eventually though, the fate of the world will be at stake (or at least a Lombardi Trophy), and just as we all know not to go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line, so do we know that Superman is the guy you call when there is no one else capable of doing the job.
Whichever side of the alter-ego wins the Panthers will inevitably reap the rewards, and all I know is that it's going to be fun to watch...