It's difficult to discuss Cam Newton's 2013 season without making it sound like a back-handed pejorative. Terms like "growing up" and "mature" have a nasty overtone that suggests the Panthers quarterback was child-like or under-developed entering the season. It's an endless battle against narrative, but in this case the third-year player did develop -- regardless of how you phrase it.
Newton's season was spectacular because it disarmed throngs of the ignorant who typified him as a box score quarterback, but not a successful one. His year ran head-first into thinly-veiled racial insults disguised as football analysis that ran the gamut from "he can't be a leader" to critiques about his smile. He's a quarterback who is young, self-confident and believes in his team -- all characteristics quarterbacks are supposed to have, lest they be critiqued for passivity and being a bad teammate.
There was maturation however, largely off the field. The young quarterback better understood the importance of learning from losses and the value in trusting his teammates. These factors helped improve the Panthers to 12-4 this year, but there is still plenty of work to be done in making Cam a complete quarterback.
This notion that a player is set in stone after three years is garbage. It suggests player development is akin to finding a missing person in that chances decrease the further someone moves from their rookie year. That said, something needs to improve and quickly. Three seasons are in the books and Newton still throws off his back foot in pressure situations, he tends to stare down Steve Smith and miss open outlets as a result. These are bad habits that should have been stomped out during his rookie year, and are still lingering.
It's hasty and presumptuous to pin the blame on offensive coaching, but there's an incongruity when we see a quarterback continuing to make the same mistakes as a passer while simultaneously hearing about how coachable he his.
Cam Newton by the numbers
292/473 (61.7 percent), 3,964 all-purpose yards, 7.1 YPA, 30 total touchdowns, 14 total turnovers
When the dust settled it was the worst statistical season of Newton's career. He posted his lowest mark in passing yards, and rushing yards since entering the league as well as career-lows in yards-per-attempt, and rushing yards per carry.
Newton excelled in one area: Turnovers. He continued a steady decline from 19 in his rookie year to 15 and now down to 14. This is a vital area of improvement for a quarterback on a team that emphasizes ball control over large amounts of yards, while increasing his touchdown total by three over 2012.
Perception is a funny thing, and it's interesting to see how Cam stacked up against a highly-touted quarterback who's regarded as one of the best in the NFL.
257/407 (63.1 percent), 3,896 yards, 8.2 YPA, 27 total touchdowns, 14 total turnovers
That's Russell Wilson, yep -- not bad.
Cam Newton became a more complete quarterback in 2013, despite the statistical dip in a lot of areas. He's now shown an ability to be a play-maker and a winner, the next step is rolling them together in one season. When that happens he'll transcend the position and finally achieve what so many think he can in the NFL.
He will need some help. The right side of the line needs an overhaul, the Panthers need to add two solid wide receivers and playcalling will need to find a way to create more big plays. His 7.1 yards-per-attempt ranked 17th in the league among quarterbacks who took over 25-percent of his team's snaps -- putting him on par with Matt Cassel and Ryan Fitzpatrick, that isn't good enough. It's easy to stike down that statistic with "he didn't have any weapons," but other players with less help were able to do more because of scheme, things need to be opened up.
One year ago I gave Newton a grade of B+, which some believed was too generous. I saw a player who took strides forward over his rookie season held back by several external factors, much as I do now. On paper there was a regression, on the field was a different story.
Final grade: A-