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The Optimist: Cam Newton is back; the question is whether or not he can maintain

Washington Football Team v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The NFL is in the business of selling fairy tales, not delivering them. With two chances to deliver a game winning drive against the Washington Football Team and a tidal wave of reunion-themed story lines, Cam Newton and the Panthers offense were not able to bring home a victory that would have been written as a legend. Last week he repeated to the media that you couldn’t write a better story than his two first plays back in a Panthers uniform going for touchdowns against the Cardinals in Arizona. Turns out he was correct. I cannot write a better story than that today.

What I can write today is a more hopeful story. Last week was the euphoria of reconnection and the flash of a couple of plays. The emotions and highlights, for all their joy, could not tell us much about Newton’s new future with the Panthers. This week we have a full game to use for our prognostications. Quickly put, I saw nothing yesterday that makes me concerned for Cam’s ability to learn or execute Joe Brady’s offense.

This game was ultimately the story of two quarterbacks, one coasting on the fumes of a playbook he has only had for ten days and the other posting the performance of his life.

Cam Newton

I want badly to say that he’s back. I know that I want him to be. I think he is. I also know that Sam Darnold was starting to make me a believer before his wheels both fell off and caught on fire. Newton has never had the inconsitency of a quarterback like Darnold, but he does have legitimate, lingering concerns about his durability.

One good game, albeit one that fell distressingly short of greatness, does not equate to a comfortable assumption of a good season. His 77.7% completion rating and three total touchdowns were encouraging, but we have to see him repeat that kind of game. Right now, I’m firmly in “golly gee, this sure could be something” territory. Emphasis on the could. In three games if Cam looks like the player we saw today, but with more familiarity and flexibility with the playbook, then we can talk about him being truly ‘back.’ But I’ll wait until the end of the season, to see a fuller physical stress load placed on his shoulders, before I feel any kind of confident in declaring that the Panthers are back and a force* to be contended with.

*We’ll talk more about the defense later.

This isn’t all to say that Cam’s play yesterday was flawless. I thought it was promising. Most of his decisions were correct, but there was one ball in the third quarter that may well have been intercepted by a Football Team defender if another Football Team player hadn’t tipped it first.

Most of his throws were great, but there was at least one third down the team should have converted if his pass to McCaffrey had just been a hair more accurate. There were several completions that fell a touch behind their targets. It was difficult to say how much of that was inaccuracy versus keeping the ball out of dangerous territory in front of a target.

These are similar to the mild flaws we all noticed in the first three weeks of Darnold’s success. Flaws that ultimately grew into defining features. Cam is lacking the high risk-low reward nature of many of Darnold’s mistakes, so I don’t think he is in danger of that kind of collapse. But I do think that these kinds of mistakes are worth mentioning in case they grow from regrettable to expected.

Taylor Heinicke

The other former Panthers quarterback stole a bit of the spotlight—not to mention the win—in a standout performance against a Panthers defense that was coming off of a stunning effort against the Arizona Cardinals. It felt like somebody told them this game was the third quarter of their season.

The second coming of Jake Delhomme had plenty of time, despite being sacked three times, and used it to launch strikes to Terry McLaurin all over the field. The offensive line that gave him that time made as good an effort in the running game, allowing Washington to produce 190 yards on the ground.

Carolina’s defense requires a reckoning this week. Are they the guys who can get pushed around like yesterday or are they the speedy terror that has led the way in every win the Panthers have seen this season?

At no point in this game did it feel like the Panthers defense was capable of intentionally stopping a Taylor Heinicke offense. That’s unacceptable. It’s obviously not the kind of effort that Phil Snow is going to be happy with and it’s not the kind of effort that any of the players are going to be happy with. The entire unit seemed immune to the much vaunted energy supplied by Cam Newton’s return.

Something has to change here.

What’s next

The Washington Football Team (8-69) was actually penalized more than the Carolina Panthers (7-65) yesterday. They also took more sacks. The difference in this game was that the Football team offense was able to claw back from third and long with regularity. The Panthers, on the other hand, were rarely able to convert on third and short.

More time working with the offense and learning the playbook will render a healthy, competent Newton as capable of changing that story on third down. I don’t know what, precisely, needs to change to flip the script for the defense in the same way, but I do know that we have seen them be successful in that way before.

A couple of weeks ago saw us looking at this team and saying the only missing piece was a quarterback. There were rumblings then of dissatisfaction with the coaching. Those rumblings are louder today. I stand by the assessment that the quarterback was the more consequential piece than any coaching short comings. That piece might now exist.

Whether Newton is rusty or diminished will come out with time, but that is also time that we get to watch this coaching staff. Can they solve the puzzle now that they might have their missing piece? Are the third quarter short comings and inconsistent play just who they are? I won’t be complaining until I’ve had time to watch. Hell, we gave Ron Rivera nine years to prove that he was who we thought he was. For this season, whether or not Newton is or can be back is a far more interesting question.

The thing for Panthers fans to watch for in the short term is how Newton’s shoulder is affecting his game. I don’t think it did yesterday. Newton showed incredible talent and poise on multiple throws. He delivered balls with accuracy, velocity, and limited risk. That’s a hell of a thing to say about a guy that no other team would touch. Clearly his game wasn’t without flaws, but nothing I saw against the Football Team was anything that couldn’t be explained by rust. That isn’t everything, but it was a necessary first step.