Since before his name was announced as the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft, critics have cited Cam Newton’s quarterback rating and completion percentage as proof of the quarterback’s ineffectiveness.
Now, with Cam’s passing numbers through the roof, broadcasters are saying his maturation is complete and it’s all come together for Cam in 2018 – but just as the arbitrary numbers posing as a case against Cam were flawed, so too are the numbers used to confirm his ‘ascent’ this year.
Sports, at it’s core, isn’t about averages. It’s not about how you do out of 100 attempts. At the highest level, the level where we all pace, or sit on the edge of our seats clutching a pillow or loved one while hushing those around us in nervous anticipation for the play that is about to unfold, sports is about moments.
A moment where a little used wide receiver slides in the end zone on a monsoon-soaked field to cement a division title or a safety from the University of Oregon comes out of a pile with a late-game interception to clinch a first-round bye. A moment where an exhausted team pulls out something special on the first play of double overtime or a franchise linebacker weaves in and out of tacklers to score a touchdown. Sometimes the moments last for hours, as Panther fans in Bank of America Stadium held an day long exorcism/coronation party when the team avenged their worst playoff defeat ever and clinched the NFC berth in Super Bowl 50.
After one such moment – a fourth-quarter three-score comeback on the road against the defending Super Bowl Champs and then the most complete games the Panthers’ offense played all season in Weeks 8 and 9, Cam’s name started to get mentioned as a dark horse MVP candidate. His passing numbers were spectacular and the offense posting 42 points against the Bucs only seemed to cement the notion that this new weapon-rich attack led by Cam Newton and Norv Turner was a force to reckoned with.
In the following three weeks, the Panthers have failed to crack 30 points in all three games and have gone 0-3, leaving their playoff future in serious doubt for the first time this season.
The @panthers are the only team over the past decade (2009-18) to lose three straight games in a season with a 100+ passer rating in each game. CAR had a low QBR in one of those games. 100+ rating = 72% win rate in #NFL this season, down from past yrs as high ratings proliferate.
— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) November 26, 2018
Make no mistake, the statistics have looked great.
Under Ron Rivera, the Panthers have followed a tried and true approach to winning NFL games. Try to get up early on opponents and use the final drive of the first half and the first drive of the second – always defer! – to extend leads, thereby using the scoreboard to generate more pressure on the opposing offense. In their last four games, the Panthers have scored first – against the Seahawks, technically they scored first – but came up empty on their opening drive, after the offense bogged down in the red zone and failed on a fourth-and-short attempt and then had to settle for a short field goal on their second drive.
The Panthers got a sterling start from Cam as he completed his first 14 passes; they also got a historic effort from Christian McCaffrey, as he posted over 100 yards rushing and receiving on the afternoon. While on the whole, both were productive, they struggled in individual moments – early in the second quarter, Cam got the ball to CMC with a screen on the right side with fields of green and three blockers in front, with only one tackler to beat. That tackler was stud linebacker, Bobby Wagner. In an instant, CMC had to pick to go inside or out.
McCaffrey chose out. Wagner won that battle, stopping CMC short of even a first down and following another unsuccessful run up the middle, the Panthers were forced to punt.
The team emerged from halftime looking to extend their 13-10 lead to two scores for the first time. After Cam converted a critical third-and-8 with a 26-yard run, with the ball first-and-10 in the Seahawks red zone, Cam threw a seam route to his backup tight end Chris Manhertz, who was double-covered. While it was a spectacular play by safety Bradley McDougald, the result was still an interception in the end zone – seven plays later the Seahawks had the lead.
Instead of being in control, the Panthers were chasing.
On the opposite side of the ball, Luke Kuechly made play after play, but one of the biggest plays of the day came when he and Thomas Davis had a Seahawk runner bottled up in the backfield, in Seahawks territory, before Luke committed a costly face mask penalty, negating not only the loss, but giving the Seahawks 15 yards and an automatic first down. Try as he might, Luke couldn’t make up for the penalty; the Panthers defense wouldn’t get a single second half stop against the Seahawks and in a fleeting second, their best player foiled one of their best shots.
While Cam’s totals have been stellar, he’s struggled at critical junctures this season. Against Dallas, Cam took a critical sack and then a prolonged pause that cost the team a shot at a touchdown before the half. Against Atlanta, a critical sack taken before the half allowed the Falcons to flip the game. Facing the Redskins, Cam closed the game without giving his receivers a chance on his final three passes. The team packed it in early on Thursday night after a solid start was foiled by a blown coverage from James Bradberry, followed by an awful pick-six that gave the Steelers and the crowd all they needed. Against the Lions, Cam led a potential game-winning drive, but sailed the pass on the two-point conversion. On Sunday, the Panthers had the ball first-and-10 with 2:00 to go, in a tie game, on their opponents 40-yard line.
Within 50 seconds, the Seahawks had the game all but in the bag.
This responsibility doesn’t fall exclusively on Cam, but in those times when your team needs you, that’s when a franchise QB emerges. We saw it on Sunday, when Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to 20 second half points and on the game-winning drive – we’ve seen Cam do it in BofA Stadium on plenty of other Sundays – hell, he did it just under five weeks ago in Philadelphia. This is the nature of the game.
The rules have never favored offenses more and it’s why the franchise QB takes home the biggest paycheck. It’s not fair or just, but it’s why Aaron Rodgers, Cam or Tom Brady can have pundits shouting from a mountain top after one primetime performance and speaking in hushed whispers after another, all in the same season – Newton has been holding the Panthers back, an MVP candidate and the reason for a loss all within the span of a month. It’s why Cam’s picture is in the header every time the Panthers lose.
Cam’s struggles in critical situations this season have been mirrored by his head coach’s difficulties with timeouts and game situations, with both scuffling to control the game’s most important moments. A week ago, Ron Rivera said he didn’t want to leave the game up to the toss of a coin when facing a Matthew Stafford-led attack which had punted on four of their last six drives. This week, Rivera was content to, at best, give the ball to a Super-Bowl winning QB with 100 seconds on the clock, while clinging to a 3-point lead.
This, despite the Panthers failing to stop the Seahawks on their previous five drives and a costly injury in the secondary which had plagued the Panthers all day. That was the decision Coach Rivera made when he decided to opt for a 52-yard field goal with just under two minutes left, instead of attempting to seal the game by converting on fourth-and-4 at the Seahawks 34-yard line.
For a team to have a chance at competing for the Super Bowl, either the team must be supremely talented or the coach or the QB needs to be able to influence tight games in the critical junctures – or in the best case scenario, both. The failings in these moments has the Panthers sitting at 6-5, with four of their losses coming in games where they shot themselves in the foot. With Rivera’s aggressive persona dry-rotting on the banks of the Catawba, the Panther players, led by Cam, must do more.
While the Panthers have been the better team on the majority of Sundays this fall, their record doesn’t reflect that and now with their backs against the wall, we’ll have to wait and see if this the kind of season where we all pull out our phones to capture special moments or whether we spend Sunday afternoons consoling ourselves with the warm embrace of positive statistics.
It seems pretty clear which are more important.