by Cian Fahey
A 7-8-1 record doesn't mean the Carolina Panthers had an easy ride to a division title this year. From losing Jordan Gross and Steve Smith in the offseason to losing Greg Hardy during the regular season and often being forced to play with very limited offensive line combinations, the Panthers have faced plenty of adversity.
And if anyone can claim to have overcome the most adversity in Carolina and maybe the whole NFL this year, it's starting quarterback Cam Newton.
Ankle surgery in March took important training camp activities away from Newton and his rebuilt receiving corps. While he was available for training camp and the preseason, he was still clearly hampered by the lingering effects of that surgery. Newton then suffered fractured ribs that not only took away a portion of his preseason preparation, but also ruled him out for Week 1 of the regular season. Once Newton returned to the field, he was asked to elevate a very poor supporting cast of offensive linemen and receivers with muted athleticism.
Newton's athleticism has always been an important part of his game, but his development since his first season has made him a dangerous and consistent pocket passer too. That aspect of his game has allowed him to elevate his teammates in recent weeks.
Given the state of his supporting cast, Newton never had a chance to put up a consistent or spectacular statistical output. His best wide receiver is an inconsistent route runner with unreliable hands and limited ball skills. He's also a rookie. Kelvin Benjamin has made plenty of eye-catching plays this year, but his numbers have been inflated because Carolina has been force-feeding him the football. On a more talented roster, Benjamin could very easily be a backup or bench player. He has been that inconsistent. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant were added in the offseason to provide veteran consistency, but both players are so physically limited at this stage of their careers that they were never going to be effective within their respective roles. Avant was eventually released.
Newton's most impressive statistical performance of the season came in Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints. He completed 21 of 33 passes in that game for 226 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also ran the ball 12 times for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Of course, fitting with the rest of how his season had gone, as soon as Newton peaked, he was injured again. This time he was taken to a hospital with two fractures in his back after being involved in a car crash. Newton would miss the Week 15 matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before returning to the field in Week 16 to face the Cleveland Browns. Newton completed 18 of 31 passes in that game for just 201 yards, one touchdown and one interception while also running 12 times for 63 yards and one touchdown. His statistics were decent, but his performance from the pocket was even better.
On this play, Newton's right tackle is very easily beaten by Paul Kruger. Kruger still has some distance to turn the corner and close on Newton in the pocket. Newton buys time by stepping up and away in the pocket to extend that distance. Importantly, he keeps his eyes downfield while doing this so he can release the ball just before Kruger closes on him. From a tight space, Newton shows off a compact throwing motion and finds Cotchery running a deep crossing route. Cotchery has to adjust slightly to his pass, but it was a good throw from Newton considering how he had to release the football.
Newton's arm strength has always been very impressive and it's something that allows him to fit the ball into tight windows or push it past defensive backs who have good positioning on the outside. On this specific play, his arm strength allowed him to throw the ball across his body after adjusting to the pressure so his momentum was going in the opposite direction.
In the fourth quarter of that game, Newton sealed the victory with a similar but even more impressive play.
There are a couple of important elements to note in this play. The first comes in the pocket as Newton must work against a five-man pass rush, which is poorly picked up by his protection. Running back Mike Tolbert is late to pick up the incoming edge rusher from the right side of the offense. As this is developing, Newton has his eyes to the left of the field where Greg Olsen is being double-covered by a defensive back and linebacker. Newton's eyes draw the deep safety further towards that side of the field.
Again, Newton is able to step up in the pocket, but this time he must make a more decisive movement after his initial advancement because Barkevious Mingo has gotten around Tolbert so quickly. While advancing forward into the pocket of space between the tackles, Newton brings his eyes back towards the other side of the field. Mingo is tracking him down from behind, but Newton again shows off a compact delivery to get rid of the football before the rush can affect him.
To this point, Newton has negated poor play from his pass protection and come off a receiving option who was never going to be open on his route.
Because Newton had initially looked to the left, the deep safety had moved further infield. However, because the receiver Newton initially looked at was double-covered and ran to the far sideline, that deep safety wasn't aggressive with his movement. When Newton brought his eyes back to the other side of the field, the deep safety was in position to close on the receiver running down the opposite seam.
As Newton begins his throwing motion, the safety is pushing off his right foot to come back towards the seam route.
Despite the positioning of the safety, Newton can comfortably negate him with his arm talent. The velocity of his pass and the outside placement of the football means that even though the deep safety breaks well on the route from a good position, he has no chance at touching the football. Newton throws his receiver open after adjusting in the pocket to mask the failing of his pass protection.
Elevating teammates is something that is often talked about with the quarterback position but rarely explained. The way a quarterback elevates his teammates is by masking failed blocks and creating separation for his receivers. These are things that can be done in different ways, but are typically most effective from within the confines of the pocket. Newton is now doing this regularly, and it's something that is going to make him and the Panthers offense a tough unit to match up to moving forward.
While working effectively from the pocket, Newton is still a dual-threat quarterback. The beauty of this, though, is that his natural instinct isn't to run the ball.
In the Browns game, Newton ran 12 times for 63 yards and a touchdown. A large chunk of those yards came on designed runs, but when he scrambled, he scrambled intelligently. Newton gave his receivers as much time as he possibly could to get open down the field before deciding to break off and run for gains with his legs. He wasn't ever quick to leave the pocket without good reason, and he wasn't simply dropping his eyes against pressure. On the one play he did show very little poise, he threw an interception while trying to find Jonathan Stewart.
A certain stigma exists with running quarterbacks in the NFL, but you can be an effective dual-threat quarterback if you're smart about running the football. Newton is a smart runner.
Newton continued his exceptional play in Week 17, but that game featured the Atlanta Falcons defense, a unit that typically helps the opposing quarterback to look good. In this weekend's game against the Arizona Cardinals, Newton will need to have one of his best games of the season because of the quality of his opposition. Everything that he has done in recent weeks suggests that he can continue to elevate his teammates and be productive in those difficult circumstances.
Of course, with Ryan Lindley on the other side of the field, he likely won't have to be that productive.