The second season of an NFL player's career is the "prove it" year, a chance for rookie sensations to show that their initial success was no fluke.
After a smashing debut in 2011, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is facing plenty of questions in 2012, making headlines for sulking on the sideline while his team has gotten off to a 1-4 start. But though I would agree that he's struggling, and I don't think he's moved to what I would consider the next level, he's not doing as badly as many people seem to think he is.
Newton didn't fall prey to many of the traps that await standout rookies, who often rest on their laurels, get distracted or forget to put in the work. I know he spent a lot of time at the Carolina Panthers' facility over the offseason, trying to get better as a player and a student of the game. But for some reason, he doesn't seem to have progressed as much as I would have expected.
With the Panthers off last Sunday, I took the opportunity to examine Newton's game in an attempt to figure out what's holding him back. I found six factors, some of which are outside of his control, that seem to be impacting Newton in 2012.
1) The Panthers' offensive approach isn't working.
This season, the Panthers implemented a spread-based offensive package that is very similar to what Newton successfully ran at Auburn. The hope likely was that this would fit Newton's skill set even better than Carolina's offense did last season. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way. NFL defenses are much faster than college defenses, and they've been able to handle the Panthers' college-style attack, hurting Newton as a runner. While it's true that the Washington Redskins have been able to run a similar offense with Robert Griffin III, they have a solid tight end in Fred Davis. Which leads me to my next point...
2) Jeremy Shockey wasn't brought back.
Shockey is a blocking tight end whose presence is clearly missed this season. Rather than re-sign the veteran, who also caught 37 passes for 455 yards and four scores with the Panthers in 2011, Carolina added a third running back in Mike Tolbert. Perhaps the Panthers felt that a blocking tight end would not be necessary in their new spread attack, but Newton's been hampered by this personnel decision.
3) Opponents have adjusted.
In 2011, Newton was enormously successful when facing six-man defensive fronts. Teams undoubtedly noticed that, because he's not seeing those six-man fronts this season; instead, opponents are countering with five-man fronts. It appears to be a sound strategy, because Newton's quarterback rating against five-man fronts is 39.4.
4) Time has not been on his side.
One big difference from last season is the Panthers are losing the time-of-possession battle. Through the first five games of 2011, the Panthers had the ball for an average of 30:45 per game, but in 2012, that number is down to 26:05. That significantly limits Newton and the offense's chances and opportunities. This is not solely the fault of the Panthers' defense; Newton and the offense aren't doing a great job of making first downs or controlling the clock.
5) Passing troubles.
Newton seems to be slow coming off his primary receiver, and he's not working through his progressions, which could stem from the lack of a blocking tight end. His rhythm, which is a key element to success for a quarterback, also seems to be out of whack this year. Finally, Newton is struggling to throw the ball at home, where he has a 53 percent completion rate and a 63.8 passer rating (compared to 66 percent and 98.4 on the road).
6) Learning to lose.
Newton made headlines (and made himself the target of a newspaper cartoonist) with his less-than-stoic behavior during a loss to the New York Giants in Week 3. I wonder if Newton is someone who's never really had to deal with any kind of failure or disappointment on the field. He'd enjoyed a meteoric rise through college and his first year as a pro, and now he and the Panthers aren't living up to the sky-high standards he's undoubtedly accustomed. This might be affecting his play.
To be sure, Newton has not performed as well as many people think he should. But expectations might have been a bit too high for the young quarterback and his team. We forget that only one of the Panthers' six wins in 2011 came against an opponent with a winning record, an opponent (the Houston Texans) that happened to be starting a third-string quarterback.
It's hard to criticize a guy too much when he's playing for a less-than-great squad. In addition to the Panthers' problems at tight end, they haven't gotten very good play from the offensive line, and this has also hampered Newton. Things are only going to get harder now that veteran center Ryan Kalil (who famously promised Carolina would contend for the Super Bowl this season) is out for the year.
The Panthers surely knew opposing defenses would try different things to limit Newton, and likely thought changing their offensive scheme would help them stay ahead of the curve. Instead, it's held them (and him) back. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is very good, and I think he'll be a head coach someday. But it would be very hard to dramatically the Panthers' offensive approach mid-season. Carolina is coming off a bye week, so perhaps we'll see some new looks. But they're also facing the Dallas Cowboys, who promise to be a tricky defensive matchup.
The bottom line is Newton isn't struggling as much as people think he is, and he hasn't slid backwards, development-wise. Michael Lombardi, in whom I have a lot of faith, picked Newton as one of his red-chip players before the season, and I still think he'll end up being that good. But Newton also hasn't advanced much and hasn't been helped by the Panthers' offensive game plan.
» My unsung defensive hero for Week 6 is Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. The rookie really stood out on Sunday, collecting 14 tackles and helping to hold the New England Patriots' potent rushing attack to 87 yards in Seattle's surprising win. My unsung hero on offense would be New York Jets running back Shonn Greene, who seemed to flip a switch, at least for one week. After averaging 2.9 yards per carry through the first five weeks of the season, Greene went off against the Indianapolis Colts, rushing 32 times for 161 yards and three touchdowns and nearly doubling his yards-per-carry mark.
» Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has now bested two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: the Patriots' Tom Brady and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers. He's the first rookie to beat two title-winners since 2010, when the Cleveland Browns' Colt McCoy took down Brady and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees.
» Phone Call of the Week: Bill Parcells called me to let me know that he owns a horse running this Saturday in the $250,000 Empire Classic at Belmont Park in New York. Parcells told me that if his horse, Saratoga Snacks, wins, he'll be buying a couple of extra suits.