Carolina Panthers  

 

Cam Newton's potential: Gifted QB bound for Super Bowl glory?

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One of the questions I'm asked most often these days is whether the 6-0 Carolina Panthers are true Super Bowl contenders.

This seems an odd question to ask about a team that has won its last 10 regular-season games (going back to December of last year), leads the NFL in rushing, has a punishing top-10 defense and is tied for sixth in the league in turnover differential.

Let's be honest: What people are really asking is ...

Is Cam Newton an elite quarterback? Can Carolina win a Super Bowl with him?

Well, in a way, that's sort of the same question.

If you look at the numbers alone, he's not a premier quarterback. His career completion percentage of 59.1 on about 31 passes per game -- with a 1.5 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- might even be called pedestrian.

But here's the truth: Cam Newton is like no other quarterback in the NFL. The old yardsticks don't really apply: Cam gets things done his way, instead of the way the rest of the football world thinks it should be done. More importantly, head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula believe their QB can get it done, as does owner Jerry Richardson, who gave Newton a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension back in June.

Let's begin with the fact that, if you were going to computer-generate an avatar of what an NFL quarterback should look like, it would be Cam Newton. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Newton has the smooth confidence of a player who has been the best athlete just about every time he's stepped on a football field. Let's also remember that he was the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft after starting just one season in major college football -- which means he's still learning his craft.

Rivera is completely committed to the formula of playing great defense and running the ball to minimize mistakes. When that formula works, like in Wild Card Weekend last season, everything is fine. But when the ground game doesn't work, and everything falls on Newton's shoulders, the outcome often resembles the ensuing divisional-round loss at Seattle last January, when the QB committed three turnovers.

Let's break down the pros and cons of where Newton is in Year 5:

Athleticism

Pros: Unquestioned, and by far the best in the NFL. No quarterback has a bigger impact on his team's running game. Russell Wilson is an expert scrambler, but much of that is improvised; the Panthers use their quarterback's legs more by design. In Newton's past 350 regular-season carries (going back to midway through the 2012 campaign), he has racked up 1,837 yards and 20 TDs. Last year's leading rusher in the NFL was DeMarco Murray, who recorded 392 carries for 1,845 yards and 13 TDs. This makes Newton lethal on short-to-medium third downs, as well as near the goal line. Like Ben Roethlisberger, he is nearly impossible to bring down in the pocket with a single defender.

In a big win at home against the Eagles this past Monday, Newton threw for a touchdown and ran for another score -- the fourth time this season he has accomplished that feat in a single game, and the 28th time in his career (three behind Hall of Famer Steve Young for the league record).

Cons: Even considering Newton's immense size and strength, it's obviously very dangerous to have your franchise QB playing such a big role in the rushing offense. Shula will tell you that the Panthers call Newton's number by design four to six times a game, knowing they do not want to expose him to too many hits. But between the designed plays and his scrambles -- as well as the normal wear and tear that comes with life in the pocket -- Newton absorbs a lot of punishment. He is not Russell Wilson, who artfully avoids contact and is very calculated about when he will take an additional hit.

Passing mechanics

Pro Bowl ballot

Pros: No quarterback in the NFL has a stronger arm. Newton does not have classic fundamentals when it comes to his drop, pocket movement or the use of his feet and hips to drive the ball. But he does have a fluid, smooth passing stroke -- he just does it with the sheer power of his physical gifts. Newton is a "sight thrower": If he has a clear view of his target, he can deliver the ball as accurately as anybody in the NFL.

Cons: What Newton possesses in strength and power, he lacks in touch. You rarely see him drop a ball in the space behind a linebacker and in front of a safety. Newton's deep ball tends to be flat and off target -- similar to strong-armed Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, early in his career -- often just missing the outstretched arms of his receiver. Over the last three years, the Panthers are last in the NFL in explosive plays of 20-plus yards.

Consistency

Pros: Newton's record on the road (17-16-1) is very similar to his mark at home (19-15). He completes 59 percent of his passes in both settings, and his touchdown-to-interception rate is similar in each (45:31 on the road; 46:30 at home). Rivera's formula travels well, and Newton is comfortable with playing in hostile environments.

Cons: Like every quarterback, Newton is capable of a three-interception night. See: Monday against the Eagles. (Admittedly, two of those picks weren't directly Newton's fault.) Though, with the Panthers' defense being what it is, Carolina actually can win those games now. With the limited number of throws Newton makes, it is hard to build a bigger résumé to compare him to other elite quarterbacks. However, when you combine Cam's rushing scores with his passing TDs (and all touchdowns should be counted equally), his touchdown rate is nothing to scoff at, that's for sure.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Newton might not fit the Aaron Rodgers/Peyton Manning mold, but he's a perfect fit for Carolina -- and the pieces are in place for the Panthers to make a deep run in the playoffs. If they do, they won't look like any other team we have seen. And that is just fine with Rivera and Co.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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