The day after being named the NFL's MVP for the 2015 season, Cam Newton had one of the worst performances of his professional career on football's biggest stage in Super Bowl 50. He followed that up with a taciturn appearance in the postgame press conference that did not make for a very good look. But I still think he should be, without a doubt, the No. 1 quarterback in the NFL heading into the 2016 season.
Newton made huge strides in 2015, piling up 3,837 passing yards and 636 rushing yards while leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl berth. I wrote heading into Super Bowl 50 that I wouldn't take any quarterback in the league over him -- and at this point, I still feel he belongs at the top of the heap, even after his three-turnover showing in Carolina's 24-10 loss to the Broncos.
1) He's still a one-of-a-kind quarterback talent.
Cam Newton had a bad game. Plenty of great quarterbacks have had bad games. I think we're downgrading him too much for one high-profile dud performance; let's not allow that to overshadow the bigger body of work from his 2015 season. After all, he's still the only player in NFL history to record 30-plus passing touchdowns and at least 10 rushing touchdowns in a season. If you made a blueprint for the ideal quarterback -- a smart player with outstanding leadership qualities who can beat you with his legs or his arm -- it would look a lot like Newton, who is seemingly always a big play away from a touchdown.
And don't forget that Wade Phillips' Broncos defense was damn good. Yes, it made Newton look bad; it also did exactly the same thing to Aaron Rodgers (77 yards, zero touchdowns, three sacks and a 69.7 passer rating in Week 8) and Tom Brady (48.2 percent completion rate for 310 yards, one touchdown, two picks, four sacks and a 56.4 passer rating in the AFC title game). Those results say more about the value of shutdown corners than they do about any of those quarterbacks.
2) He'll learn from the things that went wrong.
Newton's line -- 18 of 41 passing (43.9 percent completion rate), 265 yards, zero touchdowns, one pick, six sacks, two fumbles and a 55.4 passer rating -- is dreadful. But he's hardly the first top-notch quarterback to struggle in an early-career Super Bowl; remember Ben Roethlisberger's line (9 of 21 for 123 yards, zero TDs, two INTs and a 22.6 passer rating) in Super Bowl XL? Newton's performance also was reminiscent of the first few Super Bowl appearances by a certain Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback: John Elway. Consider Elway's first three Super Bowls with the Broncos, all of which resulted in losses:
Newton made some big mistakes, most notably in the form of his three turnovers. He didn't look real accurate. I wonder if he was a bit apprehensive trying to throw into tight windows against a defense with three good cornerbacks (Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby); sometimes, when you see great players on the other team, you end up playing with extra caution. As for the sacks and fumbles, I don't know if he held the ball too long -- I do know his receivers were having a hard time getting open. I think the demands of Super Bowl week -- especially with regard to the media -- wore on him, and I think he played a bit too tightly. I'm sure he didn't like the extra downtime that comes with Super Bowl gameday. I would encourage him to be looser, to relax a little more and not put the pressure on himself to win the game by himself.
And while I'm not sure why he failed to recover his pivotal fourth-quarter fumble, I do know that he typically does not shy away from contact. Maybe there's something to his reference to "the way [his] leg was" when answering a question about the play on Tuesday. Whatever the reason for the way that play went down, I do not doubt his toughness.
Going back to his college days, Newton has a history of learning and improving, and I expect he'll stay on that track.
3) He should continue to be a locker-room leader.
One loss will not cause the Panthers to give up on Newton. Consider the way his teammates have rallied around him. Veteran center Ryan Kalil called accusations that Newton quit on Carolina "absolute garbage." ("Cam's not the quitting type. ... That's not who he is," Kalil said.) When a statement like that is coming from someone like Kalil, that's big. Tight end Greg Olsenand coach Ron Rivera also spoke up for Newton, while some other teammates even went so far as to cheer him on while he spoke to the media on Tuesday. Newton is a hard worker -- he has been since his days at Auburn -- and I'm sure his position will be reinforced when his teammates see him working out in the offseason.
Newton's clamped-down appearance in the postgame press conference Sunday disappointed me, regardless of what he might have heard Harris saying, and I hope he'll show more courtesy should he find himself in a similar situation in the future. But I also know how disappointing it is to lose when you're expecting to win. It's hard to act the way you should when you lose. I was with the Dallas Cowboys when we lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts in frustrating fashion, and I saw Hall of Famer Bob Lilly throw his helmet about 45 yards downfield in disgust after the game.
I also don't think Newton's much-discussed postgame conduct will have any effect on his teammates or how they perceive him. The outside talk and criticism will have zero bearing on his standing on the field or in the Panthers' locker room.
4) His receiving corps will be better.
Newton thrived in 2015 without No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Imagine how good he'll be in 2016 when Benjamin returns. Benjamin's a big, tall guy who runs fast and represents a massive upgrade to the pass-catching group. Devin Funchess, who had a serviceable rookie season, should improve in his second season; he'll start to be a route runner instead of just a big target. Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown should only gel with Newton further after another offseason of work. Simply put, adding Benjamin -- who would have changed Super Bowl 50 dramatically -- to this unit will only boost Newton's performance in 2016.
5) The coaching staff will return intact.
Don't overlook the benefits of continued stability. The 2016 season will be Newton's sixth working with Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula (who served as his position coach in 2011 and '12 before being promoted). The Panthers' system suits Newton, who should continue to grow as he gains even more experience within it.