IT WOULD be reasonable to think that Cam Newton came a lot further—and a lot faster—than anyone had any right to expect of a rookie after the lockout-shortened preseason of 2011, and that he'll never be able to surprise audiences quite like that again. From his twin 400-yard passing games to open his Panthers career; to his 14 rushing touchdowns, a record for an NFL quarterback; to his unprecedented season of 4,000-plus passing yards and 500-plus rushing yards, Newton was a dual-threat revelation. Who knew the learning curve would bend to the will of the No. 1 pick like almost every other facet of the game? As Newton put it early in his first full training camp, "Just working on being great, man."
"Cam's already better than I ever thought he was going to be," marvels 10th-year tackle Jordan Gross. "He set the bar high last year, which is definitely something he knows. But if there's anyone who can top it, it's him."
The 23-year-old Newton hit all the right notes this off-season. Yes, he made time for endorsement deals and brand-building, but he also dedicated himself to following up successfully on his AP Offensive Rookie of the Year season. The numbers that demand improvement: his interception (17) and sack (35) totals. In pursuit of greater accuracy, he worked on his timing and balance, especially on short-to-intermediate drops. He also focused on speeding up and refining his decision-making and reads.
But one stat drives him. "We went 6--10 last year," Newton says. "That's nothing to be happy about."
Still, that marked a four-win improvement for Carolina, which is only one measure of the impact Newton has already had on the franchise. He has made the small-market Panthers relevant again, almost instantly becoming the biggest name in the their 17-year history. (Could anyone be more the polar opposite of laid-back Jake Delhomme?) Newton is a "mega-superstar," in the words of Panthers middle linebacker Jon Beason, himself a three-time Pro Bowl selection.
Last year, without the typical array of off-season workouts and with an abbreviated training camp, the Panthers scaled back and simplified their offense in deference to Newton, who nonetheless aced the first year of coordinator Rob Chudzinski's wordy and complex system, which requires long-winded play calls in the huddle and plenty of recognition responsibilities at the line of scrimmage. But the 6'5", 245-pound Newton will be asked to master a heavier load of the playbook this year, as well as take on more responsibility in identifying defenses in concert with veteran center Ryan Kalil.
Newton's up for the challenge. After his nomadic college career, which ended with his Heisman Trophy--winning season at Auburn, this will be the first time in four years that he has played in the same offensive system for two consecutive seasons. That continuity, Newton says, "is going to help us polish up what we did last year, expand and broaden our playbook. I want to find a way to execute and grasp this offense with two hands rather than just knowing bits and pieces."
Carolina finished 2011 on a hopeful 4--2 run—including a 28--13 upset of the Texans in Week 15—and another four-win improvement would likely mean the team's first playoff berth since '08. But for that to happen, they must be much better on the side of the ball that has nothing to do with Newton.
The defense finished 28th in yards allowed last season, failing to protect second-half leads seven times. To some extent those shortcomings can be chalked up to a host of injuries. The website Football Outsiders, for example, calculated that members of the Panthers' defensive front seven missed 55.4 combined games in 2011—more than any unit on any NFL team. (Second-year head coach Ron Rivera views that flood of injuries as a plus; many of his young players collected experience that will speed their development in 2012.)
The return of Beason, who missed all but one game last year with an Achilles tear, and the drafting of first-round linebacker Luke Kuechly are reasons to believe that Newton might not have to be the whole show this season in Charlotte.
And if he is? Then that would still be a show worth watching.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 7
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 6--10
9 at Tampa Bay
16 New Orleans
20 New York Giants (Thu)
30 at Atlanta
28 at Chicago
4 at Washington
18 Tampa Bay
26 at Philadelphia (Mon)
2 at Kansas City
16 at San Diego
30 at New Orleans
The Panthers aren't the least bit concerned about shifting the No. 9 pick out of Boston College from middle linebacker to the weak side to make room for the returning Jon Beason (recovered from a left Achilles tear), and for good reason: No matter where he lines up, Kuechly routinely snuffs out the opposition. At 6'3" and 235 pounds, the two-time All-America has fit seamlessly into coordinator Sean McDermott's 4--3 defense, showing reliability in coverage and against the run. Last year's impact rookie in Carolina, Cam Newton, raves about Kuechly's consistent ability to disrupt plays in practice. "I'm happy to throw screens into the ground," Newton says, "because his recognition is already through the roof. That's what you want to see."
Kuechly has flashed his playmaking abilities throughout camp and in the preseason, including a strip tackle of normally sure-handed Texans running back Arian Foster in the first quarter of Kuechly's first NFL appearance, on Aug. 11. That led Panthers G.M. Marty Hurney to state the obvious: "He's ready to help us right now. He's extremely instinctive out there."
Average yards picked up by Panthers ballcarriers when running off end in 2011, a full yard and a half more than any other team in the league.
Percentage of third- and fourth-and-short situations converted by Carolina, an NFL high. The Panthers were stopped only twice on such rushing attempts.
Passes batted at the line of scrimmage by defensive end Greg Hardy, twice as many as the rest of the Panthers and 3.7 below the league team average.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (NEWTON)
Newton is being asked to master more of the playbook, but unlike in past years, at least it's one he's used to.
JEREMY BREVARD/US PRESSWIRE (KUECHLY)