Even while the losses have stacked up this season, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton still likes to cut loose with a few dance steps while the team stretches before practice.
But it’s Newton’s footwork in the pocket that has drawn criticism as last year’s league MVP remains stuck in the worst passing slump of his six-year career.
Newton limps into the season finale Sunday at Tampa Bay having failed to complete at least 50 percent of his passes in five of the past six games. He only had six sub-50 percent games in his first 86 games.
Everyone from former players to barstool coordinators has an opinion on what’s wrong with Newton, with most theories involving his mechanics. Specifically, critics say Newton throws off his back foot too often, causing his passes to sail high and wide.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has heard the criticism, and says Newton’s problems are not that simple -- and they’re not limited exclusively to Newton.
“If you could just say, ‘Hey, all we have to do is just fix this and then all of a sudden we’re going to be where we were last year.’ If it were that easy, man it’d be that easy. But it’s a combination of things,” Shula said Monday.
“It’s not a 1-on-1 game, or a quarterback and a wide receiver versus a (defensive back),” Shula added. “It’s everything involved -- and that includes scheme, which obviously brings us into it. You’ve got to look at all those things and that’s what we do each week.”
Newton has never been known for his accuracy.
He played only one season of major-college football before the Panthers drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Even before Newton’s struggles this season, no other quarterback had thrown a higher percentage of off-target passes since 2011, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
That figure has only gotten worse this year.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says he’s seen occasional flaws in Newton’s mechanics that cause him to mutter, “Ah, come on. Let’s have better footwork.”
Former Panthers general manager Bill Polian and others believe the Broncos established a blueprint on how to defend Newton in Super Bowl 50, with their “green dog blitzes” and other pressures.
Rivera doesn’t necessarily agree, but he does think the hits Newton took early this season have had a lasting effect. The Broncos sacked Newton three times -- and hit him throughout the game -- in the Super Bowl rematch in Week 1.
The Vikings had eight sacks against Newton two weeks later in left tackle Michael Oher’s final game this year.
Oher went in the concussion protocol five days after the loss to the Vikings. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil later joined him on injured reserve with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
While the Panthers mixed and matched along the line, Newton seldom looked comfortable in the pocket.
“I think a lot of it is reflective on how much pressure he had received earlier in the year,” Rivera said. “I think sometimes it sets you back a little bit.”
Shula said too much is made of Newton’s back-foot throws, saying Newton has the arm strength to make such throws when the pocket breaks down and he can’t step into his passes.
Shula mentioned former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson as another passer capable of making back-foot throws.
“There’s a lot of guys, too, that make throws off their back foot. Now, that’s not how you teach it. Sometimes you have to do that,” Shula said. “Cam has the ability to be able to do that and make some great throws, whereas other guys couldn’t do that.”
Compounding matters is the fact Newton has been playing with a sore throwing shoulder.
Newton didn’t show up on the injury report until two weeks ago, although Shula indicated it’s been an issue for the past month or so. But Shula said it’s tough to gauge how much the shoulder is affecting Newton.
“He’s such a tough guy. That’s one of the hardest things to read, if I can read it at all, if it’s bothering him,” Shula said. “I know we’ve rested it at times maybe the last month in practice a little bit more so than we ever have. He’ll probably be mad that I said that.”
Newton has said little about his shoulder, adding he doesn’t want to make excuses for his erratic play. It has been a significant drop in productivity: Newton has thrown only 18 touchdown passes, with 11 interceptions, following his 35-touchdown, 10-interception MVP season.
Newton would have to complete an NFL-record 58-of-58 passes, with a passer rating of 148.0 against the Bucs on Sunday to avoid finishing the season with the lowest completion percentage and passer rating of his career.
By any measure, he has taken a big step backward in his career trajectory. But Shula says Newton’s regression involves many factors.
“We as a passing offense need to be better -- coaching, throwing, catching, protecting, getting to the right spots,” Shula said. “You can’t just look at a completion percentage and say, ‘Oh, well, he’s not very accurate.’”
Anatomy of a slump
A look at Cam Newton’s past six games, in which he’s completed only 45.2 percent of his passes:
Date/Opp./Completions-Attempts/Percentage/Passing yards/TDs/INTs/Passer rating
Nov. 17/New Orleans/14-33/42.4/192/1/0/71.8
Dec. 11/San Diego/10-27/37.0/160/1/1/54.6