Quarterback Cam Newton shouldering the blame after a Carolina Panthers loss and Ron Rivera talking about Newton’s high throws have become unwanted mantras for Carolina in the past three-plus seasons.
Newton, a two-time Pro Bowler usually misses high when he misses, and in Thursday night’s 28-10 loss to the Saints, that happened often.
Of Newton’s 18 incompletions, in one of his worst games of his career, he was high and/or long on six passes. It was his biggest mechanical error of a night filled with mistakes, from his offensive line’s poor play to him pressing too much to find Kelvin Benjamin in the red zone.
Rivera was asked to explain why Newton seemed to be pressing.
“I think because he wants to win in a very bad way,” he said. “And you know how he gets. He puts it all on himself, and one thing that he’s going to have to continue to learn and grow is that he’s got to be willing to take a step back and put the ball in the other playmakers’ hands.”
Newton went 10-for-28 for 151 yards and one interception against the Saints. Several of his incompletions were the product of good defense by New Orleans, and his interception came on a ball that should have been caught. Newton’s receivers had three drops, including a would-be touchdown to Benjamin for the second consecutive week.
But the high throws persisted. Quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have worked with Newton on fixing that by stressing to him to keep his left shoulder down and over his front foot and bending his knee as he delivers the ball.
Newton tried to put his finger on the issues after the game.
“I really can’t,” he said. “I think this time off is going to allow everyone, including myself, to do a lot of self-scouting and just get back to the basics. It’s not anything that the teams that we’re playing are doing that we aren’t prepared for. It’s just us manning up, it’s us just getting out and executing, and it showed (Thursday).”
Newton’s pressing manifested itself in the red zone Thursday night, especially on throws to Benjamin. While the rookie receiver presents a 6-foot-5 target, Newton relied too heavily on him, Rivera said.
Benjamin was targeted 10 times, resulting in two catches for 18 yards in his lowest output of the season. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis was draped on Benjamin all night long and finished with three passes defensed.
Of Newton’s five passes inside the New Orleans 25, four went to Benjamin. Three were incomplete, and one was a drop.
“I think he did press a little bit toward Kelvin,” Rivera said. “He had a couple of other throws he could have made, but again he has a big target and you’d like to see us come down with a couple of those.”
Missing from Newton’s game was his signature, and sometimes criticized, first-down signal. He scrambled for first downs twice in the first half, but neither time did he point for the first down like he’s done for his three-plus seasons in Carolina. Rivera posited it was maybe because Newton was tired after the runs, but he also took a big hit from New Orleans safety Vinnie Sunseri on his first scramble, leaving Newton woozy.
There’s also the issue of the offensive line. Ravaged by injuries, the Panthers trotted out undrafted rookie David Foucault to protect Newton’s blind side. Foucault was responsible for three of the four sacks the Panthers gave up, including when Newton fumbled on a sack inside the Panthers’ 5.
No one would say it, but it was clear Newton didn’t trust the line. Several times one of his linemen ended up in his lap just as he was getting rid of the ball.
“That could be part of it. Those guys up front are doing the best they can as well,” Rivera said. “I think part of it is, he’s got to feel comfortable and continue to try to take the easy things – the quick throws, the dumps. And I think time is part of his development. He’s got to get back to that comfort zone.”
For a number of reasons, Newton has regressed from his stellar play that went through the Cincinnati game in Week 6. In the tie with the Bengals, Newton accounted for 391 yards of total offense and three touchdowns. In the past three weeks, he’s gained 527 yards and two touchdowns.
“I knew I missed a lot of throws,” Newton said Thursday night. “I’m not blaming anybody but myself.”