Like the conspiracy theories surrounding Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s benching for a dress code violation last week in Seattle, everyone has a theory about why last year’s league MVP is playing some of the worst football of his career.
Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann doesn’t think Newton spends enough time working on his mechanics.
Ex-Panthers general manager Bill Polian says the Denver Broncos gave the rest of the league the blueprint on how to defend Newton in Super Bowl 50.
Teammates point to the spate of injuries along the Panthers’ offensive line as the source of Newton’s issues.
As for Newton, he’s still looking for the answer himself.
6 Games in the first 86 of Cam Newton’s career in which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
3 Games in the past three in which Newton’s completion percentage was under 50 percent.
“I don’t know. It’s just me,” Newton said this week. “It’s numerous things that I need not say. But I can tell you it’s not because of (a lack of) preparation. It’s the luck of the draw sometimes.”
There’s no denying Newton’s mired in one of the worst stretches – passing-wise, anyway – of his six-year career.
Entering Sunday’s matchup with San Diego, Newton has had three consecutive games in which he failed to complete 50 percent of his passes.
Over the first 86 games of his career before this slump, Newton only had six sub-50 percent outings – and never in back-to-back games.
It’s been a season-long regression.
Never among the league’s most accurate passers, Newton has seen his completion percentage dip to 54.7 this season. Without a sharp improvement over the final four games, he’ll finish with career lows in completion percentage and passer rating.
Newton is the NFL’s 27th-ranked passer after he was tied for seventh in 2015. Only San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick (54.5) has a lower completion percentage than Newton (54.7).
Newton defended his game-week preparation, but knows that will fall on deaf ears if he doesn’t produce.
“You could stay here, you could sleep here, watching a lot of film, being prepared in certain situations. And we get (judged) off our production on the field,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter how much I prepare. If it doesn’t translate on the field, then people would just say, ‘He’s just garbage.’ ”
“For me it’s trying to get it to carry over from practice to games. And in this situation and this season, it just hasn’t turned over.
“And I don’t have nobody to blame but myself.”
That line’s not entirely true
Well, Newton could blame the injuries to several of the men paid to protect him, as others have. But he chose not to.
Newton will play his second game in a row Sunday behind an offensive line that includes just one Week 1 starter (left guard Andrew Norwell) at his customary position.
Tyler Larsen, who will make his second career start against the Chargers, is the fourth player to line up at center this season. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Michael Oher are on injured reserve.
Newton says you never know when the “Grim Reaper” is going to hit a team with injuries.
“But the fans don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to hear that,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear the realism of why you put yourself in this position. But yet we’ve just got to find ways to win football games.”
The trouble up front started against Minnesota in Week 3, when Oher either began the game with an existing concussion or sustained one early against the Vikings, according to a source.
Oher allowed three of the eight sacks on Newton – the second-most sacks against Newton in his career. Newton threw three interceptions against the Vikings and finished with his fourth-worst passer rating (47.6).
The Panthers waited two months to see if Oher’s post-concussion symptoms would clear before placing him on injured reserve. Mike Remmers moved from right tackle to Oher’s spot on the left side, and second-year man Daryl Williams was inserted at right tackle.
Kalil’s shoulder injury at midseason also hurt the continuity, leaving the line without its most veteran member and the player responsible for identifying defensive fronts and making the calls.
A confidence hit
Polian, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said Newton’s issues have been exacerbated by the injuries along the line.
“There’s no two ways about that. There’s nothing there that would give you a whole heck of a lot of confidence that you’re in a situation where you can consistently make plays,” Polian said. “When you’re playing with guys who are playing out of position and probably your fourth-string center, that makes it very, very tough.”
Polian also believes the Broncos figured out a good way to attack Newton during the Super Bowl – coming at him with a disciplined pass rush that prevented him from making any big plays with his feet.
Newton was sacked six times in the 24-10 loss to Denver in February, and his longest scramble was for 12 yards.
Newton is running less this season, averaging two carries a game fewer than 2015. He’s on pace to finish with 390 rushing yards, well below his 636-yard rushing total from his MVP season.
Polian says defenses are playing less man coverage against Newton, so defensive backs aren’t turning their backs on him and giving him chances to run. He’s mostly stayed in the pocket, which hasn’t been pretty.
The state of flux along the offensive line has prompted Newton to resort to bad habits in the pocket, namely throwing off his back foot rather than stepping into his passes.
Theismann, who won a Super Bowl ring with Washington during a 12-year NFL career, said this week Newton “doesn’t throw the football well at all” and questioned whether Newton works on his footwork enough.
“The wear and tear of running as much as he did is starting to catch up with him, and he needs to work on his ability to throw the football more accurately from the pocket, which he does not do a very good job of,” Theismann said on “The Jason Smith Show” on Fox Sports Radio. “He ought to spend more time working on his footwork than he should working on his wardrobe.”
Newton brushed off the criticism, asking if it had come from a quarterback who played in the league.
Told it was, Newton said: “Well, bravo to those guys. I look at even the best quarterbacks they say that play this game and mechanically, it’s not about that. It’s about completions.”
Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson said Newton is still working on refining his throwing motion and his pocket passing. But Anderson doesn’t think Newton’s mechanics are flawed.
“I feel when we give him a clean pocket, it’s as good as it’s ever been,” Anderson said. “Obviously his motion is his motion. It’s very good at times and (he’ll) continue to work on certain things. Personally, I do the same thing. I go through stretches where it’s not very good and have to continue to monitor. And I think he does the same sort of things.”
Newton took umbrage with the notion that he’s not dedicated to his craft.
Newton spent part of the offseason in Los Angeles filming his Nickelodeon children’s show, “All In with Cam Newton.” He indicated he’s open to doing the show again if it’s picked up for a second season.
“Life is bigger than football. So if you’re questioning certain things that I’m doing, I have a whole other list of requirements and duties that I need to take care of,” said Newton, who became a father on Christmas Eve last year. “Outside of football I do have a life. Football takes up a lot of my life and I appreciate it. This is the life I chose. I’m not complaining.”
Anderson says Newton spends a lot of time studying film and going over the game plan, even during the team’s week in northern California between games at Oakland and Seattle.
“He does countless hours of stuff on his own. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Go home. Go sleep.’ If anything at times, he does more,” Anderson said. “When we were out in Oakland last week, I know he was in there at 11 o’clock at night one night. So I know it’s not for lack of preparation. It never has been.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, hired three months before the Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011, says he’s comfortable with the time Newton spends preparing.
“The things that a lot of people don’t see are the hours he puts in,” Rivera said. “People don’t see that and that’s unfortunate and that’s disappointing that people draw conclusions based off other things. The young man’s dedicated, and when he comes here it’s phenomenal.”
From frustration to attacks
Barring what Anderson described as a miracle, the Panthers (4-8) will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Newton’s benching last week led some to (again) question his maturity. Theismann called him a “spoiled brat” during the Fox Sports Radio interview.
Newton understands the frustration, but doesn’t appreciate the personal attacks.
“I understand we’re not having the season that we wanted to have,” Newton said. “But there’s no need for people to just be malicious – go out and say, ‘Well, he was doing too much. He was doing this. He’s worried about this.’ That’s the easy route.”
But there’s been nothing easy about this season for Newton, who’s still trying to figure things out after 13 weeks.
Comparing Cam Newton’s numbers
A look at the regular-season averages from Cam Newton’s MVP season in 2015 and the first 12 games of 2016 (Newton missed one of them while in the concussion protocol):
Attempts per game
Completions per game
Yards per game
Touchdowns per game
Interceptions per game
Rushes per game
Yards per carry
Rushing yards per game
Rushing TDs per game
Sacks per game
Source: Carolina Panthers; *– in 11 games in which he was primary quarterback.