At times it has seemed as if Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s post-MVP season has been little more than a series of controversies, real or imagined.
Newton’s wardrobe malfunction in Seattle, the unflagged hits he’s absorbed since Week 1 and his first known concussion as a pro have taken the focus off the sobering fact that he is a broken quarterback.
Newton’s 300-yard passing night at Washington offered promise that he might end this lost season on an uptick. Instead, it was an outlier during a six-game stretch that has served as a microcosm of his 2016.
The Panthers’ lifeless 33-16 loss to Atlanta on Saturday isn’t all on Newton.
Free safety Tre Boston appeared to be playing two-hand touch, linebacker Thomas Davis had a rough day in coverage and the Panthers looked like they had a Christmas Eve party to get to.
But when you’re the franchise quarterback and former league MVP with a $103.8 million contract, there are certain job expectations. Those do not include locking in on receivers, overthrowing others and failing to complete 50 percent of your passes for the fifth time in six games.
Newton completed 18 of 43 passes for 198 yards against Atlanta, with one touchdown and two interceptions. His 41.9 completion percentage is the fourth-lowest of his career, and his 44.5 passer rating ranks as his third worst.
Newton has endured similar funks earlier in his career. But they’ve never dragged on this long – and those previous slumps didn’t come in his sixth season.
Given his prolonged struggles, it’s fair to raise two questions:
A. Is Newton’s shoulder injury more serious than originally thought?
B. Are offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey capable of fixing him?
Coach Ron Rivera generously described Newton’s Saturday performance as “hot and cold,” but conceded the injury to his throwing shoulder “probably” has affected him.
The Panthers have limited Newton’s throws in practice the past two weeks while trying to get him through the season.
Newton refused to blame his problems on his shoulder injury, the exact nature of which remains undisclosed.
“It’s all right. There’s no need to dwell on something,” Newton said. “I’m not gonna blame nothing but my production. Production hasn’t been solid, and that’s me. I can’t point to something and say, well, this is the reason more so than it just hasn’t been carrying over to the game.”
As for any possible coaching changes, know that Rivera is a loyal man not inclined to break up a coaching staff that was good enough to reach the Super Bowl last season.
Rivera has only had one major staff shakeup in his six years in Charlotte. He fired three assistants after the 2012 season, which is the last time the Panthers failed to make the playoffs before this year.
Owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Dave Gettleman might have other ideas when considering what caused Newton to regress.
It’s not just that Newton is throwing interceptions and overshooting even his tallest of receivers. It’s that his mechanics are off.
One theory is he hasn’t been the same since the Denver Broncos beat him up in Super Bowl 50, sacking him six times and shaking his confidence.
Former Panthers general manager Bill Polian believes the Broncos gave the rest of the league a blueprint on how to defend Newton – with a controlled pass rush and zone coverage in the secondary, allowing defensive backs to keep their eyes on Newton and limit his running opportunities.
Newton was sacked two more times Saturday. After the last one, he was on his back and flung the ball up in the air in a show of frustration.
It was that kind of day – and that kind of season.
Tight end Greg Olsen says a variety of factors have played into Newton’s misfires, including receivers not getting open and poor pass protection.
“The thing about playing quarterback, sometimes everyone wants to pin the downfalls on your shoulders and it’s not necessarily the case,” Olsen said. “By no means does it fall on one guy, let alone him. With everything he’s accomplished and done for us as an organization, that’s a non-starter.”
Newton and the Panthers (6-9) had an unprecedented run of three consecutive NFC South titles. Their playoff hopes officially died Saturday with the loss to Atlanta (10-5), although they were unofficially eliminated some time ago.
Newton looked and sounded like a guy who needed a break.
“We had a long, long run,” he said. “It’s time for guys to have a sabbatical, so to speak, and just get away from it.”
When they get back next spring for the start of offseason workouts, someone better have a plan for how to get Newton back on track, Cam included.