Cam Newton’s performance over his first five games this season drew praise and prompted a popular theory for the Carolina Panthers quarterback’s success in his fourth season:
Maybe the offseason ankle surgery and preseason rib injury made Newton more of a complete quarterback by forcing him to stay in the pocket and go through his route progressions.
Such talk seems almost preposterous now.
Newton has followed up his successful start with the worst six-game stretch of his career, coinciding with the Panthers’ six-game losing streak, which they’ll try to snap Sunday at New Orleans.
Critics say Newton has reverted to bad habits from early in his career, throwing off his back foot, making poor decisions and forcing passes into coverage.
But they also say Newton lacks adequate pass protection, and they don’t believe there are enough offensive weapons around him.
Newton’s nosedive has coincided with injuries across the offensive line that forced the Panthers to use six different line combinations during their six-game skid. For the first time since October, the Panthers are expected to start the same line two games in a row on Sunday against the Saints.
Newton has refused to blame his struggles on the blocking, or lack of it, he’s received. And though he has not been 100 percent all season, Newton also has refrained from using his health as an excuse.
Sunday at the Superdome, as he has done every week, Newton will wrap his surgically repaired left ankle, tape up his right thumb, pull on his flack jacket and hope for better results.
“If it was up to me, I felt as if the production would’ve stayed that way,” Newton said of his dropoff. “I can’t really pinpoint it without saying it’s just a team effort, with me holding up my end of the bargain trying to be the best quarterback that I can.”
Former NFL quarterback Mark Brunell says the Panthers’ offensive line after Jordan Gross’ retirement, the receiving corps after the offseason purge and Newton’s injuries have added up to a long season for the Panthers’ quarterback.
“For Cam this year it’s been the perfect storm,” said Brunell, a three-time Pro Bowler who is now an ESPN studio analyst. “I don’t believe he’s had a lot of skill support in the way of receivers. Speaking as a quarterback, that is very difficult. You need continuity with guys. You need talent obviously at that position, and he really hasn’t had that.
“That coupled with a lack of protection, his injuries, I guess I will apologize for him a little bit. That’s a tough situation between lack of receivers, not getting protection and him getting beat up.”
But Brunell says he’s seen a regression in Newton, too.
“Part of the struggles is I think he’s gone backward as far as his fundamentals,” Brunell said in a phone interview. “His footwork, he just looks like a different quarterback.”
Brunell says Newton is throwing off his back foot and not stepping into his throws, but points out that is often the result of having pressure in his face.
Newton, who had surgery in March to tighten the ligaments in his ankle, was sacked 11 times during his first five games. (Newton sat out the season opener at Tampa Bay, the only game he has missed in his career.) He has been sacked 25 times in the past six games for a loss of 193 yards.
Compounding matters is the fact that Newton isn’t as mobile or elusive as he was before his surgery, which he said in October was more extensive than he was originally led to believe.
Newton’s longest run this season was a 15-yard gain last week at Minnesota. He had 10 carries of at least 15 yards in 2013, including a 56-yarder, according to an Observer database detailing each of Newton’s plays over the past two seasons.
But Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula says Newton, even at less than full strength, is still an effective runner.
“He’s been – like we’ve said and he tells you – he’s not quite 100 percent,” Shula said. “But even (against the Vikings) you can see he still makes plays. And it might not be a 40-yard gain, but he’s making 8- to 10-, 15-yard gains.”
Before, after Cincinnati
The line of demarcation for Newton was the 37-37 tie with Cincinnati in Week 6. After the Panthers exercised caution with Newton during his first four games, they went from 0 to 60 with him in the running game against the Bengals.
Newton had a career-high 17 carries for 107 yards at Cincinnati after running 14 times in the first four games combined. He also was effective passing against the Bengals, completing 29 of 46 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
Given his decline since the Bengals game, it’s reasonable to question whether Newton did too much against Cincinnati and aggravated his ankle.
“I wonder, too, because he’s such a tough-minded guy and you never really know with him,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Because he’s such a tough-minded person and he’s trying to do things and make things happen. But we didn’t come out of that game as healthy as we’d like to, either.”
Left guard Amini Silatolu injured his calf against the Bengals and missed the next three games, beginning a span that saw the Panthers start those six line combinations in as many games.
But Newton brushed off a question about whether his workload against the Bengals set him back physically.
As the Panthers have shuffled linemen and the hits have piled up on Newton – he’s on pace to be sacked a career-high 49 times, eclipsing his total of 43 last season – at least one teammate has marveled at his toughness.
“The effort that he puts into it and the effort in the game to keep playing, a lot of guys would’ve checked out. That’s obviously a big thing, gets a lot of respect from a lot of people,” backup quarterback Derek Anderson said. “He’s continued to play, not that he has a choice. But I have seen guys that just kind of (say), ‘Oh, that hurt too much.’ He just keeps standing in there making throws when he gets clean pockets and taking hits.”
Newton has been sacked 36 times in 11 games. Only San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, with 38 in 12 games, has been sacked more.
But Newton said he doesn’t deserve any credit.
“I don’t need my back scratched or my back patted for something I’m supposed to do,” he said. “It’s not like I’m supposed to give up. It’s not like I’m supposed to just say, ‘All right guys, I got hit in my mouth three times so that’s the maximum you can get hit playing the quarterback position in the NFL.’
“I play this game for one reason, and one reason only. You talk about production as far as statistics. I’m talking about production just trying to get the most important stat of all of sports, and that’s the win-loss column.”
But the statistics show a quarterback headed in the wrong direction, as Brunell suggested – no matter the reason.
After throwing two interceptions through the Bengals game, Newton has been picked off nine times since, including six in the past three games.
Newton’s completion percentage has dropped from 61 percent over the first five games to 53 percent during the past six, the Observer database shows.
Newton’s intermediate passing game has suffered the most over the past six games. Newton’s completion percentage on passes up to 20 yards downfield has dropped from 64 percent over the first five games to 50 percent, according to the data.
Anderson, Newton’s backup for each of his four NFL seasons, said Newton’s statistics are skewed because of the protection issues.
“It’s hard. I’ve been in the same situation before where it’s hard to step into throws. You get into throwing balls that you know you shouldn’t throw, but you know you’ve got to get rid of it, too,” Anderson said. “That obviously leads to (a low) completion percentage, where you know you can’t take a sack right here, but can’t step up and don’t have a clean (pocket).”
Rivera said he remains committed to Newton as the Panthers’ franchise quarterback.
“He’s had his moments. He’s had the flashes that we’ve seen before from that point on, as well. We’ve just got to keep working through it,” Rivera said. “He’s done some good things, and hopefully it will continue to get better as we go forward.”
But Brunell said it’s clear from watching film that Newton needs help. Brunell, who spent more than half of his 17-year career with Jacksonville, said his best seasons were when he was surrounded by good players.
“And when you’re missing some of those components, you’re going to struggle, especially a young quarterback,” Brunell said. “And Cam’s still young. He’s still developing. That’s tough.”
Newton, 25, went to two Pro Bowls in his first three seasons and set the NFL’s rookie passing record with 4,051 yards in 2011, a mark that stood for a year before the Colts’ Andrew Luck broke it.
Brunell believes it’s too soon to give up on Newton.
“He’s so talented. He’s so gifted. He’s big, strong, has a big arm. The potential to be great is all wrapped up in Cam Newton,” Brunell said. “Sometimes guys just have a bad year. I certainly had mine. But he has the potential to be one of the best in the business, I believe.”
Newton said the past two months have taken a toll on everyone in the organization. Other than the coaches and front office, no one gets more of the blame – or credit when times are good – than the quarterback.
Newton said he feels fans’ eyes on him when he’s out in Charlotte.
“People are looking at you like, ‘You’ve got to be better,’ ” Newton said. “Hell, I know. But the truth of the matter is we’ve got guys that are battling their tails off each and every game, each and every practice, playing hurt, playing through injuries and trying to find a way.”
Staff reporter Gavin Off and correspondent Ben Weinrib contributed.