The emails roll into my inbox these days. Their subject matter is usually the same: “I Want a New QB for Christmas” or “What’s Wrong with Cam?” or “What Kind of Hat Goes With a Loss?”
So, in the wake of the Carolina Panthers not making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, let’s discuss. What exactly is wrong with Cam Newton and the Panthers, and how do you solve it?
Let’s start with this.
If you think this 6-9 season is mostly Newton’s fault and that he is not the quarterback to lead the Panthers into the future, you are misguided. I’m not giving Newton a free pass for 2016, and I will discuss the ways that he most needs to improve at the end of this column.
But the problems the Panthers mostly orbit around Newton, who must remain the sun in the Panthers’ solar system for the team to go anywhere in 2017.
Fix what’s around Newton and then you will ultimately fix Newton himself. So how do you do that. These are the three ways I would do it:
1. Draft two offensive linemen and sign at least one more in free agency.
The Panthers averaged an NFL-high 31.3 points in 2015. This season they are averaging 23.5. That’s a little more than a touchdown per game, and that’s a lot of the reason why Carolina has lost five games by three points or less this season. The Panthers simply haven’t scored enough.
So how do you score more? You protect Newton better. The injury-ravaged offensive line this season has ranged from mediocre to disastrous. The one in 2015 stayed mostly healthy and was far more effective.
Newton is simply never going to be Drew Brees, getting the ball out so quickly on every play that he disguises most of the deficiencies in his offensive front. Newton is best at throwing the ball deep. He needs time to do that.
Give Newton an offensive line as close to the monstrous one that Dallas has and watch how much things change. This line is getting old and beaten up and needs a youth rejuvenation more than any other position. The defense needs another pass rusher, yes, but I would concentrate my efforts on the offensive line in the 2017 offseason. And given that no one is sure if left tackle Michael Oher can play again after a season-ending concussion, you absolutely have to firm it up. A better offensive line means a better running game which means more time on play-action passes.
2. Pour resources into Kelvin Benjamin.
There is no other Panthers receiver with his upside – and no one who is more frustrating to watch. Benjamin will stop on routes, drop balls, fumble in critical situations, commit illegal blocks to nullify touchdowns – and that’s just this season. But he can also play like he did Sunday against Atlanta, when he scored Carolina’s only touchdown in the Panthers’ 33-16 loss and stiff-armed a guy for 7 yards.
Benjamin is the closest thing the Panthers have to a Julio Jones or a Dez Bryant. He has to start acting like it. He remains raw. He has to be coached harder and challenged more.
As for the rest of the receivers, tight end Greg Olsen has long been a godsend for Newton and Ted Ginn Jr. is useful because of his speed. But somebody else has to emerge as a third-down possession receiver. Newton needs one more consistent target underneath, and I’m not sure that guy is on the roster.
3. Acquire a better third-down back.
When will Carolina ever have its own version of a Tevin Coleman or a Darren Sproles?
This is not an indictment of Fozzy Whittaker, who played well Saturday and is valuable on special teams, but the Panthers need a more dynamic third-down playmaker. Give Newton a guy like that and you will extend his career, because he will no longer have to run as much on third downs.
4. Get Newton to change, too.
OK, so I said I wasn’t going to give Newton a free pass, and I’m not. A year after his remarkable, NFL-MVP season of 2015, his 2016 has ranged from mildly to seriously disappointing. His mechanics have regressed. He throws off his back foot more often and too often stares down receivers. Defenses have reined him in with zones and controlled blitzes that have kept him from scrambling as effectively. He got a concussion while loafing across the goal line. I also know that he’s playing hurt, although that’s common this time of year.
What must change? I feel like Newton has to both appear to take his job more seriously and actually take it more seriously, too. The postgame hats don’t bother me, but they bother so many fans I think Newton should seriously think about showcasing the latest from his hat collection only after victories.
Time off is fine, of course, and the Panthers are about to have a lot of it.
“We had a long run,” Newton said Saturday. “It’s time for guys to take a sabbatical, so to speak, and just get away from it.”
That’s understandable. But after the sabbatical, Newton also has to redouble his efforts to better himself. He came back for this season with a lot of children’s TV episodes in the can but really no better at his craft. He needs more film study. More offseason work. More self-scouting.
Good NBA players usually spend their summer getting better at one skill – that’s where Kemba Walker became a good three-point shooter – and that’s what Newton needs to do in the offseason. The Panthers have made him their franchise quarterback, and that was the right thing to do. The offense largely fell apart around Newton this season and he was unable to prop it up on his shoulders. He needs help.
It all can be fixed. One more touchdown per game. Assuming Carolina’s defense stays strong – and there is no reason to doubt that it will – that is all it will take to become an elite team again in 2017.
To get there, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has to have a great offseason.
But so does Newton.