As he is prone to do, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman launched into a story when he was asked about Cam Newton Tuesday.
This one was the old chestnut about Chicken Little, the chick who gets hit on the head by an acorn and then goes around proclaiming: “The sky is falling!”
Her panicky state incites mass hysteria and encourages a number of other fowl to follow her around until just about everyone – including Chicken Little herself in the older, grittier versions – gets eaten by a crafty fox.
What does all that have to do with the Panthers’ franchise quarterback?
“The sky is not falling,” Gettleman said.
I believe that as well, but that sky sure is cloudy.
Newton and the Panthers just finished a season that resembled Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve. It ultimately was a year so bad that it will make the Panthers re-imagine everything they do because, as Gettleman also said: “Maintaining the status quo will get your fanny beat.”
Newton is no longer as “young and nimble” as he used to be, as Carolina coach Ron Rivera acknowledged Monday. Of course, he’s not old, either.
“Cam is 28, he’s not 37,” Gettleman said.
An ‘out of whack’ offense
In fact, Cam is only 27, although he does turn 28 in May. But if Newton is lucky – and it would help if he gets hit in the helmet less often – he’s still on the front half of his career. Quarterbacks and kickers are the only places in the NFL in which players regularly thrive in their mid- to late-30s: Aaron Rodgers is 33, Ben Roethlisberger 34, Drew Brees 37 and Tom Brady 39.
Of those, it is Roethlisberger who has the most similar body type to Newton. Bill Polian, the former Panthers general manager and an Pro Football Hall of Famer, told me once that Newton’s best-case scenario would be to eventually morph into another “Big Ben.” Roethlisberger hardly ever runs on purpose, but he’s mobile enough to move around in the pocket, can take a hit while still throwing a dart and has won two Super Bowls.
Of course, Roethlisberger has Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell on his side this season, too, as Pittsburgh heads to the playoffs again. Carolina has nobody like that, and therein lies one of the problems. The Panthers don’t just need Newton to be better; they need a better offensive line and more dynamic playmakers.
“I just think the whole offense was out of whack,” Gettleman said. “It was frustrating.”
As for what exactly went wrong offensively, “Chicken Little” was one of the few people mentioned by name in a press conference defined by its broad generalities.
“You watched it just like I did,” Gettleman said. “We just couldn’t get any rhythm going this year. We really couldn’t. There were moving parts that we didn’t have last year. Last year we were healthy as hell on the offensive line.”
Gettleman gave Newton a $103.8-million contract extension that runs through 2020 in the summer of 2015 and said then: “We believe he’ll take us to the Promised Land.” When reminded of that quote Tuesday, Gettleman at first said “He did” – referring to Newton’s journey to the Super Bowl last season.
And that’s true, Newton got the Panthers in range of everything they could ever want with a remarkable Most Valuable Player season in 2015.
But at the Super Bowl, only Denver got milk and honey. Newton’s signature play came when he made a horrific decision not to leap onto his own fumble. He then held a hooded press conference in which he presented himself as the world’s worst loser.
That was 11 months ago, and not much has gone right since for Newton on the football field. Including that Super Bowl, he and the Panthers have gone 6-11 over their past 17 games after going 22-2 in their previous 24. The “Promised Land” once again seems like a blurry mirage.
‘We will get this corrected’
But all sorts of things can change in a year, and the Panthers have now seen both sides of that coin. I agree with Gettleman that Chicken Little’s fear-mongering is an apt analogy for most NFL fans whose teams don’t make the playoffs (and the references to “Henny Penny” and “Turkey Lurkey” like they were reserve offensive linemen were a welcome bonus).
I also agree with the GM that Newton can and will play extremely well once again (he will need to have a better offseason, but that bazooka arm isn’t going anywhere).
All this depends in large part, though, on the pieces that the quarterback is given. As presently constituted, the talent level is not nearly good enough.
At one point in Sunday in Carolina’s 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay, the Panthers had four offensive linemen playing out of position and Newton was throwing to the Smurf-sized wide receiving cast of Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown and Brenton Bersin. Joe Montana would have had a tough time.
The No. 8 overall pick must be devoted to offense – either an offensive tackle or a running back – and the Panthers’ early second-round pick probably should be used on an offensive player, too.
“The Carolina Panthers are not going away,” Gettleman proclaimed. “We will get this corrected.”
It’s true, as Gettleman well knows, the Panthers as a franchise aren’t going away. But ultimately, if they can’t do better than 6-10, both the GM and the coaching staff will.