Quarterback Cam Newton has long been the Carolina Panthers’ best and most dazzling offensive player, as well as the only NFL Most Valuable Player the team has ever had.
But when Newton has gotten in the NFL playoffs, here’s the brutal truth: Over six postseason games, you can describe his overall play in one word - mediocre.
And mediocrity is not an option Sunday. Newton will have to be great for Carolina to upset New Orleans Sunday afternoon at 4:40 p.m. in the NFL’s wild-card playoff round.
Newton’s playoff record is 3-3 entering the Saints game. His quarterback rating is 83.9 – slightly worse than his career regular-season rating of 85.3. He has thrown eight touchdown passes in the playoffs but also has thrown seven interceptions.
The quarterback is also coming off one of the worst games of his seven-year NFL career. Newton posted a career-low passer rating in a three-interception game in Carolina’s 22-10 loss to Atlanta Sunday. Coach Ron Rivera said Monday he felt confident Newton would play well against New Orleans because the quarterback normally “bounces back after a tough outing.”
That has traditionally been true, but it’s also true that Sunday in the Superdome will rank as one of the most difficult playoff venues of Newton’s playoff experience. Only one of Newton’s previous six playoff games has been a true road game. He lost that one, at Seattle three years ago. Of his other five playoff games, four have been at home and Super Bowl 50 was held at the neutral site of Santa Clara, Calif.
Only one top 50 receiver
So Sunday’s game will have a high degree of difficulty. And it doesn’t help that Newton’s cast of wide receivers is once again suspect, as it has been ever since Steve Smith was released following the 2013 season.
The Panthers had only one receiver -- Devin Funchess, at No.27 -- among the NFL’s top 50 pass-catchers in terms of receiving yardage regardless of position. In the Atlanta game, Carolina’s receivers often got no separation. And Newton didn’t help himself with a number of overthrows. Even before the interceptions, his first nine throws were incomplete.
“We just have to understand,” Newton said afterward, “that a game like this and games moving forward, guys aren’t just going to be free. As a whole, from throwing the ball and catching the ball, we have to make contested catches and maximize on good opportunities that we do get. ...It’s all about contested catches and physicality.”
Newton has certainly surpassed former quarterback Jake Delhomme in almost every career category for the Panthers. But it’s worth noting that he hasn’t caught Delhomme in career playoff wins. Delhomme went 5-3 as a playoff starter, including five games with a 100-plus quarterback rating.
Delhomme also had what will rank forever as the worst playoff game a Panthers quarterback has ever played, committing six turnovers in a 2009 loss nine years ago.
For a quick refresher, let’s take a brief chronological look at Newton’s previous six playoff games:
Jan. 12, 2014: San Francisco (home loss, QB rating of 79.9).
In a 23-10 loss to the 49ers in his first playoff game, Newton threw one touchdown pass (to Steve Smith) and had 267 yards passing. But he also had two interceptions and saw his “Superman” celebration mocked in the end zone by the winning quarterback -- San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.
Jan. 3, 2015: Arizona (home win, QB rating of 82.6).
Newton’s first playoff win was keyed by a Panthers defense that allowed only 78 total yards – the fewest in a playoff game in NFL history. But Newton contributed by playing a smart game without a lot of mistakes (18-for-32, 198 passing yards, two TDs, one interception).
Jan. 10, 2015: Seattle (road loss, QB rating of 79.2).
Newton was thoroughly outplayed by Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who also benefited from having a much better supporting cast. Newton committed three turnovers in the 31-17 defeat – the last one an interception that Seattle’s Kam Chancellor returned 90 yards for a touchdown.
Jan. 17, 2016: Seattle (home win, QB rating of 108.3).
Newton and the Panthers edged the Seahawks – who had been their nemesis for the past several years – in a wild playoff game that began with Carolina establishing a 31-0 lead and ended with Thomas Davis hanging on to an onside kick to preserve a 31-24 victory. Newton’s statistics were quietly effective – 16-for-22 for 161 passing yards, one passing TD and no interceptions.
Jan. 24, 2016: Arizona (home win, QB rating of 117.4).
This was Newton at his best. His most dominant playoff game ever resulted in the Panthers’ most lopsided playoff win ever – a 49-15 plastering of Arizona in the only NFC Championship Game ever held in Charlotte. Newton threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more, somersaulting into the end zone on one of them after an acrobatic leap.
Feb. 7, 2016: Denver (neutral-site loss, QB rating of 55.4).
After his MVP regular season, Newton did not personally account for a single Panthers TD in Carolina’s surprisingly thorough 24-10 loss to the Broncos. Sacked six times, Newton also gave up a Denver touchdown on a strip-sack fumble. He suffered through four drops by his receivers and terrible protection from his offensive line. He also was roundly criticized both for not trying to dive onto another fumble he lost and for his pouty demeanor in his postgame news conference.
Dangerous when ‘fast’
OK, back to Sunday’s game. Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula noted Monday that Newton is “dangerous” when he “plays fast” – by which he means good, quick decisions that get Newton into a rhythm early. If Newton can play like that Sunday, the Panthers have a chance.
But if Newton doesn’t play very well?
Then the Panthers have no chance at all.