Scott Fowler

Panthers problems run deeper than Cam Newton

Fix Cam? If only the Carolina Panthers’ problems were that easy to solve.

Quarterback Cam Newton is mired in one of the worst slumps of his NFL career. I keep getting emails saying the Panthers should start Derek Anderson and they should never sign Newton to a long-term contract.

The point seems to be that Carolina’s 3-5-1 record is all – or at least mostly – the fourth-year quarterback’s fault.

Some of it is, for sure. Newton had his worst game as a passer in terms of completions, completion percentage and quarterback rating against New Orleans last Thursday night in a 28-10 loss. Of his 18 incompletions, six were either too high or well overthrown – an old problem resurfacing under pressure.

But listen, with that offensive line the Panthers fielded? Peyton Manning would have gotten buried. Anderson would have had no chance.

I don’t want to make a lot of excuses for Newton, because there’s no doubt he isn’t playing well. He has not been able to lift a team with otherwise mediocre talent to greatness, and the great players can do that year after year (see Brady, Tom).

But Newton also has been let down by the team, because the pieces surrounding him too often can’t be trusted. And it’s not all injury-related – general manager Dave Gettleman made several offseason decisions that have returned to haunt him.

Outwardly, Newton remains confident. Of the Panthers’ game at Philadelphia on Monday night, he said Wednesday: “I think this game is going to be a great win for us.”

It won’t be unless Newton is protected better and his receivers catch more balls that he puts into their hands. In the past two games, Kelvin Benjamin has dropped two touchdown passes and Brenton Bersin let a ball go through his hands for an interception.

Newton has also been scrambling for his life. He was sacked seven times in those two games and hurried a lot more.

“A lot of it is not just about him,” coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday of Newton’s struggles. “We can put it all on the quarterback and say it’s all about the quarterback, but this is a team game.”

It sure is. Although it is harder to be one these days, I remain a Newton supporter. I believe Carolina’s best chance to win long-term is to eventually sign him to a long-term deal. He’s the answer at quarterback, assuming you don’t have five question marks scattered all over the offense.

Now don’t get me wrong – Newton can play a whole lot better. He is throwing off his back foot too much and forcing the ball to Benjamin too often.

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 12 touchdown passes in the past two games for Pittsburgh. Newton has only thrown eight TD passes all season.

After not throwing an interception in the first three games he played in 2014, Newton has thrown one in each of the past five. Fantasy football players beware: Newton has not thrown for 300 yards or three TDs in a game all year.

Newton was great in Cincinnati. If you score 37 points, you should win an NFL game. But he has not looked like himself the past three weeks, completing only 17, 12 and then a puny 10 passes. He didn’t even make his “first-down pointing” signal after scrambling for two early first downs vs. New Orleans.

Although it is a much-criticized gesture – can you think of another quarterback who regularly does that? – I don’t mind the first-down point. It is a symbol of Newton’s genuine personality. At his best, he is playful and extremely confident (as when he said Wednesday his “thumbs are pretty golden” when he plays video games).

I asked him about the lack of first-down gestures against New Orleans and he said it “just slipped my mind.”

“You think that’s why we lost?” he joked. “Oh my God. If Cam Newton gets a first down on Monday night, you best be sure I’m going to get up and do my first-down point.”

What he really needs to do is point the way to what would be the first Carolina victory since Oct. 5 against Chicago. That would help with the criticism, and he knows that.

“I just want to win,” Newton said, “whether I play good, bad or indifferent. We are past due for a game that proves we are what we thought we were.”

Newton remains Carolina’s best option at quarterback, for short- and long-term. But until the Panthers get their offensive line and defensive secondary fixed, it will be very hard for him to prove it.

Because as long as those two problems keep rearing up, Cam Newton will be quarterbacking a losing team.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer