Can the reigning Most Valuable Player in the NFL actually improve?
Yes, Cam Newton absolutely can.
And in fact the Panthers quarterback must improve if the team is going to win the Super Bowl this year instead of lose it. As Carolina’s training camp begins – with Newton front and center as always – let me offer three ways.
1. Become more consistent.
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Look, I know we’re talking about the difference between an “A” and an “A+” here. It seems outwardly absurd to suggest that there’s a better number in sports than No. 1. That’s not only the number Newton wears, but it is also the quarterback’s ranking among every single player in the league. That’s according to the media, which awarded him the NFL’s official MVP award based on his astounding 2015 regular season. And that’s also according to his peers. His fellow players voted him No. 1 in the NFL Network’s recent “Top 100” series (after only voting him No. 73 the year before).
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning said before the Super Bowl that Newton could be the face of the NFL for the next eight to 10 years.
But there’s more for Newton to do. He accounted for 45 touchdowns last season and was the biggest reason Carolina led the NFL in scoring. But there were times when he threw the ball too high (an on-and-off concern throughout his career) or with improper mechanics. Newton said before last season began that he would like to complete 65 percent of his passes; he ended up at 59.7.
But for him there always has to be that carrot, there always has to be that challenge. And I really do feel that he could even get better.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on Cam Newton
When I asked coach Ron Rivera Wednesday what Newton had left to do, he said: “If there is anything for us, it’s consistency – to consistently be good every time you step on the field and to do it for four quarters. That might be it.
“For the things that he does, to expect him to do more, people say, ‘Aww, you’re crazy.’ But for him there always has to be that carrot, there always has to be that challenge. And I really do feel that he could even get better.”
2. Solve the Kelvin conundrum.
Every Panthers fan has said some version of these five words at some point in the past month: “Kelvin Benjamin is back. Yeah!”
I agree that Benjamin may become an awesome NFL player, as does the man who drafted him. “Kelvin is a huge presence,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “He’s the real deal.”
But let me remind you that the Panthers offense was actually a good deal worse in 2014 when Benjamin was playing than in 2015 when he was not.
That wasn’t Benjamin’s fault. If you had to place the blame on one unit more than any other, it would be the offensive line. Newton’s protection was shaky and Michael Oher was a year away from joining the team at left tackle.
You could see in 2014 training camp that Newton was unofficially adopting Benjamin – sitting with him at lunch every day and taking pains to get to know the then-rookie. Newton knew how important Benjamin could be, and he did all that with the best of intentions.
The Panthers had five receivers with 30 or more catches in 2015. In 2014, they only had three – Olsen, Benjamin and possession receiver Jerricho Cotchery.
But then in that 2014 season – when Newton was only 6-9-1 as a starter, including the playoffs – he seemed to throw the ball to Benjamin or tight end Greg Olsen in every critical situation. It wasn’t easy to guard those two – they both ended up with 1,008 receiving yards – but if you did, you were able to beat the Panthers. Newton had a modest 18 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
In 2015, Benjamin tore up his knee in training camp. And while this was awful news for Benjamin, it forced Newton to find his other receivers and trust them. He spread the ball around beautifully all season, nearly doubling his TD passes from the previous year to 35. He only threw 10 interceptions and went 17-2 as a starter. Carolina’s offense could barely be stopped until the Super Bowl (when Benjamin’s absence was keenly felt).
What Newton needs to do is continue sharing the ball like he did last season. It can’t be just the “Cam-Greg-Kelvin” show. Devin Funchess, Philly Brown, Ted Ginn, Ed Dickson, all the running backs – they all will need their turns in the passing game.
3. Handle the biggest moments better.
The Super Bowl was going poorly for the Panthers in February. They had trailed all afternoon. Denver’s defense had hijacked the game. But with 4:16 left, Carolina still trailed only 16-10. The Panthers had the ball on their 25 and had a chance to steal the game with a touchdown drive.
Newton was sacked on third-and-9 by Denver linebacker Von Miller. Carolina inexplicably tried to single-block him (again!) and Miller stripped the ball from Newton.
OK, fine. Newton couldn’t help that. But then came the second part of a play that will haunt Carolina fans – with the ball on the ground and a legitimate chance to jump on it, Newton pulled away.
Now Newton isn’t soft. He’s tough. No NFL quarterback runs more or gets hit more. But this was a mental error and a huge one. Newton made a business decision to protect himself like this was a preseason game, and it was simply wrong. You have to sacrifice your body at that point. If you don’t recover that fumble, the Super Bowl is over.
Newton was harassed the entire Super Bowl, getting sacked six times. On the day after the Super Bowl, he said he would have risked injury had he dived for the fumble instead of backing off.
Instead, Denver recovered, pushed the ball into the end zone and ended up winning 24-10. Newton would later compound his error with a petulant postgame press conference that he cut short after hearing a Denver player bragging nearby.
Of Newton’s 13 answers in a 149-second press conference, 11 were three words or less. Spin this however you want – and I’ve heard them all – but this was not a good look for the NFL MVP.
The infamous press conference, though, matters far less to me, though, than the quarterback’s terrible decision on the fumble. Newton so rarely does anything on the field that is just plain wrong that it was jarring. It was the sort of moment that just can’t happen again if Newton is going to win his first Super Bowl ring this season.
That season is over, though, as Newton will shortly remind all of us in his first press conference of training camp. This one is what matters.
And if Newton can be more consistent, figure out how to incorporate Benjamin and be better in the biggest moments, Newton will make the improvement he most wants to make himself.
For if he does all of that, Newton will be gleefully dodging confetti and holding up a Super Bowl trophy in February 2017.