Tom Sorensen

Kelvin Benjamin’s jab ignited an old Cam Newton debate. This season should settle it.

If Cam Newton’s offensive line holds up, the Carolina Panthers quarterback should be the best he’s been, and this is a former NFL MVP.
If Cam Newton’s offensive line holds up, the Carolina Panthers quarterback should be the best he’s been, and this is a former NFL MVP. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Kelvin Benjamin’s criticism this week of Cam Newton has become a referendum on Newton.

We don’t expect much from Benjamin, a former Carolina Panther who despite his obvious talent has worked hard to turn himself into a peripheral receiver. But we expect a lot from Cam. Some of us expect good things, and some of us expect him finally to implode.

Benjamin plays for the Buffalo Bills, against which Newton’s Carolina Panthers open the exhibition schedule Thursday. Benjamin took shots at Newton and his accuracy, and said the Panthers were not the right team for him.

The criticism gave Newton’s supporters and detractors an opportunity to praise or rip him. Quarterbacks on all but the elite teams are inherently polarizing, and Newton is more polarizing than most. He talks trash, celebrates first downs, dances on the field and wears hats with feathers in them.

And he has weaknesses. He played with Benjamin, 6-5, Greg Olsen, 6-5, and Devin Funchess, 6-4. Drafting big guys was no accident; they’d be tougher to overthrow. Yet Newton overthrows them.

Also, Newton holds the ball too long. He believes his receivers will break open and that if he stands in long enough, he’ll hit the big pass. Instead, he often takes the big hit.

But give him credit for this. When was the last time you heard him criticize his offensive line for allowing those big hits to occur? He doesn’t. He just gets up, shuts up, waits for the snap and does it again.

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Some detractors criticize Newton’s penchant for running. But that’s an essential component of his game. Telling him not to run would be like telling a basketball player with great range to go to the basket and not to shoot. Remember what Newton did to the Minnesota Vikings last season? The score is tied, Newton fakes a handoff, runs left through a huge hole, jukes, dekes and flies. He gained 61 runs on the carry, moving the ball to the Minnesota 6.

Of course he should run. Those yards count, too.

Newton will hit deep passes. I love it when he steps into a throw and goes deep. In the old days, you knew that when he stepped into a throw the ball was going to Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn is gone. But when he steps into a throw this season look for newcomers Torrey Smith and D.J. Moore. Also look, I hope, for Curtis Samuel, who was injured most of last season, his rookie season.

I ran into Jerry Richardson, the former Panthers’ owner, in a Glendale, Ariz., hallway after Newton played his first game for Carolina. The Panthers lost, but Richardson praised Newton. He knew he had somebody, and he was right.

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Newton turned 29 three months ago, and this NFL season will be his eighth He’s at a place where knowledge and talent meet. He’s still young enough to move and old enough to know better.

He has worked with a sub-standard receiving corp. That no longer is true. He worked with an offensive coordinator that was never able to create an offense to maximize his talents. That should no longer be true. If Newton’s offensive line holds up, the Panthers quarterback should be the best he’s been, and this is a former MVP.

Newton will never be everybody’s all-American. He’s unconventional, and there are those who believe you’re supposed to do it the way it has always been done. This is not how Bart Starr did it.

To compete in the NFL, a franchise quarterback is required. Like him or not, faults and all, the Panthers have one. And, man, will it be compelling to see what he can do with the new talent the offense has.

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