There are a few crossroads in every NFL quarterback’s career. The Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton has reached one of them.
He is 24, entering his third year as an NFL starter on the best Panthers team he has played for yet. He is as physically gifted as any quarterback in football. And yet he has not guided the Panthers to a winning season, much less a playoff berth.
This could be the year.
In reality, this should be the year.
“The sky is the limit,” Newton said of the Panthers Wednesday, and that sky is very blue at the moment. The Panthers have the Offensive Rookie of the Year from 2011 anchoring one side of the ball and the Defensive Rookie of the Year from 2012 anchoring the other. Surrounding those two guys is more talent than any Panthers team has had since 2008 (the last time Carolina made the playoffs).
But none of that matters if Newton can’t deliver this season. I asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera once what percentage a quarterback’s play accounts for an offense’s success – or lack thereof. He came up with a very specific number: 55 percent.
Argue the number if you like, but I won’t. The quarterback is the mortar connecting every brick.
Newton has been good – sometimes extremely good – for most of his two years. What he hasn’t been is great, not in a team sense, not in the way that a quarterback wills his team to one fourth-quarter win after another. The Panthers are 13-19 since Newton arrived, and 2-12 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
Will that change? I think so. He likes a challenge – even a made-up one, like the way he competes with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in practice.
While acknowledging that Kuechly made a “leap” and not just a “step” this offseason, Newton also took pains Wednesday in a news conference to avoid complimenting the much-praised middle linebacker too much.
Newton put it like this: “I’m not going to just keep rubbing batter on the cake.”
In practice, Newton has made competing with No. 59 personal.
“It’s an unspoken challenge for me not to throw a pick to him,” Newton said. “Just personal, you know. We have our own way of communicating and challenging each other. … If I were to throw an interception, it’s not going to be in 59’s hands.”
Newton is smart enough not to accept every challenge, however. When I asked him about 32-year-old Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick’s recent statement that he was still the fastest quarterback in the NFL and would take on any and all comers, Newton demurred.
“I’m taking my name off that ballot,” Newton said. “I think it’s between RG3 (Robert Griffin III), Colin (Kaepernick) and Michael Vick. … I don’t want to be the fastest quarterback, I just want to be the guy that can’t be caught in the open field. Because if you get caught in the open field, that means you’re not doing something right, and that will be talked about in the locker room.”
Last year, Newton became the first NFL quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb in 2000. Newton also had a 72-yard scoring run in which he did a front flip into the end zone. And given that he said Wednesday he played part of last season at 255 pounds and now weighs 243, he will likely be a tick faster this year.
All that is fine, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t win. Newton doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards or run for 100 yards himself to be successful each Sunday. Everyone already knows he can do that.
What Newton needs to do is win more. If he doesn’t do that enough in 2013, Rivera will likely be gone and Newton will be starting over in a whole new offensive system in 2014.
That would be the definition of taking the wrong road. So this season Newton should not be judged by his bewitching athleticism. He should be judged purely by how many games he wins.
Scott Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org