At the start of the 2012 NFL Season, there were many pundits and experts stating that Cameron Newton should beware of the dreaded Sophomore Slump. The Second Year Carolina Panther Quarterback would obviously have trouble matching his (then) record setting Rookie Season. It’s only fair to think that he’d have trouble matching that level of production, it is just as unfair to overlook what he did in his second season as a starting NFL Quarterback.
The Carolina Panthers made Cam Newton the Number One overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft; fresh off a National Championship and Heisman Trophy winning season the young man would face adversity right off the bat. The NFL had just come out of the Lockout, there was no typical Rookie Mini Camps like regular off seasons. Due to the lockout many Rookies in the 2011 Draft Class did struggle, at the same time there were a few that thrived in their Rookie Seasons. Cam happened to be part of the latter, he started his Rookie Season with a bang! In the first two games of the season, versus Arizona and Green Bay Newton passed for 422 and 432 yards respectively. Few were surprised when Cam used his legs to beat an opposing defense; many on the other hand, were quite surprised with Newton’s production in the passing game. Namely his detractors(too many to name in this post), many of them had to eat their words as Cam put on one heck of a show last year.
Newton’s Rookie Season was proof to the world or the league at least, that he could be a successful passer in the NFL. Cam passed for 4,051 yards while completing 60% of his passes. That resulted in 21 Touchdowns and 17 Interceptions and that’s not counting what he did on the ground. When the ball wasn’t in the air, Newton rushed 126 times for 706 yards(5.6 yards a carry) and 14 TDs. The Carolina Panthers needed every bit of that production, as a team the Panthers were the worse offensive team in the league. Placed thirty-second out of thirty-two teams while averaging a scorching 12.3 points a game. That all changed with the selection of Newton, with Cam at the helm the Carolina Panthers jumped from the bottom of the league offensively to sixth. The Panthers averaged 25.4 points a game in 2011, they also saw a resurgence in the play of veteran Wide Out Steve Smith. The running game also enjoyed life with Newton under center, the Panthers went from 115 rushing yards a game in 2010 to 150 yards a game in 2011. DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart enjoyed the attention that Newton drew from opposing defenses, it allowed them to thrive in the run game.
Carolina finished the 2011 Season with a 6-10 record, which was worlds a difference from their 2010 finish: 2-14.
There was a full off-season for Newton and the Panthers heading into the 2012 season. Cam was headed into his second season, Carolina added a new weapon to
their already stacked backfield in Mike Tolbert. It appeared that the Panthers were going to run the ball and run the ball well on offense, the question was if the defense would hold up.
Things started off slow for the Panthers earlier this season, they were IN every single game. The problem, they often couldn’t finish games and get wins. More often than not, the Panthers found themselves playing not to lose rather than playing to win(play-calling) and it burned them often. The NFL is known for adjusting, many teams were ready for what Newton and the Panthers liked to do offensively. As expected, they did their best to take away those things. The Panthers often looked as if they were in search of their identity offensively for much of the season. Carolina found themselves at 3-9, the season could have ended one of two ways; finding their identity and finishing strong or accept failure and continue to lose. The Panthers finished the 2012 season on a four game win streak; while most of the national media had turned their back to Carolina, they were slowly figuring out their identity on offense.
It is very easy to suggest that Cam Newton was a victim of the “Sophomore Slump” this year and that is why the Panthers struggled. If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that the young QB actually improved in a challenging year for the team. There is a reason that most say to wait for a QB’s third season to find out who they are in the league, it takes time. There were mistakes made this year by Newton, there were more mistakes made by others on the Panthers. Carolina’s Offensive Rankings fell a bit in comparison to the 2011 season, mostly due to their lack of identity on that side of the ball.
The second season for Cam was actually productive, sure it paled on the surface to his “Record-Breaking” Rookie season but very productive none the less. Let’s take a deeper look at Newton’s play this season with the help of Pro Football Focus. We’ll start with the bad; he threw less TDs this year(19), his completion percentage dropped to 57.7%, lastly he threw for less yards(3,870).
Cam was more careful with the ball this year, he threw just 12 INTs versus 17 INTs in his Rookie Campaign. Newton became one of the leagues better deep ball(Passes attempted to targets 20yards or more down-field) passers this year as well; in 2011 Newton connected on just thirty-three of the the eighty-nine attempts taken down-field. That resulted in 7TDs and 4INTs, with an accuracy of 40%. This year, that number improved by Newton taking less shots deep. Taking fewer shots down-field limited the number of INTs thrown and made him a more efficient deep ball passer. In the 2012 Season, Newton attempted sixty-three passes deep and completed twenty-eight of them(5 were dropped). Those twenty-eight passes produced 6 TDs and 2 INTs, bringing his deep ball accuracy from 40% to 52.4%.
That wasn’t the only department that Cam placed near the top of the league in, he was also one of the better play-action QBs in the entire league. Newton thrives in the play-action passing game, thrives might be an understatement. In play-action situations Newton completed 63% of his passes(97 of 154), resulting in 9 TDs and 3 INTs. Of his 3,870 passing yards this season, play-action passes accounted for 1,607 of those yards. His QB Rating in those situations is 109.4, leaps and bounds above his rating in non play-action situations.
Those numbers considered, Newton’s second year was far from a failure or even to be considered a slump. If anything it shows that there should raise some questions towards play calling and talent at the Wide Receiver position. Newton’s QB Rating in non play-action situations is 75.4, it’s not the worst in the league but it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum versus his play-action QB Rating. Many of the Quarterbacks that have great ratings in non play-action situations have guys that are great YAC guys, players that acquire yards AFTER the catch. That is something Carolina is in desperate need of in non play-action situations.
It’s often said that nothing can be made about a young Quarterback until their third season. Cam Newton didn’t shock the league in his second season the way he did in his first. That being the case, Newton was extremely productive and was in anything but a slump in his second season. The Panthers now know what their Quaterback’s strengths are, that should help them establish their offensive identity going forward.
What should we expect from Cam and the Panthers in Year Three, will they go out and acquire that much needed “YAC” Receiver? Feel free to comment!