If you don’t like Cam Newton after watching him on Sunday against the Falcons, it says more about you than it does about him.
It was such a pleasure to see Newton, the Panthers’ second-year quarterback, look like Cam Newton again in Sunday’s 30-20 upset of the Falcons. Newton was absolutely amazing, throwing the ball with velocity and accuracy on a 23-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen and having one of the best runs in the NFL all season and then doing a flip into the end zone on a 72-yard touchdown. That score gave Carolina a 23-0 lead against an Atlanta team that entered Sunday’s game with the best record in football.
The Panthers blowing out the Falcons on Sunday was a big surprise, but this was the Cam Newton I expected to see all season.
Of course, I’m the idiot who picked the Panthers to win the NFC South this season, so perhaps I was a little too optimistic about Newton. But while I may have been too quick to anoint Newton a star after his excellent rookie season, much of the football world was way too quick to jump all over Newton when he struggled at some points this season. The negative stories got really silly, with people getting on his case for everything from supposedly taking too long to get dressed after a game and holding up the team bus (which the Panthers said didn’t happen) to allegedly failing to show the proper deference to veterans at last year’s Pro Bowl (which was a bizarre story to surface 10 months later). Just as I didn’t understand the obsession so many people had with all of his off-field activities when he was winning the Heisman Trophy at Auburn, and didn’t understand the pre-draft criticisms of his allegedly fake smile, I don’t understand why so many people try so hard to paint Newton in a negative light this season.
It’s true that early in the season, Newton’s performance on the field did give his critics some ammunition. He had two interceptions in a loss to the Buccaneers, three interceptions in a loss to the Giants, an interception and a fumble in a loss to the Cowboys, two interceptions and two fumbles in a loss to the Bears and two interceptions and a fumble in a loss to the Broncos. He’s made his share of mistakes.
But the thing we have to remember is, that’s what 23-year-old quarterbacks do. Newton’s shockingly good rookie season last year and the success of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson may have made us forget this, but playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. Really hard. And not many people can walk right out of college football and perform at a high level in the NFL. Newton played at such a high level as a rookie that maybe we should treat a step back in his second season not as an invitation to rip him mercilessly, but as a simple example of regression to the mean.
And after Sunday’s game against the Falcons, I’m not so sure that Newton has really regressed anyway. He’s now on pace to throw for 3,963 yards this season, just short of his rookie record 4,051 last year. And he’s on pace to run for 788 yards, even better than the impressive 706 he gained as a rookie. In the last four games, Newton has a total of 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and zero fumbles.
The 4-9 Panthers have plenty of problems. Their defense is mediocre, their special teams are terrible, and their much-hyped running back trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert isn’t playing well enough to merit their hype — or their contracts. But one problem they don’t have is a question mark at the quarterback position. They answered that question for years to come on the day they drafted Cam Newton.
Newton was the player who impressed me most on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:
Rex Ryan’s decision to deactivate quarterback Greg McElroy tells me a lot about the Jets. It tells me that they think Mark Sanchez is so mentally weak that he would have been looking over his shoulder if the option of benching him for McElroy existed. That’s not a good sign. Ryan’s decision to go back to Sanchez after benching him for McElroy last week worked, in the sense that the Jets won. But it worked out for the Jets because they were playing the terrible Jaguars, not because Sanchez played well. Sanchez completed just 12 of 19 passes for 111 yards against one of the worst defenses in the NFL in Jacksonville. Ryan won’t bench Sanchez, but he should.
We still have some great running backs in this league. The NFL has become, more than ever before, a passing league. But there are still some phenomenal running backs, and two of them got off to phenomenal starts on Sunday: Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles had 103 yards in the first quarter against the Browns, and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson had 104 yards in the first quarter against the Bears. Charles and Peterson are both coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, and yet Charles is 11 carries away from surpassing Jim Brown for the NFL record for yards-per-carry average (a record that requires a minimum of 750 career carries; Charles has 739), while Peterson is closing in on a 2,000-yard season.
The officials are using automatic replay reviews as a crutch for getting calls wrong on the field. In the second quarter of Jets-Jaguars, the Jets fumbled and Jacksonville’s Dwight Lowery recovered. Lowery was obviously down when he jumped on the ball, and yet the officials allowed him to get up and race to the end zone for a touchdown, without blowing the play dead. The reason? The officials are now letting plays go because they know scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and they figure replay will bail them out if they get it wrong. But that’s not what instant replay is intended to do: The officials should call every play as well as they can, not just abdicate their responsibility on the field and waste a bunch of time afterward when their mistakes get corrected on replay.
And sometimes even when they have a replay review the officials get the call wrong. In the second quarter of Titans-Colts, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck threw the ball just as he was being tackled, and Tennessee’s Will Witherspoon grabbed it and raced 40 yards to the end zone. Fortunately for the Colts, a replay angle clearly showed that Luck’s knee was down before he let go of the ball, so the interception would be overturned, right? Wrong. The referee somehow looked at the replay and allowed the Titans’ touchdown to stand. If the officials are going to use replay as a crutch, and then they’re going to get the call wrong even when they have that crutch, then the NFL has a serious problem on its hands.
Seattle may be the toughest place to play in the NFL. The Seahawks improved to 6-0 at home on Sunday with their demolition of the Cardinals, and it’s a good thing for the rest of the NFC that the Seahawks are probably going to have to go on the road in the playoffs, because I wouldn’t pick anyone to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. The Seahawks are winning with a great defense, an excellent running back in Marshawn Lynch and a good young quarterback in Russell Wilson. If only the Panthers could put that kind of team around Cam Newton.