Is Cam Newton the man to save the Panthers' season?
Cam Newton is back for the Carolina Panthers and his first start was encouraging, but can he lead them to the playoffs?
Sequels rarely live up to the standard of the original. While Cam Newton's return to the Carolina Panthers stands as one of the most sentimentally fulfilling stories of the 2021 NFL season, the odds of him living up to his achievements during his spectacular first spell with the team are slim.
Yet through two appearances and one start, Newton's second act in Charlotte appears to be one worthy of the price of admission, if not one that will yield the honours that came during their initial nine-season association.
The Panthers lost in Week 11 with Newton starting at quarterback, a 27-21 defeat to the Washington Football Team and former Carolina coach Ron Rivera dealing a significant blow to hopes of securing a Wild Card berth in the NFC.
But the Panthers are a long way from being dead in the water and, while Newton is not the player he was when he won the MVP in 2015, his performance against Washington at least suggested his encouraging play in preseason for the New England Patriots was not a mirage.
At 5-6, Carolina can ill-afford too many more slip-ups if the Panthers are to return to the playoffs, raising the question: can Cam Newton save their season?
An upgrade over Darnold
It's a very small sample size, but the early evidence indicates Newton, the man head coach Matt Rhule and the Panthers let go after the 2019 season, represents an upgrade of his most recent batch of successors.
In the defeat to Washington, Newton delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 81.5 per cent of his passes, according to Stats Perform data, and did not throw a single interceptable pass.
Newton was brought back to replace the injured Sam Darnold, whom the Panthers traded for in the offseason. Darnold's well-thrown percentage of 80 for the season is still above the league average of 78.5, but his pickable pass rate of 4.21 per cent is inferior to the league-wide average of 3.62, Carolina's hopes of turning around his career after a dismal start with the New York Jets quickly fading.
The threat posed by Newton's athletic upside was also apparent last week. He averaged 5.86 yards per carry on designed runs, including a 24-yard rushing touchdown on a perfectly executed zone-read.
Prior to that score, Newton threw the Panthers' first touchdown of the game by faking a quarterback draw up the middle to draw up the two safeties and a middle linebacker guarding the endzone, giving him a much simpler throw to D.J. Moore on the slant route.
Darnold can himself make an impact with his legs, however, the combination of Newton's accuracy throwing the ball and his more pronounced threat on the ground led to an exciting albeit losing effort that gives optimism the Panthers' offense can be more potent as he digests Joe Brady's playbook.
Yet one element of his supporting cast may limit the ceiling of a Newton-led attack.
Protection issues a pressing concern
Newton is not short of elite talent around him. Christian McCaffrey delivered a reminder of his status as one of the game's top all-round running backs last Sunday. He demonstrated his burst by averaging 3.7 yards before contact per attempt and his ability to evade defenders in the backfield with an average of 5.5 yards per carry on rush attempts where there was a rush disruption.
Additionally, McCaffrey hauled in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Newton, one on which the quarterback showcased exquisite touch and placement to loft the ball over the outstretched arm of a linebacker and into the running back's grasp.
Top receiver Moore is producing a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender when he is targeted, 68 per cent of the time, with his burn yards per route average of 3.3 putting him tied for 11th among wideouts with at least 10 targets.
Newton and McCaffrey being on the field at the same time can put defenses in a significant bind when faced with the zone-read, as Newton's rushing score against Washington proved, with both substantial threats to gain major yardage on the ground.
Moore's continued ascension gives Newton a bonafide number one receiver, yet the impact of having two top-tier skill-position weapons will be mitigated if the Panthers cannot improve on the offensive line.
Indeed, the Panthers entered Week 12 ranked 30th in pass protection win percentage while only the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have allowed more quarterback pressures than Carolina's 204.
Even in his 11th season, Newton boasts a skill set ideally suited to the modern game and has the weapons to succeed, yet his ability to do so will be restricted if he is under duress as much as Panthers signal-callers have been in 2021.
Home stretch filled with obstacles
The hope for Carolina this month comes in the form of that Dolphins offensive line, which a Panthers defense allowing the second-fewest yards per play (4.91) in the NFL faces in Week 12.
Yet beyond this week and games with the Atlanta Falcons and a seemingly crumbling New Orleans Saints team, the schedule offers little for the Panthers to get excited about.
They face defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Tom Brady, unlikely to be daunted by the Carolina defense, twice before the end of the regular season, while a Buffalo Bills team whose defense is well-positioned to take advantage of poor pass protection and whose offense is tied for the league lead with 37 touchdowns host the Panthers in Week 15.
Carolina's remaining schedule is the eighth toughest in the NFL by winning percentage and, in a race for the Wild Card spots with three surging teams in the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles, the chances of the Panthers overcoming such a hurdle look small, particularly given the potentially fatal flaw they have up front.
Still, the combination of Newton, McCaffrey, Moore and one of the most efficient defenses in the league at least offers reason for hope. Can Newton save Carolina's season? Probably not, but he gives them a better shot than any other quarterback they have started this season.