Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton’s odd pattern key for 2019 (PFN Film Room)

The Carolina Panthers are looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2018. Luckily the upcoming season is an odd year as their ability to do so hinges on Cam Newton continuing an unusual streak.

For the Carolina Panthers, 2019 will be about avenging a losing campaign that was painful for multiple reasons. After beginning the year 6-2 the Panthers lost seven of their final eight in 2018. All the while, Cam Newton wasn’t himself. Newton tried but failed to flourish in spite of a shoulder injury that prevented him from showcasing his best. After what was a solid start to the year, the Panthers failed to make the playoffs–adding insult to injury.

Newton completed 67.9 percent of his passes–the best of his career. However, that was the only bright spot of yet another “even-year let-down” that has defined his career.

Newton is yet to have a winning season in even years. On the other hand, he’s been comparatively excellent in odd-numbered years, most notably in 2015 when he won MVP.

As the Panthers enter another odd year, there is plenty to suggest they have a great shot at success. First of all, they’ve beefed up both sides of the trenches. There’s been a distinct offseason focus on edge rushers and keeping Newton healthy. Secondly, Newton has a young cast of skill-position players ready to make strides. Guys like D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Ian Thomas all have heaps of promise. Lastly and most importantly, Newton should improve after successful shoulder surgery. For the Panthers to contend, they’ll need Newton to be who he was in 2013, 2015 and 2017.

In 2018, Newton struggled to push the ball downfield, had issues with accuracy, and saw his play (when faced with pressure) decline. He was a far cry from the quarterback we saw in 2015. To continue this odd-year phenomenon, Newton will need to show significant improvement in each of these areas. Carolina’s playoff hopes are counting on it.

Downfield passing has hurt Newton and Panthers offense

Newton, according to Pro Football Focus, ranked 32nd of 35 quarterbacks in big-time throws. The 40 deep passes he attempted was the lowest number of his career, and he completed just 8.5 percent of them. Though the shift to a quicker passing game under Norv Turner and Newton’s shoulder issues impacted those numbers, they are startling for a quarterback with an arm as impressive as Newton’s.

Newton’s deep pass completion percentage has steadily declined since the 2015 high watermark of 14.7. The 2018 season was the first time in which it slipped to single digits. A fully healthy shoulder should boost Newton’s success rate on deep throws. However, it may merely be a matter of him rediscovering the confidence to attempt such throws. For example, look at this stunning touchdown to Kelvin Benjamin from a 2017 win over the Detroit Lions.

Newton lets the ball go despite Benjamin having next to no separation and a deep safety in position to make a play on the ball.

The placement, however, is excellent. Newton puts the ball far enough in front of Benjamin that only he can make a play on the ball. This was a pass featuring the kind of accuracy that escaped him as the Panthers slumped during the stretch run.

Accuracy

Due to the nature of Turner’s offense, it’s no surprise that Newton’s completion percentage improved. While the raw numbers suggest the quarterback took better care of the football, PFF’s turnover-worthy throw metric — in which he ranked 30th — says otherwise.

And the tape from 2018 provided plenty of examples of Newton’s carelessness with the ball.

Given what we now know about Newton’s injury, we must consider it a factor in his disappointing accuracy. His struggles can also be attributed to the opposing pass rush. But on numerous occasions, Newton produced turnover-worthy throws simply because he lacked the placement shown in the earlier clip. Here’s an example.

Last year Newton threw four interceptions when the Panthers hit the road to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On this specific deep throw, Newton fails to display any downfield accuracy. Curtis Samuel would have had a touchdown if the ball was in front of him.

Perhaps Newton was affected by late-arriving pressure. Regardless, Newton lacked the arm strength to make the throw. He put it behind Samuel where the defender makes a play on the ball.

Newton has regularly delivered in the clutch for the Panthers. In last year’s game against the Cleveland Browns, he’d throw an interception that clinched defeat. Oddly, Newton missed so severely on precisely the kind of throw that has been his bread and butter for years.

Looking to hit Devin Funchess on a quick post route, Newton needed to show more anticipation by putting the ball out in front of him. The deep safety, coming across the field to pick up the tight end, narrows the throwing lane. Regardless there’s no excuse for the wild throw. Newton’s high pass handed Cleveland the win.

Compare that throw to the one below. This was from the Panthers’ playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints from the 2017 season. Funchess runs a similar in-breaking route and, like in the Bucs’ game, Newton has late-arriving pressure. However, he steps up, avoids the backside pass rush and, despite the pressure in his face, delivers the ball perfectly on time in front of Funchess.

Newton’s performance under pressure in 2017 was vastly superior to that of 2018, and the numbers reflect that.

Pressure

According to PFF, Newton had a passer rating of 62 when pressured in 2017. In 2018 that rating dropped to 48. The drop-off mirrors what happened in 2016 when Newton’s rating under pressure dipped from 66.9 to 44.4 and in 2014 when it slumped from 67.3 to 49.7.

Metrics do not tell the full story, but in this instance, the tape backs up what the numbers say.

Newton went from a quarterback who displayed composure and awareness within the pocket in 2017 to one who’s hurried into rash decisions. Take this interception from the 2018 game against the New York Giants for example.

The blitzing defender shows excellent athleticism to hurdle the pass-protecting running back. Still, there is no need for Newton to release the ball under that level of duress. Taking the sack and living for another day would have preserved the Panthers offense to play another down.

While far from a game-manager, Newton has previously demonstrated a capacity for strong decision making. That wasn’t the case in this last clip. Even when trouble ensues he’s shown the ability to scramble, extend the play, read the field, and make the correct call.

He does so on this play versus the Minnesota Vikings from 2017. Unlike the interception against the Giants, Newton shows patience and doesn’t panic as the pocket collapses. Instead, Newton shows dexterity in escaping the pocket, finds and hits an open Funchess with an accurate throw off his back foot.

It is when Newton plays composed that he’s at his best. When settled in, Newton gets into a rhythm where he’s firing accurate passes left and right. It’s at this time where he has elite big-play upside. This was no more apparent than in 2015 and 2017. With that said, 2018 was unquestionably hindered by his injured shoulder. Because of the injury, Newton lacked consistency in each one of these areas. For that reason he’d fail to play at the high level he’s known for.

For the Panthers to realize their ambitions of competing for another title, odd-year Newton needs to show up again in 2019.

Nicholas McGee is a Film Room writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.

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