When Cam Newton came out of Auburn as the number one pick in the 2011 NFL draft, he helped usher in a new breed of NFL quarterback. The Carolina Panthers selected him and placed the hopes of their franchise on his back. To this point, Carolina hasn't seen much of a return on their investment.
After a stellar rookie season that saw Newton shatter Peyton Manning's NFL rookie record for passing yardage, Newton has struggled to replicate that success. Although in many ways Newton has become a more efficient passer, lowering his number of interceptions, his number of individual touchdowns, both through the air and with his legs, dipped in 2012. And even though the Panthers improved to 7-9 from Newton's 6-10 rookie season, that wasn't enough for impatient Panthers' fans.
Not helping the perception that Newton's development is taking too long was the success of the "fab four" first year quarterbacks last season. When Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick all took their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons, the pressure for Newton to take the Panthers to the next level increased greatly.
Head coach Ron Rivera feels the pressure, too. He thinks the focus on Newton is unfair:
"Too much hinges on people thinking it's all about just the quarterback,'' Rivera told ESPN earlier this season. "Yeah, he's got to play well, but so do the other guys around him. One of the things I try to tell the players is we need 11 guys doing one thing at a time, not one guy doing 11."
The Panthers got a must-win last weekend in Minnesota to take their record to 2-3. With Newton's numbers in decline (he's 25th in the NFL in passing yards per game with a pedestrian 89.4 QB rating) the voices blaming Rivera for Newton's perceived lack of progrees are growing louder. Not helping matters was the departure of offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, who became the Browns' head coach.
In his place is Mike Shula, who last called plays for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay. A big reason Dungy was ousted in Tampa was Shula's vanilla offensive game plans. After four seasons in which the Buccaneers' offense failed to rank higher than 18th, Shula was let go.
Sam Bradford, who was the Rams' number one overall pick a year before Bradford, can identify with these expectations. Like Newton, he was a Heisman Trophy winner brought in to turn around a moribund offense. Like Newton, he's struggled under rather conservative offensive play-calling. At least this year, Bradford's front office went out and got him some weapons at receiver in the form of WR Tavon Austin and TE Jared Cook.
Rivera, who like Jeff Fisher is a defensive-minded head coach, hasn't really upgraded the weapons around Newton. Pro Bowler Steve Smith is still a threat, but at 34 has lost a step. Brandon Lafell hasn't developed into the deep threat the Panthers hoped he would, and Ted Ginn, Jr. is a former first rounder on his third NFL team already. TE Greg Olsen is leading the team in receptions and yardage.
Despite all these hindrances, the fact remains that fans, for better or worse, look to the quarterback as the primary driver for wins and losses. Rivera may be right that Newton's teammates have to step up their games and help the budding star; but at the end of the day, if the Panthers miss the playoffs again the fingers will be pointed squarely in the direction of Rivera and his quarterback.
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