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Cam Newton’s Storybook Return Detoured Into Horror

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Cam Newton’s Sunday started well enough, at least for a quarterback who joined his current team mid-season and has been in town for just about three weeks. Newton, brimming with confidence after an encouraging performance in a Week 11 loss to Washington, even leveled an icy stare at Miami’s sideline during the pregame. Hell yeah! Then Carolina’s first drive ended with a three-and-out and a blocked punt for a Dolphins touchdown. But! On the Panthers’ sixth offensive snap, Newton stood tall in a clean pocket and floated a deep ball to a wide-open D.J. Moore for a 64-yard connection.

This was Newton’s first completion of the game, on his fourth attempt. Three plays later he would find the end zone on a designed run. When I say that this was the high-water mark of Newton’s second start of the season, buddy, I am truly not messing around. Two of his next three official passes (a short completion was wiped out by a holding penalty) were intercepted. Turns out it may have been a little bit premature to gloat about the quality of Newton’s arm:

Things then got extraordinarily ugly, reaching into the surreal. Carolina would manage to produce one more first down in the first half and just four total first downs with Newton under center; between that touchdown drive and the moment when Newton was mercifully pulled from the game, with the Dolphins up 30–10 early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers’ offense achieved more drives with negative yardage (four) than positive (three). Worst of all, Newton’s ugly-but-not-yet-alarming 25-percent completion percentage following the bomb to Moore somehow only got worse before it was over:

Newton was pulled for backup P.J. Walker. In a sign that there could possibly be more wrong with Carolina’s offense—which in the first half lost Christian McCaffrey, again, to injury— than the scattershot play of a guy who wasn’t on the team or indeed any team as recently as Week 9, Walker’s first drive of garbage time featured two sacks and ended with a bad interception. In what is either a clean distillation of the abject hopelessness of Carolina’s current quarterback situation, or a stinging indictment of ESPN’s Department Of Making Up Statistics, or both, Walker somehow finished the game with a lower QBR than the guy who bumbled his way into a realm of modern futility previously inhabited exclusively by actual Joey Harrington.

Viewed from the proper perspective, this is what is supposed to happen when a person who was in street clothes for the first half of a season steps into a starting job in Week 11. You simply cannot have it where Elite Quarterbacks are vanishingly scarce and infinitely valuable jewels, the procurement of which immediately validates torturous years-long rebuilding projects, but also where a person who hasn’t participated in formal football activities in 10 months is expected to perform steadily and capably with a new team under emergency circumstances. The same dynamics that make Tom Brady a God also describe why a quarterback in Newton’s exact position is very likely to look very bad from time to time. I think most sports fans probably understand this.

But this is Cam Newton, whose career highs and lows in Carolina have been so pronounced, and so the expectations are naturally exaggerated, and that’s without even getting into the whole endlessly tedious NFL culture clash at the center of which Newton always and invariably lands. There’s narrative magic in his return to the Panthers organization, but as Newton himself noted with delightful third-person flair after his nightmarish performance and subsequent benching, football is very much played in the boring old non-magical world, where it is subject to the usual effects of roster continuity, practice time, and familiarity with the dang playbook.

Unfortunately, absolutely none of this blog is meant to reassure anyone that Newton does not suck now. He might suck now! He is almost certainly better than he was Sunday afternoon, but that could still leave the Panthers a long way from good enough at the position for a post-bye surge. It now falls to head coach Matt Rhule to figure out which of Newton or Walker gives Carolina the best chance to win, which may be not unlike figuring out which of a bowling ball or a barbell has the better chance of functioning as a parachute. For now it sounds like Newton will get another chance, but there could be wrinkles:

“I would absolutely anticipate starting Cam. I would not say though, that that would mean that we wouldn’t play PJ as well. And that’s no slight against Cam. I just think it’s keeping people off balance maybe. But I don’t know that yet.”

Charlotte Observer

Yeah, screw it, man. Use ’em both.

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