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The Cam Conundrum

Is the Panthers’ star QB a one-man show limited by a mediocre supporting cast? Or is he holding Carolina back entering its wild-card-round matchup with the Saints?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Cam Newton’s NFL career has simultaneously been massively successful and slightly underwhelming.

On the one hand, Newton is a clear and obvious superstar. He’s the 2015 MVP and piloted the Panthers to the Super Bowl that season. He’s led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing four times in his seven-year career; his 754 yards this season are tops at his position and better than the leading running back on 10 other teams. In a landscape filled with aging quarterback stars, the three-time Pro Bowler is probably the most recognizable and marketable NFL passer under the age of 35. My favorite Newton play of the season came in Carolina’s 22-19 win over Tampa Bay in Week 16:

The concept here is simple, just a run up the middle, and doesn’t involve a dramatic sack evasion and throw to a wide-open receiver. But on a snap on which everything went wrong, his sheer talent proved enough to produce a game-winning touchdown.

On the other hand, Newton’s Panthers have had four losing seasons and just three winning ones since he joined the team in 2011, and his statistics tend to rank near the middle of the pack. In 2017, Newton was 24th in passer rating (80.7), 23rd in yards per pass attempt (6.7), 15th in touchdown percentage (4.5), and 29th in interception percentage (3.3). He wasn’t among the top five in most passing categories even in his MVP campaign, although he did lead the league in touchdown percentage (7.1). Carolina ranks an average of 15th out of the 32 NFL teams in yards per play since drafting Newton, and hasn’t finished higher than 10th in the metric since 2012. In the 15-1–MVP–Super Bowl season, the Panthers offense was 13th in yards per play; the defense was second in yards per play allowed, the main reason that the team was so successful.

There are two primary schools of Newton-related takes: Those that posit he’s overhyped, and those that claim he’s being held back by a lackluster supporting cast. Yet the Panthers’ successes and failures are always his, and that’s largely because the team has never given him a fellow offensive star with which to share them.

Over the course of his career, Newton has played with four offensive players who were named Pro Bowlers prior to becoming his teammate: wide receiver Steve Smith, running back DeAngelo Williams, offensive tackle Jordan Gross, and center Ryan Kalil. That is to say: During the entirety of the time that Newton has been in Carolina, the Panthers have never traded for or signed an offensive Pro Bowler to play alongside him.

On the rare occasions that the front office has brought in outside offensive talent to pair with Newton, those players have enjoyed some of the best performances of their career. Tight end Greg Olsen was generally regarded as an afterthought in four seasons with Chicago, averaging 495 receiving yards from 2007 to 2010; in Carolina he posted back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard Pro Bowl campaigns and emerged as one of Newton’s favorite targets. Ted Ginn Jr. was widely seen as a draft bust for the majority of his career; he looked revitalized in his stint with the Panthers, namely when he finished with 739 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Most people didn’t know anything about Mike Tolbert before he signed with Carolina in 2012; he earned first-team All-Pro nods at fullback in 2013 and 2015.

The Panthers are more likely to jettison useful players than they are to acquire them. They released Smith, in 2014, and Williams, in 2015, when both had something left in the tank. This season’s big trade-deadline move was not to bring in a key piece to aid Newton, but rather to trade away Kelvin Benjamin, who led the Panthers in receiving in 2014 and was second in 2016. (For what it’s worth, Benjamin has been unproductive in his brief Bills tenure.)

The team has used two first-round picks on offensive players in the six years since Newton was drafted. One was on Benjamin, now traded. The other was on Christian McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick out of Stanford in 2017, who was supposed to be a dynamic, do-it-all X factor. Thus far, though, he’s been inefficient as both a runner and as a receiver.

Look at the offense surrounding Newton, and it’s bleak. Devin Funchess, who has taken over for Benjamin as the no. 1 receiver (and has honestly done a pretty good job), is far and away the team’s best receiving option. Next is McCaffrey. Benjamin remains third on the team in receiving yards despite being traded midway through the season. In Sunday’s wild-card-round matchup with the Saints, the Panthers’ no. 2 receiver will be Russell Shepard, who has 202 yards in 2017. Their leading running back will be Jonathan Stewart, a 30-year-old whose average of 3.4 yards per attempt ties him for 43rd out of 48 qualifying runners this season. (Newton is second.)

Newton, as always, will be asked to do everything:

There’s a 2016-17 Russell Westbrook quality to that play, and to Newton’s role on the team. He has nobody around him who approaches his level of explosiveness. Carolina’s best option is to give him the ball and hope that incredible things happen.

The Panthers are seven-point underdogs entering their playoff game in New Orleans. If things break wrong for Carolina, the blame will inevitably fall on Newton, and occasionally that’s deserved. Last week he turned in one of the worst outings of his career, going 14-of-34 passing with one touchdown and three interceptions in a 22-10 loss to the Falcons. One wonders if he’s holding the Panthers back.

Newton does have limitations. Given that he’s the first, second, and third option for Carolina, his limitations are the team’s limitations. (This was also Westbrook’s problem last season.) The guy self-styles as Superman, and you know how Superman sometimes saves the day, but his fight against the bad guy destroys the Metropolis Public Library and the headlines focus on how Superman can no longer be trusted? That’s the Cam Newton debate in a nutshell, basically.

Of course, Superman teams up a lot of the time, and not with the Russell Shepards of the comic book world. Newton is 28, probably about halfway through his career, or at least his prime. Let’s hope his career doesn’t end with people still arguing about whether he held back his teammates, or whether he was held back by them.