On the NFL
10:28 PM CDT, October 25, 2012
He still looks like Cam Newton and moves like Cam Newton, but he's not playing like Cam Newton.
At least not the Cam Newton who won the offensive rookie of the year award in 2011.
So who is this guy wearing No. 1 for the Panthers?
That would be a slightly confused, very frustrated and inconsistent young quarterback.
Newton still has first pick of the draft ability, and he will flash it from time to time. But he hasn't unleashed it consistently for the 1-5 Panthers.
"Like a lot of young players, Cam tries so hard he paralyzes himself," Fox commentator and former Bear Tim Ryan said. "The playground football player we saw last year hasn't been able to come out. I think he's thinking too much and putting too much pressure on himself to try to be perfect."
Newton hasn't changed as much as he has failed to adjust to how defenses have changed their approach to him. Coaches around the league didn't know what to make of Newton one year ago; now they have a full library of game tape on him.
His less effective play actually is a trend that goes back to about midway through last season, when defenses started to draw a bead on Newton. His passer rating for his first eight games in the league was 87.1. Since then, it's 80.5.
"That first year he had a great year," said Bears safety Major Wright, who is Newton's close friend and former Florida teammate. "Last year they didn't know what to expect from him. Now defenses know more about him. They can sit back and study this kid. They have focused more on what he can do. They can play more aggressively because they know more about him."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed to a variety of factors for Newton's ineffectiveness, including opponents playing coverages and fronts differently this year.
One pro scouting director said from a coverage perspective, opponents have focused on taking away receiver Steve Smith, who has yet to score a touchdown. They are pressing Smith at the line, rolling coverage toward him and forcing Newton to go through his progressions.
This is a defensive advantage in two ways. Other than tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers don't have any receiving options about whom defenses are very concerned. And Newton has not developed the patience and vision to find alternative targets consistently when Smith is covered.
"Olsen was running free the whole time against Seattle and they targeted him three times," Ryan said.
Said an assistant pro personnel director, "His reads are half-field. Most of the time he goes first read or runs."
Defensive fronts have adjusted to Newton's sometimes spectacular running ability too.
Scouts say defensive coordinators are having linemen two-gapping more and they are not trying to get upfield as much. They also are sometimes assigning a linebacker to "spy" Newton.
Defensive coordinators aren't trying to force him into making a mistake as much as they are encouraging him to run into the teeth of a disciplined, well populated and prepared front.
Tacklers are approaching Newton differently too.
"People are breaking down and coming to balance on him instead of just flying in and trying to unload on him," the pro personnel director said.
Last year, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback broke tackles on 5.1 percent of his opportunities, according to STATS. This year he has yet to break a tackle.
Some of what has troubled Newton has been beyond his control. It didn't help that the Panthers lost Ryan Kalil for the season. Some consider him the best center in the NFL.
And the Panthers haven't run the ball the way they did a year ago, which has put more pressure on Newton. In 2011, they finished third in the NFL with an average of 150.5 rushing yards per game. This year, they rank 16th with an average of 113.6 yards.
Some have questioned the game plans and reliance on the read option by offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who could have been the Bears offensive coordinator in 2010 if he had wanted the job.
"They do so much gimmick stuff and try to trick you with misdirection," the assistant pro personnel director said.
The Panthers and Newton may figure out how to get him back on the track at some point soon.
The Bears are hoping it isn't until sometime after Sunday.
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