Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, November 12, 2021 10:34 am

The return of Cam

Filed under: Panthers — Lex @ 10:34 am
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Given Cam Newton’s injury history and the worst offensive line he has ever played behind, his return as QB1 for the Panthers could mean nothing — or a playoff berth.

Talk about a game changer. While the results on the field have yet to manifest, the return of former NFL MVP Cam Newton as quarterback for the Carolina Panthers has put a whole new positive spin on what had been shaping up to be a dismal season.

Even if Cam is not the magical Cam of 2015 anymore, he’s likely still a significant upgrade on current starter Sam Darnold (expected to be on injured reserve for four to six weeks with a cracked shoulder blade), P.J. Walker, and Matt Baxter, the other QBs on the roster. But more on the on-field aspect of this in a second.

For one thing, Cam Newton will provide a huge jolt to a Panthers locker room (particularly the offense) that it has needed all season. For another, the hope that Newton represents has sent fan enthusiasm through the ceiling. That translates into more butts in stadium seats, which makes for a better home environment for the team and more money for owner David Tepper, which is what he’s all about. Newton’s likely home debut will be Nov. 21 against the Washington Football Team, whose head coach and general manager were with the Panthers during Newton’s previous tenure, and whose roster features some former Panthers. It’s an instant rivalry game. And perhaps most critically for a rebuilding team, it stops the hemorrhage of draft picks in exchange for quarterbacks.

Now, about on-field performance.

Newton is 32. While he is a generational talent, it is unlikely in any event that he would be able to rekindle the performances of his youth — and extremely unlikely given that he is working behind arguably the league’s worst offensive line, a line worse than any of the bad ones he played behind after the magical Super Bowl season of 2015.

On the other hand, he has the league’s best RB1 (now that Derrick Henry is out) in Christian McCaffery and a talented stable of receivers, from DJ Moore, who has quietly become one of the top four or five wide receivers in the game, to emerging pass-catching tight end Tommy Tremble. If anyone can revive the moribund WR Robby Anderson, who had 1,000 receiving yards last year even without catching many deep passes (because Teddy Bridgewater, now with the Broncos, didn’t throw many) but has been an utter dud this year, it’s Newton.

And let’s not forget Newton’s running ability, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He scored 12 rushing touchdowns with New England last year, to run his league career record for QBs in that category to 70. But even beyond those situations, Newton and McCaffrey, or Newton and rookie RB Chuba Hubbard, can run run-pass options all day. In short, this offense with Newton at the helm has the potential to keep itself on the field, and thus keep opposing offenses off the field, for big chunks of time. That also provides more rest for that talented defense.

I’ll admit I have no idea what will happen. This team has dug itself a big hole, and it’ll likely get deeper Sunday against Arizona (Newton won’t be playing and may not even be active). But I’ll give you my worst- and best-case scearios. keeping in mind that the back half of the team’s schedule will be significantly tougher than the front half was.

My worst case is that Newton badly underperforms his potential and/or gets injured again, a nontrivial possibility behind this putrid offensive line. The team, now 4-5, could finish 4-13 or 5-12.

My best-case scenario looks something like this: The team’s offensive production goes up by 7-10 points per game and the defense continues to hang tough, keeping the Panthers in at least mathematical contention for a playoff spot entering Week 17, the season’s penultimate week. At that point, for the Panthers, who will finish the season at divisional rivals New Orleans in Week 17 and division leader Tampa Bay in Week 18, it could be win-or-go-home in both games. Those are long odds, but in one game, anything can happen.

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