Cam Newton
Cam Newton is back in the mix for the Carolina Panthers quarterback spot. What role will he play for Carolina in the second half of the 2021 season? (image from Ralph Freso/AP Photo)

Can Cam Newton Turn the Panthers’ Season Around?

It’s been a week since Cam Newton signed a one-year, $10 million contract to return to the Carolina Panthers, and I’ve taken a few days to process his two-touchdown game against the Arizona Cardinals. He claims he’s back after a wacky 2021 that saw him get cut by a team with a rookie quarterback.

Not only did the Panthers beat the first-seeded Cardinals by 24 points on Sunday, but Cam Newton made an impact on his nine offensive snaps. Newton’s first two snaps both came from Arizona’s 2-yard line, and he thrived in his red-zone role by running for a score and throwing for another.

The 2015 MVP was brought back to his first NFL team because Carolina starting quarterback Sam Darnold was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Carolina’s backup, P.J. Walker, is more than capable of carrying a steady workload as a starter, but Cam Newton brings a different style and answers questions the Panthers were struggling to answer early in the season. After a 3-0 start, they now find themselves 5-5 – very much in the NFC playoff race but losing five of six recently forced the organization to make a move. So, can Cam Newton turn the Panthers’ season around?

After one week, it sure looks like he can. Here’s where Cam will make the most impact this season: Entering the Cardinals game, the Panthers were 29th in the NFL in red-zone appearances ending in touchdowns. They were putting the ball into the endzone at a rate of about 52%, which, at the time, was just 1% better than their 28th ranking last year. After Newton’s first game, Carolina is now 22nd in the league at about 55% going 3/4 in red-zone opportunities.

We have seen Cam Newton dominate for years in the red-zone. His 6’5”, 245-pound frame is unique coming from the quarterback spot, and he has never been afraid to lower his shoulder to fight for extra yards that he believes are his for the taking. He will be useful in situations that aren’t inside the opponent’s 20, as well. Walker took 88% of the snaps, and that is okay for now, but the more short-yardage situations Carolina faces, the more you will see Newton. Walker moves very well and can improvise with the best of NFL quarterbacks. Still, if I were Matt Rhule, I’m choosing Cam Newton on a must-have 4th-and-1 from as far as my own 25. Am I choosing him to start any upcoming games, though? No, even with some surrounding pressure about it. He’s just not ready to be thrown into a starting role right now.

Obviously, football is a team game, and Cam’s short-yardage usage is just the first part of the equation. Although we saw Carolina’s quarterbacks combine to be 25/33 in week 10, they threw for just 175 yards. Games are not going to be won by the arms of Newton or Walker, but they will be lost. With a healthy Christian McCaffrey, Carolina can focus on using him on runs, screens, and check-downs to keep the two from pushing the ball downfield too aggressively. Cam hasn’t been able to throw a deep ball for years after a strange shoulder injury, and Walker just doesn’t have the arm strength, either.

Lastly, the Panthers need to keep playing defense at an elite level. They are 6th in the NFL in both opponent’s points per game with 19.3 and sacks per game with 2.7. Because of their great play on Sunday, the Panthers’ offense started on Arizona’s side of the field three times and scored on all three possessions. Each time Arizona turned the ball over, the Panthers offense scored points.

Cam Newton won’t be the sole reason the Carolina Panthers make the playoffs at the end of the 2021 season, but he certainly will play a large role over the next handful of weeks with Darnold out. I’m very interested to see how Rhule handles a three-quarterback room once his shoulder heals, and he comes off IR. Hopefully, Walker and Newton play well enough to generate momentum for a case to keep them playing.

The upcoming schedule for Carolina is favorable, but they will have a brutal stretch to end the year – making these next three games versus Washington, Miami, and Atlanta that much more important. Their final four games are all against teams that currently hold playoff spots. So, my question about Cam Newton turning Carolina’s season around should be answered fully in about a month. Strap in, people. This NFL season has been full of drama, and it is absolutely not slowing down now.

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