Welcome to Bad Quarterback Performance Of The Week, a recurring feature in which we celebrate the worst quarterback play the NFL has to offer.
Well, shit, the quarterbacks were pretty good this week, huh? Case Keenum looked like a damn All-Pro, Tom Brady did some more of that thing he always does, and I could spend all day talking about some of the throws Aaron Rodgers made. But this column doesn’t exist to celebrate good football; we’re here to kiss the darkness. So here’s a thought to sober you up: What if we’ve already seen the best of Cam Newton?
Two years ago, Newton was the most dominant force in football. He was precisely the kind of talented, expressive, and unapologetic superstar NFL fans have been so thirsty for, and as he led his team to a 15-1 season, it felt like a new era was beginning. It was was Cam’s time, Cam’s league, and there was nothing anyone could to do stop him.
Last season sucked a lot of the air out. The Panthers finished 6-10 and Newton, while being constantly battered, completed just 52 percent of his passes and threw 19 touchdowns against 14 picks. Things haven’t been going much better this season. The Panthers are 2-1, but they’ve had it relatively easy against the Niners, Bills, and Saints, and Newton has struggled. On Sunday against the Saints, a team that turned Sam Bradford into a god of the Midwest, Newton threw for 167 yards, no touchdowns, and three interceptions in a 34-13 loss.
Part of the problem is that Newton is increasingly alone. Greg Olsen, his favorite target, is gone for the foreseeable future; Kelvin Benjamin hurt his knee in the first quarter against the Saints; the running game hasn’t been what it was during Newton’s MVP season. You could sense his isolation during Sunday’s game—most of his completions were short passes to Christian McCaffrey, and two of his interceptions (one was the result of a batted ball), were a result of Newton locking in on one target and trying to force the issue.
One thing that’s made Newton so great in the past is his ability to turn a mediocre or even bad game into a great one with just a few perfect, daring throws. He had the opportunity to make a few of those game-changing throws on Sunday, but he whiffed.
In the second quarter, with the Panthers down 14-6, Devin Funchess blew past his man on the left sideline—again, the Saints are not very good at defense—and was looking at a long completion until Newton overthrew him:
The same thing happened in the third quarter, with the Panthers down 24-6 and increasingly desperate:
Newton looked best at the start of the game, when he led the Panthers into the red zone on their first drive. Then, on third-and-four at the Saints’ eight-yard line, Cameron Jordan somehow went untouched into the backfield and creamed Newton:
Of the NFL’s many recurring bummers, the biggest one might be that since Super Bowl 50, the experience of watching Cam Newton play football has mostly been the experience of watching a supremely talented athlete get the shit kicked out of him. Last season was an endless parade of head shots, and this year has already seen Newton having to overcome pain to stay on the field.
This, more than any holes in the Panthers’ roster, is why the grim thought experiment presented at the start of this post feels increasingly likely to come true. Newton is only 28, but his body has been through six years of a particularly punishing style of quarterback play, and every hit he takes makes it harder to imagine him dominating into his mid-30s. Is football a game so brutal to its own players that it can only allow a star like Cam Newton one truly great season? To hell with it if it is.