The most pivotal question looming over the Carolina Panthers in the upcoming season is whether or not quarterback Cam Newton will slip into a sophomore slump. After a record-breaking rookie season, such a slump almost seems inevitable.
After all, Newton hasn't exactly tip-toe'd onto the sports scene over the course of several years. He is just three years removed from a junior college football field. Two years removed from hoisting the Heisman trophy and one year from being selected first overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. We're just getting to know the 23-year-old.
As a professional football player, he's just getting to know himself.
Due to the NFL Lockout in 2011, Newton was herded into the rookie bunch that was forced to start their inaugural season without the benefit of a full offseason of work. And while it's true that all NFL players—rookies and veterans alike—were prevented from engaging in organized team activities with their coaches, such a situation is even more dire for quarterbacks. Even more so for rookie quarterbacks.
Newton did not have the opportunity to engage offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski or head coach Ron Rivera leading up to his rookie season. For a rookie quarterback who is expected to lead the previous year's worst-ranked offense in the NFL, that's a frightening situation.
Other positions on the team are not impacted by a lockout as much as the quarterback position; those players excel using power or speed. The quarterback position is the brain and central nervous system of the offense. Newton needed to know not only his position, but exactly what every other player's assignment on the offense was, as well. He had days, not months, to acclimate himself to his team and the NFL.
With such a grim backdrop to begin the season, few outside of North Carolina thought Newton would succeed as a rookie. And by succeed, we mean not fall completely flat on his face. Many thought Carolina made the right draft choice in Newton, if for no other reason, to fill stadium seats and sell jerseys.
Without question, Newton succeeded. He broke a handful of rookie quarterback records, including the most passing yards in a game (432) and a season (4,051). He also ran for the most yards as a rookie quarterback (706) and had the most total touchdowns (35) - a record held for 63 years.
Most importantly, he did it all without a reference guide in the huddle. Chudzinski and Rivera did not allow Newton to use a wristband with a playlist on it, as most NFL quarterbacks do.
The 6'5", 245-pound quarterback used his 4.58 40-yard dash speed to take the Panthers from last (in 2010) to fourth (in 2011) in total offense and did it consistently throughout the season. During the first 8 weeks of the season, Newton passed for 11 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Over the last 8 games of the season, the rookie tossed 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He showed no decline.
In fact, Newton improved towards the end of the season. Over his final six games of the season, Newton boasted a 108.0 quarterback rating by accounting for 14 total touchdowns and only three interceptions.
In 2012, Newton and the Panthers should hold their ground offensively. Newton has worked hard on accuracy and improving his touch passes and the improvement is noticeable, according to NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah.
Not only does the organization arguably have the best running back tandem in the league, but they also have added wide receiver Louis Murphy to the ranks. Murphy was buried on the Oakland Raiders depth chart and will not be able to showcase his speed and talent with the Panthers.
To compliment Murphy, the Panthers will start wideout Brandon LaFell. LaFell showed some spark last year and will look to improve off of his second-year success. Oftentimes, a wide receiver has their breakout year during their third year in the league. With reports coming out of Carolina's training camp at Wofford College that Newton and LaFell are syncing up, a breakout season should be waiting for LaFell.
The cornerstone of Carolina's success in the 2012-13 season, however, will rest with Newton. He is more than capable of providing the offense with the needed foundation to be successful.
Most would consider Newton's rookie season a success, but to him, he failed. He has repeatedly stated that despite breaking records last season, it was all for naught because his team didn't secure a spot in the NFL Playoffs.
The most striking statement he has made about himself—to himself—following his record-breaking rookie season is this: "If your team ain't in the playoffs next year, then Cam Newton, you failed yourself."
That statement shows a lot about the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Most importantly, it reveals he has the drive to make his team better, not just himself. When he told ESPN's Hannah Storm he has yet to take a day off this offseason, his discipline and work ethic are evident.
That drive, coupled with his discipline and willingness to work hard during the offseason, will propel Newton further into the record books and have the Panthers fighting to make the playoffs come January 2013.