Life after the ‘sabbatical,’ a crossroads for Cam Newton and the Panthers

With elite athleticism added to the Panthers offense, what should we expect out of Cam Newton in 2017?

Cam Newton, the city of Charlotte’s best hope at its first professional title, said the Panthers needed a “sabbatical.”

What a difference a season had made.

From a 15-1 springboard to the Super Bowl in 2015, the Panthers were mired in mediocrity in 2016, limping to a back-to-earth 6-10 performance.

By the end of that disappointing season, a battered and bruised Newton was no longer enjoying the game.

A target for vicious head shots and a victim to shoddy mechanics, Newton had regressed.

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So was that one-loss season the aberration, or was the return to mediocrity, Panthers fans are all too familiar with? (They have never achieved back-to-back winning seasons.)

The answer is how does Superman evolve.

Last year, Newton staggered through arguably his worst season, finishing with a 52.9 completion percentage, the lowest in his six-year career. He had a pedestrian 19 passing touchdowns and only five on the ground.

That head-scratching performance followed his MVP year in 2015, when he amassed 45 total touchdowns and a career-low 10 picks.

He did this with Ted Ginn Jr. as his No. 1 wideout, as Kelvin Benjamin was shelved with a torn ACL. The rest of his receiving corps that Super Bowl (loss) season: Jerricho Cotchery, Corey “Philly” Brown and Devin Funchess.

Cam did more with less and dabbed his way to a date with the Broncos, who exposed the Panthers.

All year, the offense relied on vertical routes that took too long to develop.

The Broncos sent the house at Newton, and their front seven surged past an overmatched offensive line and relentlessly slammed Superman.

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Kryptonite was in hand on display for the rest of the league.

And the Super Bowl hangover struck with a vengeance.

Cam’s swagger was gone and has yet to resurface.

Teams now had their gameplan and bull rushed Newton into submission last year.

After a shoulder surgery on his throwing arm, he hasn’t thrown a pass in OTAs, but the thousand-watt smile is back.

And why not?

After years of spending high draft picks on defensive players, with the exception of Benjamin in 2014, GM Dave Gettleman took two offensive playmakers this draft to lighten Newton’s load.

Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel provide much-needed speed and flexibility. Line them up in the backfield, in the slot, out wide, they are going to make plays.

Greg Olsen, the only tight end with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, will remain Newton’s security blanket. But the team still lacks a legitimate No. 1 wideout. We’re waiting on you, Kelvin.

From a fantasy perspective, don’t expect as many designed runs from Newton, in a concerted effort to preserve his body and shield him from unnecessary hits. On the goal line, I expect Cam will still get the call for the QB dive.

Expect more completions in the flats and a few yards down the field, with big-play possibility written all over them with McCaffrey in the fold.

A lot of pressure will fall on offensive coordinator Mike Shula, often criticized for his vanilla playcalling, to put his new versatile weapons in position to succeed.

With McCaffrey and long-time starter Jonathan Stewart splitting carries and a receiving corps with a lot of questions (barring Olsen, of course), there’s risk in drafting Panthers starters.

But if Newton can hearken back to his maestro performance in 2015, making Ginn a stud in the process, his supporting cast will get theirs.

And that will be welcome news for fantasy owners and Panthers fans alike.


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