Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Newton, Dalton in Regression Mode?

Other than perhaps major league baseball, no sport is as susceptible to the phenomenon known as the "sophomore slump" than the National Football League. Every season finds several players who exploded on the scene during their rookie year, thus raising expectations from coaches and fans only to regress in their second season. Unlike college sports, when it's frequently said that a players biggest improvement comes between their first and second seasons, the NFL has a way of quickly bringing fledgling stars back to earth, raising questions as to their original success and as to the reason for their "slump." And because the quarterback position is the most visible and critical, second-year signal callers are among the most scrutinized and analyzed professional athletes. Two 2011 NFL rookies, in particular, fall into this category.

Cam Newton

Cam Newton arrived in Carolina with many question marks after his lone season at Auburn. Despite the fact that he led the War Eagles to a national championship and collected college football's most coveted individual honor, the Heisman Trophy, it was widely projected that he'd spend his first professional season on the sidelines, watching and learning. Newton confounded the "experts" by taking over the QB reins almost from Day One however, and in his professional debut, the No. 1 overall draft selection performed like a seasoned veteran on the road against Arizona, setting an NFL rookie record by throwing for 422 yards and two TDs in a 28-21 loss. What was surprising was that Newton's pre-season performance gave no indication of what was to come, putting up so-so numbers as the Panthers went 1-3. At the time, observers, still skeptical, attributed the "breakout" performance to the mediocre opposition and deemed it an aberration. They said Carolina's next opponent, the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, would provide a better measuring stick for Newton's ability. In his home debut, Newton once again exceeded all expectations, even putting up better numbers than Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, reigning Super Bowl MVP. Newton threw for 432 yards, breaking another record for the most yards by a QB in his first two games. He also displayed his running ability, scoring his first professional touchdown. Once again however, the Panthers fell, 30-23.

Newton went on to enjoy a wildly successful rookie season, breaking virtually all rookie records for a QB (4,051 yards, 21 TDs), and set an NFL record for a QB by rushing for 14 TDs. He was rewarded by being named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year and making the Pro Bowl. The team, which suffered through a 2-14 record in 2010, improved to 6-10, and experts nationwide predicted great things for the Panthers' future, led by their once-in-a-lifetime field general.

For the 2012 season, Carolina was picked as a "sleeper" to make the postseason by many prognosticators, and eager fans couldn't wait for their team to get started. Opening against Tampa Bay, Carolina (and Newton) struggled offensively and eventually lost by a 16-10 score. They bounced back the next week to defeat New Orleans, but the offense relied primarily on the ground game, with Newton amassing just 253 yards passing. In ensuing weeks, the Panthers expected elite offense slowed to a crawl, going on a five-game losing streak. Newton's performances were erratic, at best, and questions arose as to the reason for his "sophomore slump." At the halfway point of the season, the Panthers were mired in last place in the NFC South with a 2-6 record, and had several tough games ahead of them.

Andy Dalton

Another 2011 starting rookie QB, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, had far fewer expectations on him when the season began. After winning the starting job during preseason, Dalton focused on learning the offense and avoiding losing games rather than trying to fulfill the role of "savior." The Bengals won their first game, although Dalton's numbers (10 of 15, 81 yards) weren't eye-popping. In Week Two, the rookie QB opened some eyes by leading a second-half comeback versus Denver, although his heroics fell short in a 24-22 loss. It wasn't until Dalton had a terrific performance against Indianapolis in Week Six that he began receiving rave reviews for his game management and clutch passing, primarily to another rookie, WR A.J. Green. The Bengals went on to become one of 2011's surprise teams, finishing with a 9-7 W-L mark and making the AFC playoffs as a Wild Card.

As with Carolina and Newton, the experts picked Cincinnati to be a "Team To Watch" for the 2012 season. They opened the season by being blown out at Baltimore, but then recovered to go on a three-game win streak. Dalton and Green's performances were not as dazzling as in the 2011 season, but they still managed to be a formidable tandem. Green especially showed improvement, scoring TDs in eight consecutive games through Week Nine. The Bengals, after going 3-1, went through a slump of their own, dropping four straight before rebounding in Week Ten to upset the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants behind Dalton's career-best four TD passes to improve to 4-5.

Both Newton and Dalton appear to have bright futures ahead of them, with Dalton being more of a traditional NFL QB, while Newton, with his elite athleticism and charisma, has the potential to be one of the game's legends. Just like iconic signal-callers such as Manning, Brady, Favre, Rodgers etc. however, success in the NFL is a gradual process and just like the superstars, there are going to be growing pains and bumps in the road. Dalton, perhaps due to a superior supporting cast, has yet to undergo the intense scrutiny that Cam Newton has faced so far. The experts still predict great things for both of the second-year QBs, although in Newton's case, perhaps a little patience is needed.

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