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Carolina Blues: Cam Newton loses his way

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Tugging on Superman's cape (USP)

If you're invested in Cam Newton this year, you probably don't want to watch the tape from Week 5's loss to Seattle. It's a horror show, an ugly collection of snaps. Newton seldom looked out of place as a rookie, but for most of Sunday afternoon he resembled someone who had never started a game of pro football. (Mind you, this ridiculous Seahawks unit is going to make a lot of opponents look bad in 2012. Quarterbacks have nightmares about those NFC West defenses.)

Can the Panthers fix their franchise player quickly, get back into the playoff mix? I'm not optimistic. And I'm not bullish for fantasy reasons, either.

As bad as Newton was on the stats sheet in this defeat (12-for-29 passing, no touchdown drives, four sacks, one lost fumble), he looked even worse on the moving pictures. His accuracy was all over the place: a bunch of throws missed high, a few skewed low (most notably the fourth-and-goal attempt on Carolina's penultimate drive; Ben Hartsock was open in the end zone but Newton missed badly). He looked jittery in the pocket. Some of the sacks were on him, not the offensive line. The Seahawks batted down a couple of Newton's passes, though they were kind enough to drop two potential interceptions.

The Seahawks took Newton down in the post-game press conference, too.

''We know he's a great dual-threat quarterback, but once we bottle it up and frustrate him, we know he's going to tank a little bit,'' Seattle safety Earl Thomas suggested. ''We were able to do that today.''

Newton, to his credit, didn't lose his cool in the post-game presser. ''When you know what guys are doing and you still can't beat them, they're just good at what they do,'' Newton told the assembled media. ''Let's call a cat a cat and a dog a dog. They're a great defense. We knew what we they were going to do before the game even started.''

It's nice that Newton claims he wasn't confused by the nasty Seattle defense, even if the tape shows evidence to the contrary. Confidence from a quarterback is a good thing. And Newton certainly had his running moments in Week 5, collecting 42 yards on seven carries. His chops on the ground are why he's still the No. 11 quarterback in terms of Yahoo! fantasy points per week. He's been more disappointment than bust to this point.

But where is the story going from here? When might things get better for Newton? Have we seen the nadir?

Carolina gets the bye in Week 6, probably a good thing. This scuffling 1-4 club needs a reset in the worst way. But the rest of October's schedule is a mess: Dallas is a dangerous matchup in Week 7, and a trip to Chicago looms for Week 8. Good luck with those matchups, No. 1.

If you choose to play the optimist card, you can focus on Week 9 at Washington, Week 13 at Kansas City (a giveaway defense until Sunday's strange Baltimore game), or even Week 16 against Oakland (mind you, the world could be completely different by then; the NFL is like that). New Orleans, sadly, doesn't come to Carolina until Week 17, the fantasy dead zone.

Newton's supporting cast deserves some blame, of course. Jonathan Stewart's hands were flat-out awful Sunday (one fumble, two drops, another catchable pass not secured); the Detroit Tigers probably want him for their 2013 infield. DeAngelo Williams went nowhere on his six rushing attempts and also lost a fumble on a read-option pitch, though Newton might have made a bad decision on that play. Steve Smith and Newton haven't been on the same page all season. Brandon LaFell had some flash moments against Seattle, snagging three passes for 44 yards (on just three targets). He needs to be a bigger part of this offense after the bye.

The offensive line doesn't look like the culprit. The Panthers have been average in run blocking this year, per Pro Football Focus metrics, while the pass blocking has been above average. Most of Newton's wounds appear to be self-inflicted.

If I were a Newton owner, I'd be looking to sell right now, in the bye week. Get reinforcements that make you a fantasy favorite in Week 6. Promote those pretty rushing stats (209 yards, three touchdowns) and that gaudy YPA (8.5); stay away from the five picks and the five fumbles (and two fumbles lost). Mention the plus matchups that come later in the year, but don't mention they're in November and December. Figure out who had Newton in your league last year, see if he or she wants to do the dance again. Maybe your opponent thinks he can fix Newton; fantasy owners are like that sometimes.

My gut feel says the Panthers will run a more conservative offense when they return in Week 7; less college offense, more base runs, more balance. Stewart and Williams need to be more involved as conventional backs. The team probably doesn't want Newton to feel overloaded against the Cowboys and Bears; it doesn't want Superman to think he needs to do it alone. Take my speculation for what it's worth; when my phone rings, it's never Ron Rivera or Rob Chudzinski on the line.

If you have an exit strategy (or a purchasing strategy) tied to Newton and his Love Cats, share it in the comments. Let's figure this out together.

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Dynamic duo (USP)

• There probably isn't any room left on the Andrew Luck bandwagon, but save me a seat if you can. He'll be a Top 10 quarterback, at minimum, in this week's Shuffle Up. He's enjoying the benefits of the Indianapolis setup: poor defense, mediocre running game, regular shootouts. He can make every throw in the book and he's also handy an occasional runner. Working with Reggie Wayne (perhaps the game's most underrated wideout from the past 10 years) obviously helps; Wayne put on a clinic Sunday against Green Bay.

Luck's intelligence and pocket awareness probably aren't getting enough attention. It's notable that Bruce Arians already trusts Luck with no-huddle packages; Peyton Manning didn't get that responsibility until his second season. And while the Indianapolis pass blocking has been poor all year, Luck has taken a modest nine sacks through four games. Compare this to Kevin Kolb, who's been dropped 13 more times despite 20 fewer passing attempts.

Generally speaking, offensive lines get too much blame for sack problems and not enough blame for stumbling rushing games. Every blitz gives an indicator pre-snap; the offense has a chance to read and adjust — slide a protection, identify a hot read, perhaps change the play entirely. The best quarterbacks make their offensive lines look better than they really are. Tom Brady's sack percentage was 3.5 percent in 2007; Matt Cassel, on essentially the same offense, had an 8.3 sack percentage in 2008. The Indianapolis offensive line was praised through the dome roof in the 2000s, but Manning made their reputations for them, by and large.

• Michael Vick's midweek Shuffle Up price won't be lofty, I can guarantee you that. The Eagles are somehow 3-2 despite Vick's struggles: he's fallen in every major passing-efficiency stat, and then there's the turnover problem (six picks, five fumbles lost). Why would the Eagles want to trust Vick's spotty hands at the goal line? And can anyone imagine Vick lasting the full season given the pounding he's been taking? He's only managed one 16-game campaign over his career; that's what happens when a slight quarterback plays a gambling, hit-inducing style.

The Eagles as an offense might be okay if Shady McCoy runs the show, and tight end Brent Celek is having a steady year. I don't like how Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson fit the scheme; they're both high-attrition players who are struggling to gain separation downfield, and Vick isn't the type of quarterback who throws his receivers open. Generally Vick needs to see a throw clearly available before he pulls the trigger, and he's leaving big plays on the field every week.

If I owned Vick (and I don't), I'd hold onto him for the Week 6 match at Detroit, hope the big numbers return. Then I'd look to make something happen in trade during Philadelphia's Week 7 bye. The schedule after the break is a hit-and-miss slate: Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Washington, Carolina, Dallas again. Some fun opponents, some nasty ones. We should also mention that Andy Reid is a master of fixing things during the break; he's never lost a game after the bye week, snagging 13 wins in a row (not to mention 10 covers).

The Rashard Mendenhall debut was a lot better than I expected: 16 touches, 101 yards and one score against a strong Eagles defense. Mendenhall also lost a 22-yard gallop from a formation penalty (an infraction that had nothing to do with the play's success). Score one for science; like Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, Mendenhall came out of the blocks strong.

That all said, let's throw some cold water on the story. Pittsburgh's offensive line played well Sunday but didn't grade well in September; this isn't a plus group. Isaac Redman did steal 13 carries Sunday, albeit they were no great success (41 yards). Mendenhall exposed the ball on several of his runs and had one fumble (the Steelers maintained possession). Pittsburgh's October schedule looks reasonable (Titans, Bengals, Redskins), but there's a troll waiting under the bridge: the Giants, Chargers, Cowboys and Ravens (twice) come calling in the second half.

If Mendenhall runs over and through the beleaguered Titans this Thursday, with the roto nation watching, a lucrative trading window might follow in the ensuing week. Timing is everything.

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