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Hopes on Ice

National Football Post

In advance of Sunday’s game against the Falcons, an editor from the Charlotte Observer penned an editorial in defense of his paper’s recent controversial cartoon depiction of Cam Newton. He begins by stating the paper’s stance: “the team and quarterback Cam Newton have been playing below expectations.”

I’ll stop right there because this is the most salient part of the discussion.

Last year the exploits of Cam Newton almost eclipsed a 6-10 season. So this year, the good people of Charlotte are expecting more—like a division title and maybe even a playoff berth. These are lofty expectations, to say the least. And given the Panthers style of play—conservative, and the division in which they compete—tough, these expectations are not especially realistic. Not this year.

That’s why the dreadful outing against the Giants caused such a ruckus. The staff at the Observer may not have expected the Panthers to knock off the world champs, but they probably expected them to show up. When they didn’t, a cartoonist named Kevin Siers, in a feature called “you write the caption,” took a shot at Cam Newton. You know the rest.

The Panthers week four game against the Falcons was the perfect canvas for which to measure the progress and expectation of a wunderkind. When you get Cam Newton and Matt Ryan together, you’re seeing two guys with nothing in common—except everything.

Four years ago, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the third pick of the 2008 draft, set the league afire in his first year. He returned respectability to a lost franchise and generated the buzz needed to fill seats. Ryan threw for 3,400 yards, the Falcons won 11 games, and made the playoffs. For his efforts Ryan was named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and may have even deserved it.

But it should be noted that 2009 wasn’t so great for the young man. It began well enough. But around midseason he began to struggle some. He threw picks—fourteen to be exact—like a young quarterback is prone to do. He didn’t throw for as many yards, but they still finished 9-7, which is a winning record. There were no playoffs and no awards that winter.

Then, after the 2010 and 2011 seasons, which were statistically kind to Ryan, all of the anticipation turned to winning playoff games. The Falcons finished 13-3 and were the darlings of the conference but lost to the Packers in 2010. And last year the New York Giants thoroughly ended the Falcons’ season with a 24-2 rout, in the process rendering Ryan a non-entity.

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IconAfter a spectacular rookie season, "Matty Ice" struggled.

Through the process Ryan has maintained his moniker—“Matty Ice.” It sounds like a rapper’s name, which Ryan isn’t. That’s what makes it so cool. There is no posturing in his game or in his persona. Ryan comes off as an earnest young man. So when he struggles, he gets the benefit of the doubt.

Expectation will always be influenced by perception.

Cam Newton is cool. So cool he doesn’t require a nickname. He’s given to the long and languid movements of someone who can’t be rushed into doing anything. Not only does he chew gum while he plays, he does it with the deliberate leisure of a cow working its cud. Newton can’t be bothered to panic. Because of this he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

But it’s still a good trait in a quarterback.

Starting with the game’s opening drive, Newton offered no memory of last week’s horror. He threw a quick out to tight end Greg Olsen, the next play Newton got around the corner and skated 32 yards. Then a few plays later, he floated a nice easy ball to Greg Olsen for the touchdown. The meaning of cool is always being yourself, regardless of circumstance.

But there’s a fine line between cool and a sense of urgency. On the first drive of the fourth quarter, the Panthers trailed the Falcons 24-21. Newton threw to Steve Smith on a corner route. It was a good throw, not a great one. A great throw would have allowed Smith to easily get both feet in bounds. As it was, Smith could only get one foot down. While Atlanta coach Mike Smith searched for his red cloth, there was time to snap the ball, to quickly erase the possibility of challenge. In fact, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen pleaded for his quarterback to do just this.

While Newton stood under center and coolly barked a cadence, the red flag appeared and the drive was cancelled. Newton failed to connect with the moment. The moment required a sense of urgency that was lost on Newton. The urgency is what makes one believable to his audience. This is why Peyton Manning is both winning quarterback and the master of entertainment appeal.

But yesterday, in the final moments, Newton and Ryan shared an element essential to success. In times of duress, those who keep their heads are those who don’t change their behavior. In the bewitching hour of crunch time, they carry out their actions the way they always do.

With just under two minutes left in the game, and the Panthers leading 28-27 Newton ran for a first down. Some will say that he should have had both hands on the ball. This always makes me laugh because anyone who has ever run with the ball knows that you can’t move nearly as well or as quickly unless you have one arm free. Newton ran the way he always does. As Newton plunged forward, the ball grazed the back of his offensive lineman, dislodging it from his grip, so when John Abraham reached out and grabbed it, the ball came loose.

With 59 seconds left, Matt Ryan did what he always does. His ball handling skills were the same as they were on the game’s opening drive. On first down, he carried out his fake to Jacquizz Rodgers, showing the defense his back, then he snapped his head, retreated to the back of the end zone and heaved it.

Now if Panthers safety Haruki Nakamura takes the proper angle today’s story is how the Panthers outplayed the Falcons. But since it didn’t play out that way, we’re left with a different refrain—about how Cam Newton should be more like Matt Ryan.

Maybe he already is.

Follow Alan Grant on twitter@ AlanGrant_NFL

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