When Norv Turner left the Minnesota Vikings abruptly in 2016, the red flags lining his route of departure had everything to do with the quarterback.
As head coach Mike Zimmer watched tape with his staff, he was frustrated over passing plays that were developing too slowly. He didn’t believe the team was committed to running the ball consistently. But most of all, he saw a spate of injuries around his quarterback and didn’t see the Vikings offense adapting to the personnel. The team needed to get the ball out faster. It needed to lean on the running backs. And more than anything, it needed to change in order to protect a quarterback who was going through the meat grinder.
This is why Turner and the Vikings divorced. The offensive coordinator whose best days continue to grow more distant in the rearview mirror couldn’t – or wouldn’t – adjust a pocket-passing scheme to protect the precious cargo that was planted inside it. And now, this is what the Carolina Panthers and head coach Ron Rivera are reportedly deciding is the next best developmental step for Cam Newton. To pair him with an offensive coordinator whose rigid system has thrived through pocket passers – and whose stubbornness when it came to adapting that system left him at odds with his head coach in Minnesota.
It’s a risky play entering Newton’s eighth NFL season. But it also might be the last one Rivera has left available. They’re going off the cliff with Turner in 2018 – falling or flying.
It’s a hire, that the Charlotte Observer reported as a done deal on Thursday, that leaves two opposite schools of thought on Newton heading into this offseason. If you believe he has room to grow as a passer, then Turner is the hopeful gamble, putting a less-than-flexible 65-year-old in charge of boxing Newton into the pocket and forcing refinement in his timing, touch and ball placement. But if you look at Newton and see a player who has been in the league seven seasons and is largely locked into his skills as a passer, then Turner’s hire is an impulsive reach of a head coach who has few ideas left on offense. And it’s also a potentially massive mistake.
Regardless of how the data is chopped up, Newton is still missing something significant from his MVP season in 2015. While he was once again a bigger part of the running game in 2017, his 80.7 passer rating was the second lowest of his career. His 16 interceptions were his highest total since his rookie season. And if you believe numbers, it wasn’t an issue with the offensive line, which according to Pro Football Focus allowed the least amount of pressure that Newton has faced since the 2011 season.
That’s not to say there haven’t been missteps. Letting field-stretching wideout Ted Ginn Jr. leave fairly cheaply in free agency was a mistake that Carolina paid for all season long. The Panthers then dealt Kelvin Benjamin away at the trade deadline, largely in hopes that it would get more speed onto the field and open up a more vertical offense suiting Newton’s powerful arm. That was certainly one definitive way to go, although in hindsight the loss of Ginn and shedding of Benjamin merely removed talent from the equation without adequate replacement parts. That was a failure of the front office, straddling both former general manager Dave Gettleman and his replacement, Marty Hurney.
So begins the blame game, from the front office that failed to build correctly to the coaching staff that hasn’t adapted the scheme accurately to fit the quarterback. But blame Newton too, recognizing that while he wields a prolifically powerful arm, he has never developed consistent touch, rhythm and accuracy to thrive inside the pocket consistently. And also recognize that as much as Newton’s 2015 arrival as a staple MVP candidate was embraced, the truth is this: In his seven-year career his elite passing season in 2015 is the outlier, not the norm.
That season also touches on a particular brand of arrogance that all NFL head coaches share. If they see a player do something once, they believe it means he can do it again. And it’s their job to find a way to replicate the best performance every single season.
This is where Turner enters the equation.
For Rivera, Newton has shown the ability – albeit inconsistently – to succeed inside the pocket. And he also knows that’s the most sustainable place for Newton to stay healthy over the long term. The goal now is to upgrade the coaching and the pieces that mesh with the effort. Which brings us to the design of this offseason.
It’s why Rivera suddenly woke up at 3 a.m. earlier this week and decided to flip on his declaration that there were no imminent coaching staff changes. He saw what Newton was under offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey – an inconsistent passer who was trapped inside a style that wasn’t easy to sharpen and replicate at an MVP level. So Rivera did what most coaches do in times of quarterback crisis. He reached out for someone different, but also someone familiar.
At least that part of this is undeniable. On some level, Turner is a hire of comfort for Rivera, who spent time with Turner as his defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers from 2008 to 2010. A comfort move that is necessary for a simple reason: Rivera’s latest contract extension (which takes him through the 2020 season) will be his last if he can’t get Newton back on track as a franchise quarterback. By the end of that deal, Newton will be 31 years old and have been in the NFL a decade, entering the outer edge of his prime years. If Rivera and the Panthers haven’t figured him out by then – or built a roster that accentuates whatever his ceiling is as a passer – they’ll have frittered away a phenomenal talent.
So now the chips get pushed onto Turner, who seemingly arrives as a round hole offensive coordinator in a square peg quarterbacks room. Aside from backup Derek Anderson, that is. Anderson actually fits the style of quarterbacks with whom Turner has succeeded the most historically. But Newton, well, he’s the riddle that Turner will have to stubbornly solve.
Either he will turn Newton into a high-functioning, consistent quarterback inside a passing pocket or have this entire effort come apart quickly. And with it, whatever remains of the Panthers Super Bowl window.
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