Panthers QB Cam Newton is having his resiliency tested. In his first prime-time game since entering the league, Newton compiled a career-low passer rating (40.6), throwing three picks in Carolina’s embarrassing Thursday night loss to the Giants at home on Sept. 20.
He was berated by the player he says he looks up to as a big brother when WR Steve Smith scolded Newton for sitting on the bench instead of standing to support his teammates during the final minutes of the Panthers’ defeat.
Then came an ESPN report that Newton had been seeing a mind coach to help him through the struggles of losing and managing high expectations coming off his historic rookie season. On Monday, Newton denied that he had been seeing a sports psychologist, but that story opened a can of worms that one denial cannot completely kill.
To top it all off, an editorial cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer drew national attention for mocking Newton’s trademark touchdown celebration, which he performed when the Panthers were trailing the Giants, 23-6 (another questionable decision that led to criticism).
In the cartoon, Newton is tearing his shirt open to reveal a Hello Kitty logo instead of the “S” for Superman.
So, the past seven days have not been kind to Carolina’s second-year signalcaller. However, he could not ask for a better opportunity to silence critics than a date with the undefeated Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Week Four.
How will Newton respond against the only NFC South team he has yet to beat? He will be facing a defense that has shut down two of the league’s top quarterbacks — Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers —in consecutive weeks. The two QBs combined for one TD pass and five interceptions vs. Atlanta.
Newton’s ability to make plays on the run makes him a different type of challenge for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s stop unit. But if Nolan can disguise coverages well enough to befuddle veterans like Manning and Rivers, he certainly can do the same vs. Newton.
If Newton is truly the competitor he has said he is, then he will show it Sunday in the Georgia Dome. He can quiet the growing chorus of critics, or he can allow the perception that he is moving backward in his second season to grow stronger.
It’s only Week Four, but make no mistake — this is one of the most critical games of Newton’s young career.
There will be no shame in losing to the Falcons on the road, and the Panthers’ problems this season certainly extend beyond Newton. The offensive line has been inconsistent and the defense was overwhelmed in Week Three by a Giants offense that was lacking two of its top stars, WR Hakeem Nicks and RB Ahmad Bradshaw.
Win or lose, Sunday could be remembered as a turning point in Newton's career. He has to strongly reinforce that he is the right leader for this team in both good times and bad.