TAMPA - Buccaneers fans are well versed about the pressures facing a young NFC South quarterback determined to lead his team from mediocrity to playoff contention. But Josh Freeman has company in this endeavor because skeptical Carolina fans are asking the same questions about third-year pro Cam Newton, whose 2012 season resembles Freeman's - if you were looking in a funhouse mirror. Unlike Freeman, Newton finished strong, throwing 14 touchdown passes and only four picks while the Panthers won six of their final nine games to finish at 7-9, the same record as the Bucs. During Carolina's 1-6 getaway, Newton threw eight interceptions and five touchdown passes as the Panthers plunged out of postseason consideration before Halloween. There are many different formulas for NFL success, but it's rarely a good thing when your quarterback is your leading rusher.
Newton's 741 yards on the ground showed he remains one of the league's most gifted athletes, but Carolina's offense fell from seventh to No. 12. More importantly, the Panthers plunged from fifth to No. 18 in scoring offense. The Panthers lost their offensive identity, abandoning a power running game in favor of the finesse of the read option. They made a mistake and got cute one season after Newton won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors while humiliating Tampa Bay twice within a four-week December span. As the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Newton is viewed as a franchise savior, but it's not his fault Carolina hasn't developed a legitimate No. 2 receiver behind 34-year-old Steve Smith. "Cam must be more consistently accurate as a passer,'' said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback who ranked Newton No. 18 on his pantheon of NFL passers. "Not only did he struggle to read coverage, but he was far too erratic with his accuracy, too scatter shot. Newton must become more precise.'' Jaworski ranked Freeman at No. 21 and said Tampa Bay's fifth-year quarterback is standing at the NFL crossroads. "Freeman is an enigma,'' Jaworski said. "He has a lot of talent, but he should be a better quarterback after 56 NFL starts. He has a lot of snaps under his belt. Freeman is on the clock.'' Newton is in the cross-hairs. His pouty demeanor after a Week 3 loss to the Giants last season went viral, defining Newton in a negative light for his detractors in Charlotte. "Body language is everything,'' Newton told the Charlotte Observer. "I could be having a conversation with you guys and have my face down and not make eye contact and everything's OK. But the way it looks may come off a different way, and I understand that. That's one thing I've tried to focus on, but at the same time, it's a work in progress." That maturation process might have taken a hit last week when the Atlanta native was quoted as saying he is a Falcons fan for 14 of Atlanta's 16 regular-season games. That didn't sit particularly well with Carolina supporters wondering if Newton boasts enough leadership skills to turn around a franchise that has won only 23 games in the past four seasons, one fewer than the Buccaneers. When the Panthers report to training camp on Thursday, coach Ron Rivera is expected to return to a smash-mouth attack that relies on power backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. "Once you get that run game going where the quarterback ain't out-running the two $75 million running backs in the backfield, then you've got something cooking," NFL Network analyst and former Bucs defensive great Warren Sapp said. At this point, Newton and Freeman are all about turning down the heat. firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7833 Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO