Last Sunday, the Carolina Panthers season ended with a close playoff loss and a near-unanimous consensus that the team needs to find more help
for their gifted, beleaguered superstar quarterback Cam Newton.
That process began in earnest yesterday, as the team fired longtime offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterback coach Ken Dorsey and brought in the long-tenured NFL veteran Norv Turner
to run the offensive show. Turner’s four-decade odyssey in the NFL has spanned multiple eras and sweeping changes within the sport. He has the unusual distinction of having been hired as a head coach three different times—in Washington, Oakland, and San Diego—and failing to win big in any of those places.
As a quarterback-whisperer, however, Turner's reputation is nearly unblemished. In the early nineties, his visionary game planning as Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator resulted in the explosive Troy Aikman-led offense that won three Super Bowls in five years; he helped refine Aikman's rough edges and turn him into a Hall-of-Famer. During his stint in Washington, Turner coaxed defensible results out of limited talents like Gus Frerotte and Brad Johnson, and he was later instrumental in turning Philip Rivers into an under-the-radar all-time-great in San Diego.
Despite Turner’s bona fides, the change in offensive philosophy represents a big swing for the organization. A direct disciple of the pass-happy innovator Don Coryell, Turner has traditionally favored an aggressive, mid-to-long-range passing game that will immediately generate new questions about Cam Newton's arm talent and ability to remain comfortable in the pocket. Turner's system requires his quarterbacks to make the sort of deep sideline throws that test all but the most elite of NFL passers, and the planned quarterback runs and read-option concepts, which have been a staple of the Panthers playbook in recent years, are generally unheard of.
This de-emphasis on Newton as a scrambler represents a crucial evolution in the Panthers’ thinking about Newton, as well as a prudent gesture toward keeping him healthy for the long term. That doesn't mean it will work. Newton has typically demonstrated inconsistent results as a pure pocket passer, and while his arm strength is elite, his periodic struggles with footwork and accuracy are a matter of record.
Turner will have to help Newton improve in those areas, and the team will need to find Newton better talent at receiver as well. Dating back to the days of Michael Irvin in Dallas, Turner's offenses frequently run through the sort of top-flight, number-one receivers currently found nowhere near the Panthers’ existing roster. Turner's teams have typically featured strong running games to complement the bombs-away mentality, and he'll have a talented young back to work with in the fast-developing Christian McCaffrey.
Still, so much of Carolina's ground game has been predicated on Newton's stature as a dual threat that a radical rethink will be in order there, too. Turner may need to meet Newton halfway and implement some run-pass options into his tried-and-true methodology. Will Turner, at age sixty-five, demonstrate the capacity to evolve? Newton's transcendent athleticism and skill as a runner is too potent a weapon to mothball entirely.
Even in the best-case scenario, the hiring represents a major philosophical course correction for the Panthers, and the transition figures to be rocky at times during the first year. Ultimately, however, it is both an acknowledgment and a proportional response by the organization to the sort of physical beating it has too frequently allowed its star quarterback to endure. Up to this point, the Panthers’ offensive approach has been far too reckless with Cam, and Cam has been too willing to go along with it. If the quarterback and Turner can get on the same page and match Newton's spectacular talent to the coordinator's wily scheme, it may add years to his career.