January 1, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Tom Johnson (96) and linebacker Martez Wilson (95) tackle Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Panthers 45-17. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Cam Newton and the Scourge of High Expectations

editor’s note: This article was written by guest writer Lucas McMillan.

No player in sports embodies the media’s boom-or-bust, black and white outlook on athletes more than Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. First, he had “character issues.” Then, people questioned if he had the intelligence to play QB in the NFL. The name “JaMarcus Russell” hung in the air like the smell of overripe fruit when Newton was drafted first overall by the Panthers in 2011.

And what did Cam Newton do when he got to the NFL? He dominated. How did the media react to his weekly dissections of pass defenses? They blamed the defense’s poor play on the lockout, as if the fact that those DBs sat out OTAs several months earlier could account for a rookie quarterback throwing for 422 yards in his professional football debut, and as if Cam Newton himself didn’t sit through the very same lockout. However, as the season progressed and it became apparent that Cam Newton was a phenomenal quarterback, the media warmed to him. After all, the guy had rushed for 14 touchdowns, and thrown 21. He even caught a 27-yard pass in game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The media’s love for Cam went from lukewarm to white hot overnight. “Best rookie ever?!” conversations screamed across SportsCenter. In his first season, Cam Newton had gone from raw (i.e., draft bust alert) to promising to one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Huh? As far as we know, Cam Newton remained Cam Newton for the duration of the season. He didn’t suddenly morph into a superstar quarterback, but always was one. So why did the perceptions of him change so wildly?

Now, Cam Newton sits in a precarious spot. He’s heading into his second season, and expectations for the Carolina Panthers, and Cam Newton specifically, are rocketing skyward. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the team’s three-time Pro Bowl center took out a full page newspaper ad promising a Super Bowl victory. That kind of stunt will, believe it or not, get some people’s hopes up.) These expectations, that Cam Newton will take the field in world-beating, all-pro, Super Bowl-winning form in only his second season, are just as unfair as the previous assumptions about Newton. Before, people unfairly expected nothing. Now, they unfairly expect everything. The reality of what Newton does on the field will almost certainly fall between the two, which means everyone will be disappointed. How is that fair?

The very same people who stampeded over each other to label Cam Newton a bust, a character problem and a cheater are now the very same people eager to kiss him into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Instead of “wait and see,” it’s “what have you done for me lately?” Instead of just getting to be a sophomore quarterback, he’s a letdown if he doesn’t rush for 15 touchdowns and start in the Pro Bowl. I get it: that’s the media landscape we live in, and his gaudy statistics and records from his rookie season naturally translate to astronomical expectations for him in his second year. Still, it might be wise to pump the breaks a bit and see how Cam Newton develops. As good as he was last season, a regression to the mean this year is far from out of the question. (For the record, I think Andy Dalton is going to stink this season for many of these same reasons.)

It’s unfortunate, but in our current climate of second-by-second analysis and opinion vomiting, athletes and celebrities aren’t even allowed to stumble. Denny Green had a meltdown one time at a press conference six years ago and he hasn’t so much as sniffed the NFL since then. And this is one of the finest offensive minds ever to coach in the league. Public perception is everything, and when that perception is honed in at an electron-microscope level, mistakes can’t happen. And yet they do. Cam Newton can’t have an OK season. He can top last year, or he can suck. That’s how sports media breaks things down.

Ultimately, the problem facing Cam Newton is one that has faced so many promising young acts. We loved LeBron James for a while, until we decided that we didn’t want to love him anymore but hate him instead, for vague and rarely specified reasons. The Strokes released Is This It in 2001 to widespread critical acclaim, but Room on Fire, their follow-up, bombed two years later. Was LeBron James worse or different than he was early in his career? Was Room on Fire categorically worse than Is This It? No. But living up to sky-high expectations is a bitch. In a lot of ways, the sophomore effort can only disappoint because we build the ceiling of our expectations too high.

So it might be time we ease off and let what happens happen. If you want Cam Newton to play like you wish he would play, grab Madden 2013. Outside of that, his season will unfold as it will.

Lucas McMillan writes for FootballSchedule.me. For the latest Carolina Panthers news, commentary and schedule information, visit FootballSchedule.me

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