LAKE FOREST – Thirteen-year veteran Brian Urlacher searched his memory Thursday for a player who compared physically with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was tall and fast, Urlacher said.
“Umm, let me see” Urlacher said. “Ryan Leaf.”
Then Urlacher laughed at the memory of Leaf, one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history. Maybe this season has been rocky for the Panthers’ signal-caller, but Newton on his worst day was far superior to Leaf on his best day.
“No,” Urlacher said, turning his attention back to Newton. “There’s not a lot of guys like him.”
The first-place Bears (5-1) have tackled almost every challenge this season en route to their best start since 2006. Their next challenge happens to have the size of a linebacker (6-foot-5, 245 pounds), the speed of a running back and the arm of a quarterback.
Yet this season has been riddled with disappointments for Newton and the Panthers (1-5). Newton has thrown for more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (5) and ranks in the bottom third of starting quarterbacks with a 79.3 passer rating as he enters Week 8.
That marks a stark contrast from last season, when Newton set an NFL rookie record with 4,051 passing yards to go along with 706 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing).
Why the struggles this season?
Newton, 23, said he wished that he knew.
“That’s the question that I don’t know,” Newton said on a conference call this week. “Me, personally, I’m just going to continue to keep trying to get better each and every practice. Come game time, hopefully I would have done enough to make my team or make my job excel.”
The Bears know well that Newton can be dangerous.
In Week 4 last season at Soldier Field, Newton completed 27 of 46 passes for 374 yards and a touchdown while rushing eight times for 35 yards and two touchdowns. The Bears won, 34-29, but allowed 543 total yards for their highest total of the season.
Urlacher said Newton was capable of inflicting the same type of damage this week.
“[He’s] still a good football player even though they haven’t gotten going on offense yet,” Urlacher said. “We watched last year’s game against us quite a bit, and they gashed us. They had 500-something yards of offense.
“We’re going off of that. We’re not going off of what they’re doing this year.”
In both seasons, Newton has relied on a zone read-option play that is wildly popular in college but rare in the NFL. He often lines up in shotgun formation and reads the defensive ends to determine whether he will keep the ball or hand it off to the running back.
Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said the key to stopping the play was simple.
“I’d say discipline,” Marinelli said. “It’s something you’re not seeing a lot, so you’ve got to get caught up during the week in reads and all those things. But everybody’s got kind of an assignment, and you’ve got to follow through with your assignment, which kind of fits into our system a little bit. We’re a gap-control defense, so we’ve just got to be on top of those things.”
Discipline has been a problem for Newton both on and off of the field this season.
Newton has drawn criticism for giving up instead of rallying his teammates when things go bad. He recently addressed a female reporter as “sweetheart” after a loss to Dallas. He has been caught up in a media sideshow regarding Hall of Fame mentor Warren Moon, who said this week that racism could be a factor in why so many critics have targeted Newton.
Newton also has been harassed by good defenses, and the Bears want to join that list.
“I just keep living life,” Newton said. “I understand I’m not perfect. I’m striving to be great. What other people may think or what other people may criticize me on, I take it for what it’s worth but continue to try to make myself better each and every opportunity that I get.”