TAMPA — Cam Newton, a year removed from an MVP season, is 27th in NFL passer rating. Carolina, 15-1 and the NFC champion last season, is 6-9 and could finish last in the NFC South for the first time since Newton's 2011 arrival.
And yet as the Bucs prepare to face him Sunday in the regular-season finale, there is still genuine respect for Newton, both as a person and in the challenge on the field of trying to stop him.
"He's a unique athlete. He's 6-5, 260 pounds, he's hard to get down," said defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who faced Newton from 2011-14 as Atlanta's head coach, going 4-4.
"You say, 'Okay, you're going to put a spy on him,' well, who are you going to spy him with? Spy him with a guy that runs as fast as him, he's going to be 6 or 7 inches shorter and 45, 50 or 60 pounds less than him."
In Newton's past four games against the Bucs, he's 4-0, with 12 total touchdowns against only two interceptions. That includes four rushing touchdowns.
Tampa Bay won 17-14 at Carolina in Week 5 on Roberto Aguayo's 38-yard field goal as time expired. Newton missed that game with a concussion.
Bucs players said their biggest task Sunday is accounting for his scrambling ability while protecting against his passing.
"Play him like he's a running back, because he runs like one," linebacker Kwon Alexander said. "He's big and physical, and we just have to get him on the ground, that's all. He's a big guy, but we have to make him feel everything."
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who has two career sacks against Newton, said the elusiveness of the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 is what most frustrates opponents.
"He's still Cam, man. In my opinion, still the best escape artist we have because of his size, speed, agility," he said. "If you let him get on a roll, he'll kill you. … He loves the game so much, once he gets on a roll and you start seeing that smile come out, that's when you know you're in trouble.
"We're going to have to limit those smiles on Sunday."
This season there have been fewer smiles, wins and TD passes — 18, down from 35 last season.
"We just have to maximize on our opportunities, and I don't think we did that enough this year," Newton said this week.
McCoy said the NFL needs personalities such as Newton, from his wild postgame fashion to his playfulness on the sideline during games.
"I hate using the word flamboyant, but he's just very outgoing, very animated. He's a character," McCoy said. "You need characters. How he dresses, his style, you need that in this league, in NBA, in NHL. All these other leagues, you need guys like Cam Newton."
This week, Newton flew to Atlanta to surprise 10-year-old Taylor Deckard, a fan who has advanced pulmonary hypertension, a heart condition that requires a high-risk surgery to save his life.
Deckard's Christmas wish was to meet his favorite player, and Newton visited him in his hospital room. A short video went viral online, showing the boy, wearing Newton's No. 2 Auburn jersey, giving him a long, emotional hug.
"Having kids, I know how as a parent you want your child to be comfortable, and I guess that's what kind of took over," he said. "I don't really know what it was. I was just trying to be there for any type of assistance to make that family comfortable going through these struggling times."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.