A forgotten play 14 months ago is behind an interesting theory for why hits on Cam Newton no longer get penalized

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Cam Newton caused a stir on Sunday after the Carolina Panthers' 30-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals when he railed against the NFL, saying he didn't feel safe during games and that the unflagged hits were taking the fun out of the game for him.

The topic of protecting Newton has come up several times this season, with the first coming on opening night when Newton took several hits to the head that went unpenalized. Then, in the Panthers' Week 4 game against the Falcons, Newton suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit.

There is no shortage of theories on why Newton doesn't get as many calls and is not as protected as other quarterbacks. But there is one that is more eyebrow-raising than the others and it is tied to one play last season.

During Week 3 of the 2015 season, Newton was running toward the sideline and took a seemingly late hit after throwing the ball. After the game, Newton put referee Ed Hochuli on full blast, accusing the veteran official of saying, "Cam, you're not old enough to get that call."

Much was made about that accusation at the time. Newton was clearly miffed about something Hochuli said. Hochuli denied he said anything about Newton's age. Some examined the videoand felt that is not what Hochuli said and Hochuli was never disciplined.

We may never know for certain what Hochuli said, but we do know that something changed around the same time. Prior to the Hochuli game, Newton was the beneficiary of about 5.3 roughing-the-passer calls for every 16 games, nearly twice the NFL average (3.0). Since the Hochuli game, Newton is averaging 0.8 per 16 games, well below the NFL average.

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Why the change? Well, the theory goes that NFL officials are no longer giving Newton the benefit of the doubt because they are upset at him for either a) lying about what Hochuli said; or b) for making such a public spectacle about it when maybe it could have been handled in-house, especially after he had been so well-protected earlier in his career; or c) both.

There are certainly other theories: he's big! (refs may treat him differently because he is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds); he runs a lot! (he gets treated like a running back once he leaves the pocket); he doesn't slide enough! (on occasion, Cam will fight for extra yards when others will not).

The problem with these theories is that Newton has always been big and runs a lot, but the lack of flags on hits he takes appears to be a recent phenomenon.

Still others argue that Cam is protected. In fact, many look at the numbers and say Newton is more protected than many other big-name quarterbacks.

But once again, that appears to be something that used to be true, but is no longer. Newton has been the beneficiary of just one roughing call the last two seasons and that one was waved off because of off-setting penalties.

It seems clear that something changed the last two seasons.

Maybe Newton is playing differently the last two seasons, or maybe defenses are playing him differently, and one of those is causing fewer flags to be thrown. But as we have seen, the hits are still there.

Another possibility is that this is just a fluke lull in the calls. Officials do miss calls and roughing-the-passer is not a foul that is called terribly often. If refs just happen to miss a few in a row, it could look more ominous than it is in reality.

But what we do know is that Newton has once again put the NFL and its officials on full blast.

According to Ed Werder of ESPN, Panthers coach Ron Rivera has already spoken directly to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the hits and Goodell has vowed to review the situation and speak with Newton.

No matter what the reason for the fewer calls going Newton's way, it is going to have to change now. Too many people are watching.

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