Maybe the phone booth door was jammed or possibly he had trouble with the buttons on his shirt. Whatever the reason, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had trouble early on this year doffing his Clark Kent disguise and emerging on the scene as Superman.
But never fear, Superman has returned to form.
Forget about the first seven games of the season, where Newton threw for 243 yards per game with five touchdowns and eight interceptions. Focus on the his last six, where Newton has thrown for 253 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
He’s now faster than a speeding cornerback.
Not only has Newton become more efficient when throwing the ball, he’s stopped his fumbling problems. He fumbled the ball eight times in Carolina’s first seven games and lost three of them—including a devastating fumble in Week 4 against Atlanta that gave the Falcons the ball back with a minute to play. Matt Ryan would lead the enemy down the field for a game-winning field goal.
Over Newton’s last six games, he’s only fumbled once and the Panthers fell on that loose ball.
He can now leap over tall defensive linemen in a single bound.
So, what’s caused the makeover of last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year?
"These last five weeks have been pretty doggone solid," said head coach Ron Rivera during his postgame press conference Sunday. "I'm very pleased with his development. I think what [quarterbacks] coach [Mike] Shula and [offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski] Chud have been doing with him has been right on. And he's really accepting it and working."
Accepting it. Now that’s the operative phrase in Rivera’s message.
For coaching to really grab hold and make a difference, the player has to be willing to listen and work. If the message isn’t well received, it doesn’t matter how great the concepts are. The full extent of the teachings won’t come through.
Especially for a guy like Newton, who has all the natural athletic ability in the world. Every day of Newton’s life, he’s been better on the field than everyone else. Even in the NFL, where everyone’s an elite player, Newton’s more gifted.
For the elite, coaching can sometimes be difficult. Newton was good enough with no offseason workout program last year to walk into training camp and set the NFL on its ear. How much coaching does a guy like that need?
Apparently, a lot.
Newton didn’t flounder through the first seven weeks of the 2012 season, but he was definitely regressing. And this was more than a sophomore slump. There were some critical mistakes glaringly obvious to anyone watching.
Newton was immature. He preferred to sit with a towel on his head and pout through rough patches of a game. An NFL quarterback doesn’t do a whole lot of cheerleading when his defense is on the field, but what Newton was doing was detrimental to the team.
Wide receiver Steve Smith called him out. The media called him out.
“I watched D.A. and Jimmy (Clausen), they don’t play in 20-something games last year,” Smith told The Charlotte Observer after Newton pulled himself from a Thursday night game. “And they get up and they observe and learn and get those mental reps,” Smith said Friday. “I told (Newton), ‘You can get some mental reps or you can sit on that bench and sulk.’ ”
The initial exchange didn’t do much good. But Newton slowly began coming around. And now he’s flourishing under the tutelage of his coaching staff, even though it might be a lame duck staff.
Newton seems to be more comfortable in the pocket. He’s stepping up and taking another look at possible receiving targets before he takes off on the ground. That’s a relatively new feature of Cam 2012. As is a more fluid path through his progressions.
Because he’s more comfortable in the pocket, he’s able to make better decisions. He’s not settling on his first read, even if it’s a forced-through situation. He’s also not taking off at the first sign of trouble, even though he can.
That’s all a sign of the maturation process. After weeks and weeks of Newton acting like any sign of maturity was Kryptonite, the light bulb went off.
If Newton continues on this pace for the next three games, he’ll surpass his touchdown total from his rookie season—at least through the air. He’ll also drastically reduce his interception rate. That’s the sign of growth—at least one of them—in a young quarterback.
With the Panthers out of the playoff mix, growth among the youth on the team is a more-than-welcome event.
Now if Newton can just take another step and instill the same level of maturation and growth in his fellow teammates, Superman can help his Panthers take flight into the 2013 playoffs.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.