After finishing 2-14 in 2010 and firing head coach John Fox shortly thereafter, Panthers brass hired Ron Rivera as head coach and drafted Heisman Trophy-winning Cam Newton first overall to reverse course.
Newton had not only just led the Auburn Tigers to an undefeated season and BCS national championship in 2010, but he also led Blinn College to a JUCO national title the year before. Hopes were that Newton would quickly transition his championship pedigree to Charlotte and the Panthers.
But nothing went according to plan.
Newton threw for 420-plus yards in each of his first two NFL games, but the Panthers lost both. Carolina lost 10 games in Newton’s rookie season and then nine more in 2012. When the Panthers started this year 0-2, Newton was staring at a 13-21 career record as a starter—a million miles away from back-to-back collegiate national championships.
Has Cam Newton arrived as a franchise QB worthy of his No. 1 draft status?
Carolina hasn’t lost since that early-October game in the desert, and Newton has looked unstoppable for the most part. Newton has completed 72.3 percent of his passes and thrown seven touchdowns with only two interceptions. He’s also rushed for 128 yards and scored three times on the ground.
Has Newton finally become the quarterback the Panthers thought they were drafting in 2011? The answer is yes, but it’s more complicated than that.
Look at Carolina’s record in Newton’s first two seasons and look at all the records Newton shattered. Newton made so many changes to the NFL record book in 2011 that he should have earned extra money as an editor of the tome. But the Panthers still weren’t winning.
It didn’t matter if Newton played like Superman or floundered through 60 minutes of play, the Panthers were terribly inconsistent.
Now, as shown with the Panthers’ four-game winning streak (the longest such streak for Carolina since Newton has arrived), the Panthers win when Newton plays well, and they can even win when he doesn’t.
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In Weeks 6-8, Newton played better than he’s ever played in the NFL. He completed 77.3 percent of his passes and posted two of his top three career-best passer ratings and three of his top 10. He also avoided turnovers, not throwing any interceptions and only fumbling once (which the Panthers recovered).
But Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, Newton had a bit of a speed bump. He threw two interceptions and had 14 incompletions (23-of-37). But, for the first time in his career, the Panthers won a game when Newton threw two or more interceptions.
What’s the difference? Why is Carolina winning games now, because of and in spite of Newton, that it wasn’t in the previous two seasons?
Part of the answer comes from the fact that the Panthers can boast a top-10 defense, a unit that ranks second in points per game allowed (13.3), second in rushing yards allowed (79.1) and 10th in passing yards allowed (220.8).
Carolina’s defense is stout, and that’s an understatement.
Another part of the answer comes from Newton’s ability to rely on a number of targets. With wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. producing solid numbers alongside top options Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, Newton can keep defenses guessing, even when the game is on the line or the Panthers need an all-important first down. That used to be a moment for Smith only. Now Newton has a plethora of options.
But Cam Newton’s win streak isn’t all team-based. He did some soul searching during the offseason with the help of his father and oldest brother.
Not only did the trio sit and watch a ton of game film and break down great quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, Newton’s father and brother forced him to watch the sullen moments of his first two seasons, including his sideline antics and off-putting postgame press conferences. Per an interview with Laura Okmin and Fox Sports:
It was very disgusting, and that's as blunt as I can be. Those guys sat me down and we went back on YouTube and looked at Cam Newton's post-game interviews. And I'm looking at it and I'm like "Oh my God." and I couldn't do nothing but [shakes his head in disgust]. Because I see what people see. I look at how people are viewing me. So when they see this selfish player, when they see this little childish temper tantrum that I was throwing, (I saw) "that's why people are looking at me like that."
While Newton, 24, has taken the advice from his family to heart, he’s also made some other positive adjustments.
Bryan Strickland of Panthers.com wrote that Newton now comes into the team’s training facility on Tuesday (a typical off day) and works with the coaching staff to prepare a list of what worked well for Newton and the Panthers on offense.
"He's got a better feel for what we're trying to do," said Rivera, per Strickland. "He's going through his progressions, and he's got a great feel for that. He's really worked very hard on that, and you're starting to see the fruits of that labor."
Speaking of progressions, Newton is doing a much better job of working through his entire package of reads. Part of that is knowing that he has those extra reliable receivers now, but most is a new level of maturity that comes from knowledge and preparation for the opposing defense.
Newton is also throwing the ball more to his check-down options instead of trying to force the ball to deep and covered receivers. Along with the improved numbers for Newton and the offense, it’s now forced defenses to allocate extra resources to dump-off routes. When that happens, it gives Newton just an extra little bit of room to throw into the middle of the defense, or even go over the top.
Over the last four games, Newton has given the football world a glimpse of what the Panthers expected they were getting with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. And because of Newton’s maturation this season, his improved work ethic and the improvement of the team around him, this four-game glimpse could turn into the norm at Carolina.
But the Panthers have a tough stretch of schedule coming up. The San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots are Carolina’s next two opponents. The Panthers also have two games left against the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints.
If Newton can continue to play like he has, and if he can continue leading this team to victory no matter what’s going on with his completion rate, the Panthers can win a lot of football games.
If that happens and Carolina wins games against the 49ers, Patriots and Saints, no longer will we need to wonder if Cam Newton is becoming the winning quarterback we expected from day one; we’ll know he has become that guy.
As Newton said in that Fox Sports interview, the season is still young and this team isn’t done trying to prove itself. But Newton is in a much better place today than he’s ever been, and much closer to being that quarterback we’ve all been waiting for.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.