How does Cam Newton do it?
Somehow, against all odds, the Carolina Panthers quarterback still finds ways to surprise us. Sure, he's a Heisman Trophy winner, but he did that after leaving Florida and hanging out at a junior college for a year. He was Rookie of the Year, but that was after media and scouts questioned both his physical talents and his character.
This year, Newton is a big reason why the Panthers are at 8-3 and within striking distance of the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC South. In fact, with two games left against the Saints this season, it's more than possible that Newton could bring his team not only into the playoffs, but he could get them there with home-field advantage as well.
Look at that man go!
The Panthers Have Evolved Around Him
The story of Cam Newton is really the story of general manager Dave Gettleman.
The Panthers hired Gettleman this past offseason with the expressed purpose of finishing what former general manager Marty Hurney was unable. Hurney had made the no-brainer move of bringing in Newton first overall in the 2011 NFL draft, but had struggled to provide him with the help he needed.
So, of course, Gettleman drafted a couple of defensive tackles—Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short—with the Panthers' first two picks in 2013...makes sense, right?
Well, it does, actually!
Through Week 13, the Panthers are currently third in total defense. Last year, they finished 10th. In the year before that, 28th. In that same span, Newton and the offense have dropped statistically, but think about what a better defense does for Newton.
|Panthers' Statistical Rankings|
|Year||Defense (Yards)||Defense (Points)||Offense (Yards)||Offense (Points)|
Up by a score, or even down by one, the Panthers can continue to do what they do best—run the ball. Whether it's one of the running backs or Newton doing the grinding, the Panthers were built to run the football. It helps, too, that center Ryan Kalil is back this season after missing much of 2012 with a Lisfranc foot injury.
When the defense wasn't quite as stout, the offense (especially Newton) was forced to do more of what it wasn't ready for. After years of Hurney's mismanagement, Newton still needs help on the offensive line and with his wide receiver corps, but the defense's ability to keep games close allows the Panthers to maintain a balanced offense.
Even more important, a balanced offense allows Newton the ability to create mismatches all by himself. It makes the play-action pass more effective. It gives the option game that much more teeth. It means Newton can move effectively down the field rather than having to pick up bigger chunks at a time.
Right now, the offense is only scoring 23.5 points per game. If you were to ask the coaching staff if they want to score more, they'd almost certainly say yes, but those aforementioned personnel issues make scoring a tricky proposition. Gettleman will certainly want to add some offensive personnel in the offseason, but until then, the fact that the defense makes 23.5 points per game into a lot of wins is what's carrying this team.
For Newton, it's an amazing bit of help that he's never had as a pro.
With A Better Supporting Cast In Place, Newton Has Found Comfort in a Leading Role
"I see how people are viewing me. When they see this selfish player, or see this childish temper tantrum that I was throwing, I'm like 'that's why people look at me like that.'"
Those words were spoken by Newton to Fox Sports' Laura Okmin earlier this year. It's a surprising amount of self-awareness for Newton, who has often found himself the subject of criticism for his words, actions and general demeanor. It's a worthwhile conversation to debate if many of those critiques are fair or useful (they're not), and that some of it is transparently race-related, as quarterbacks like Tom Brady, who do much of the same, are viewed as "gutty leaders."
Newton has never lacked swagger, but it's clear that his confidence is finding a new medium this season, almost as if it's somehow more appropriate with the wins than it was on a losing squad. Maybe that's not a fair assessment, either—you want confidence and A-type personalities at quarterback—but the bright lights of winning have been less harsh to Newton.
The fact is, Newton has some transgressions on his ledger. It isn't just ill will that caused people to red-flag his character pre-draft. However, Newton has grown up. His charity work through the Cam Newton Foundation is becoming the stuff of legend in a Charlotte area that needs his brand of hope.
It isn't just off the field that Newton has improved and matured. His head coach, Ron Rivera, told this to USA Today's Jim Corbett:
I don't think Cam gets the credit he deserves because he no longer feels he has to make every play. That has been part of his maturing. He realized, "I've got a great crew."
People don't realize how much he checks down, puts us in the right protections, the right runs and throws before the snap. People don't want to give him that kind of credit yet. Hopefully, as we continue to grow and win, people will realize he's a pretty good quarterback.
Those are incremental steps for a young quarterback. Once "winning games by yourself" is taken off the plate, it's easy to start adding more. Looking back at other elite quarterbacks, it's easy to see that guys like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Brady and others started that on-the-field maturation process. Some lesser quarterbacks like Jay Cutler, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford do much less of that kind of "field general" work because they're not comfortable taking on a bigger portion of the responsibility.
It's a step-by-step process, and Newton taking those steps is only going to help the Panthers.
Without a doubt, Cam Newton is a better player and a better leader for the 2013 Panthers than he was a couple of years ago. At only 24 years old, the only question to ask about Newton is: How is he going to surprise us next?