1. How we arrived at Cam Newton
The evolution probably began with Fran Tarkenton. He was fast and fairly accurate, one of the first true dual-threat quarterbacks, though without much size.
It continued with names like Roger Staubach and Detroit's Greg Landry. James Harris made the Pro Bowl in 1974 and remains one of the NFL's underrated pioneers—not only because he was the first black QB to start and win an NFL playoff game, but also because of his skill set.
Then there was John Elway. On and on the evolution went. QBs would get slightly faster, slightly stronger, slightly bigger, and eventually the throwing accuracy would catch up with the evolving prototype. Then, the evolution hit on two key players in the late '80s.
The first was Randall Cunningham, perhaps the most explosive running quarterback to play the game. Cunningham was not an accurate passer, but he turned average receivers into solid threats because defenses were so scared of his running ability. Opposing teams shifted resources to stopping him, allowing receivers to get open.
The second was Steve Young, and he was the real key in the evolution of the quarterback position to its current form—a form embodied by soon-to-be MVP and Super Bowl-favored Cam Newton.
In many ways, Young was the first Cam. Please let me explain.
Young was the first quarterback in history who was just as effective throwing from the pocket as he was running the ball. He won a record six passer-rating titles and retired with the most rushing TDs and second-most rushing yards (to Cunningham) for a quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
There have been other pivotal players along the evolution timeline—Kordell Stewart, Michael Vick, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, and now Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson—but Young was the key blip. He became the prototype.
And it's from that Young prototype that Newton evolved as the new prototype: a QB who can pass with accuracy, run explosively and has great physical size.
It's like the evolution went haywire. This latest step is the quarterback developmental equivalent of going from a Porsche (Young) to a starship that runs on a matter-antimatter drive (Newton).
Newton is 6'5" and weighs about 245 pounds. Bruce Smith, one of the best pass-rushers of all time, played at 6'4" and 265 pounds. So Newton is almost the same size as a Hall of Fame defensive end. Young, by comparison, is 6'2" and weighed 215 pounds when he played.
Young ran a 4.53 40-yard dash. Newton ran a 4.59 despite weighing some 30 pounds more. Wilson ran a 4.55, and Newton outweighs him by almost 40 pounds.
There has never been a quarterback as big, fast and powerful as Newton. None have even come close.
"He's probably the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL right now," Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib told reporters Monday.
"He is able to do things that no quarterback has ever done physically in this league," former quarterback Steve Beuerlein said on the CBS show NFL Monday QB.
Do you understand what the evolution-revolution is now? Do you get why Newton might be the most dangerous quarterback weapon we've ever seen?
It's possible that Newton is the end of this scale. It's hard to imagine a bigger, faster quarterback. Will there be a quarterback to come along who's 6'7" and 260 and can do what Newton does? Maybe in 100 years, but still...probably not.
The evolution has been long and steady, but it took a large, seismic leap with Newton. Like it did with Cunningham and Young before him.
2. About that "fake smile"...
Newton was also perhaps the most divisive draft pick of all time.
This rip job of Newton by Nolan Nawrocki in Pro Football Weekly in 2011 remains one of the most stunning things I've ever seen written about a prospect. This was the key part (via Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio):
Very disingenuous—has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law—does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room. ... Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness—is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
Nawrocki wasn't the only one ripping Newton, and yeah, we all get things wrong. I thought Christian Ponder would be a star.
Yet looking back at the harshness of those critiques (and many, many others) is instructive and helps us understand the ridiculous criticism Newton still receives.
Some of the criticism (some) was, and is, race-based, but also a significant part of it is personality-based. (There's also an intertwining of the two.) Newton is new-school, a representative of the changing dynamics and culture of the NFL. There are a significant number of people who still expect their quarterbacks to look and act a certain way. Newton doesn't check those boxes.
Some refuse to accept those changes and thus refuse to accept just how good Newton was going to be—and now is.
They hate the way Newton acts, so they refuse to accept how good he is.
The interesting part is that Newton does act with class and grace.
Yes, he dabs:
But dabbing is just celebrating, not so different from the Lambeau Leap. Off the field, he doesn't get in a lick of trouble. He works as hard as anyone in the sport.
Newton has proved there's nothing disingenuous about him. Not his smile, and certainly not his game.
3. This was actually once a debate
Rocco Vitale @roccovitale3
@mikefreemanNFL https://t.co/ni7av9OTua2016-1-25 02:35:21
Just let this magazine cover sink in for one second. This was actually a big argument. Who would be better: Newton, Blaine Gabbert or Jake Locker?
4. Wade Phillips' defense
How did Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips do it? How did he frustrate Tom Brady?
What makes the fact that Denver was able to get so much pressure on Brady even more impressive is this:
Pro Football Focus @PFF
The Broncos blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time yesterday2016-1-25 13:29:39
Phillips was able to do something I've rarely seen before, and that's confuse Brady with coverages.
Because of those schemes and the way the pass-rushers were phasering the offensive line, the Broncos didn't need to blitz.
What Phillips did will go down as one of the best pure coaching jobs in recent league history.
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5. Not doubting the Broncos, but...
I made the mistake of thinking the Patriots would obliterate the Broncos. I chose...poorly.
I'm not going to make that mistake again and underestimate Denver, especially after that defensive performance. If there's one defense that has both the speed and power to match Carolina, it's Denver's.
This just seems like Carolina's year. What makes this Panthers team so formidable—foremost—is its physicality on both sides of the football. They will be able to match the physicality of Denver's defense with their offense, and their defense can get pressure up the middle on Peyton Manning.
Carolina has rushed for at least 100 yards in 31 consecutive games. Can the Broncos, built to rush the passer, play physical in the interior and bang around with that Carolina offensive line?
That's the biggest question of the Super Bowl.
6. Incredible quarterback stat
This comes from Indianapolis radio personality Jake Query:
Jake Query @jakequery
The Denver Broncos have gone to 7 Super Bowls with QBs drafted by the Colts. The Colts have done so twice.2016-1-25 12:59:46
7. Holding and Rob Gronkowski
It is getting fairly ridiculous. There were many, many plays in the AFC Championship Game where the Broncos held Rob Gronkowski, and no penalty was called. This is not excuse-making. This is a fact. It's a fact that it happened all season to Gronkowski.
Gronk's abilities are so spectacular that teams are being forced to cheat when they cover him. They hold and hold and hold some more. Yes, on occasion, Gronkowski will push off, but not nearly as often as he's held by defenders.
The officials are letting it happen for some reason. That's got to change.
8. Cracked helmet
Last week, I wrote about the cracked helmet of Panthers linebacker Roman Harper. One person who saw that note was former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson.
Johnson has always been someone I've admired because of his willingness to discuss the gritty side of the sport. He's now a radio host in Houston.
Johnson sent me these pictures:
Those are, well, pretty incredible. Johnson says it happened as a result of a collision with guard Jamie Nails in 2003. Nails weighed over 350 pounds, and Johnson weighed, I believe, around 250 at the time.
The force it must have taken to do that a helmet. I mean, speechless.
9. What exactly do we make of Peyton Manning?
This was from former Seahawk Michael Robinson, now an analyst on the NFL Network, prior to the Broncos' win over New England: "I think Peyton is done. I think we saw the last greatness of Peyton when [the Seahawks] beat him in the Super Bowl."
I believed this as well. It's why I wrongly picked the Patriots to beat them in the title game. Manning, however, keeps proving us wrong.
What Manning has done is something I thought he never wanted to do, and that's become a game manager. I always believed Manning's ego was too large to play second fiddle to a running game or defense. But I was wrong about that, too.
What I see with Manning is someone who has accepted his limitations and is more than happy to allow others to take the spotlight, namely the defense and running game.
This is Manning's greatest asset now. His ability to allow others to lead while he utilizes his mental skills and knowledge to supplement the team in whatever ways he's able.
So, no, Manning's not done. Not yet, anyway.
10. The Pokemon Super Bowl
If there is one thing that I'm certain of with this Super Bowl, it's that Newton and the Panthers won't be overwhelmed by the moment, unlike other teams I've witnessed get totally and completely steamrolled by the pressure of the game.
I state this because you will read a great deal about the age difference between Newton and Manning. It is, well, staggering:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
The age difference between Manning & Newton is the largest between starting QBs in Super Bowl history @EliasSports https://t.co/EdY0kB4MHA2016-1-25 03:04:45
How old was Newton when Manning made his NFL debut? Newton was nine. Nine. Newton was watching Blue's Clues or Pokemon while Manning was studying for the zone blitz. I'm assuming there was no Dora back then. She wasn't exploring yet. Maybe Johnny Bravo or Tiny Toon Adventures. Justice League? The Wild Thornberrys?
Anyhoo, when Manning won his first Super Bowl, do you know where Newton was? He was a senior in high school.
Newton was at his damn prom when Manning won his first title.
So the age difference will be much discussed but, again, it won't matter. Newton is confident and there's almost nothing that can derail it.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.