At the turn of the century, five-time NFL MVP quarterback Peyton Manning changed the game of football as we knew it. Now, 17-and-a-half years after Manning made his NFL debut and began to redefine the quarterback position, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers has officially become this era's transcendent, game-changing star.
That was confirmed Saturday night, with the 26-year-old All-Pro becoming the youngest player to win MVP this century. And the notion that Newton is in the process of becoming a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-generation player can be further solidified in 24 hours when the newly crowned MVP and Offensive Player of the Year takes on Manning and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Few doubted Newton would take home MVP honors after becoming the first player in NFL history to pass for 30 touchdowns and run for 10 while leading the Panthers to a 15-win campaign. But you know how we sometimes feel about change, and there's no doubt that the fifth-year pivot is the face of football change.
Unlike Manning and most of the quarterbacks who came before him, Newton celebrates. He celebrates by dancing, rather emphatically. And sadly, because the NFL sphere often resembles that curmudgeonly town from Footloose, that perceived lack of modesty was something I feared voters would hold against the 2011 No. 1 overall pick.
And on the field, Newton is his own prototype.
We've never seen a quarterback with such a diverse set of skills. There was no precedent for how we might perceive him, because—like Manning—there's never been a player like him. Nobody in league history has possessed that combination of size (6'5", 245 lbs), speed and quarterbacking ability, and now he has seemingly harnessed and perfected his unmatched measurables and never-before-seen skills.
On paper, Newton is not your father's quarterback. On paper, he had the league's eighth-worst qualified completion percentage in 2015. Prior to Saturday, only two quarterbacks had ever won MVP despite ranking out of the top 10 in that category, and none had ranked below 18th.
Newton ranked 28th.
On paper, on the field, on the sidelines and in the media, Newton is different. And different can be scary.
At times in 2015, it felt as though we were watching a superhero as he finally began to realize the full potential of his powers. Newton probably didn't know it, and neither did most of us, but he spent the last five months spawning a new era in NFL quarterbacking, just as Manning did a decade-and-a-half ago.
Manning changed the game with his mind.
"He has literally changed the way quarterbacks prepare at every level," former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, who drafted Manning in 1998, told Bleacher Report last month. "His film study, his historical study, his evaluation of personnel and matchups—combine all three in this day and age of voluminous information and you have a preparation routine that really has never been done before. He’s the forerunner and everyone else is following suit. Before Peyton Manning no one talked about the quarterback being the first guy in the building and the last to leave. That’s Peyton Manning’s contribution to the profession."
And yet the big, strong, fast and suddenly quite disciplined Newton has begun to change it with his physical gifts.
"Cam's different because he can run between the tackles in a way that no other quarterback can," Kurt Warner said recently, according to ESPN.com's David Newton. "He has the ability to throw deep, and now he continuously grows in the intermediate part as a pocket passer. So it's been fun to watch, because I didn't think athletically at this level anybody could sustain that at the quarterback position."
I feared Newton's finding his superpowers might have been disorienting enough for us to accidentally underestimate his legendary season. But 48 of 50 voters avoided that mistake, preventing us from having to sheepishly attempt to answer to cruel hindsight when the true gravity of his 2015 campaign sinks in years from now.
Because greatness probably has a distinct eye for greatness, Manning knew better. "Cam Newton is the MVP of the league," he said this week, per Sports Illustrated. "No doubt in my mind."
So here we are. Manning 5, Newton 1. That's the MVP tally now, with the Auburn product four back of Manning's record. But less than an hour after the next sun sets on San Francisco, the two could be tied with a Lombardi Trophy apiece. And remember, when Manning was Newton's age, he had yet to win his first MVP.
Hell, when Manning was Newton's age, he'd yet to win a playoff game.
|Most touchdowns, 2015 (passes included)|
|1. Cam Newton||45|
|2. Tom Brady||39|
|3. Blake Bortles||37|
|4. Carson Palmer||36|
|Pro Football Reference|
Of course, playoff success has nothing to do with regular-season awards, but Newton is coming off a 15-win campaign—something Manning has never experienced. And yes, it's a team sport, but it was Newton who scored an NFL-best 45 combined passing and rushing touchdowns while leading the Carolina offense to a league-high 500 points.
The word "carried" is often overused in sports. Not here. Newton lost his top wide receiver in back-to-back offseasons, with Steve Smith leaving for Baltimore in 2014 and Kelvin Benjamin suffering a torn ACL in 2015.
His top four wideouts this year—pieces of scrap with serial codes GINN, COTCHERY, FUNCHESS and BROWN—have put together one 1,000-yard season and have gone to zero Pro Bowls in 24 combined years of NFL service. Per Pro Football Focus, two of them ranked in the top eight in football when it came to drop rate:
|Highest drop rates, 2015|
|Pro Football Focus|
And yet—according to PFF—Newton tossed 11 touchdown passes and only one interception on throws that traveled at least 20 yards.
And yet Newton threw five touchdown passes in three separate games—something only four other quarterbacks have done over the course of an entire season—within a span of five weeks down the 2015 stretch.
|Cam Newton in the red zone, 2015|
|Scoring rate||70% (1st)|
|Pro Football Reference|
And yet the Panthers were practically unstoppable in the red zone.
Russell Wilson and Tom Brady had great seasons, but ultimately this complicated game is about scoring and winning. And in 2015, nobody did that close to as well as Newton.
Actually, in NFL history, few players have scored and won like Newton has the last five months.
And now that he has been accepted by the so-called committee, the industry elite, it's easy to let your mind wander in order to imagine just how high Newton's ceiling might be. The Panthers are young, Newton should only be entering his prime and his 2015 production had a distinctly upward trajectory.
|Cam Newton, 2015|
|Category||First 8 games (rank)||Last 8 games (rank)|
|Comp.%||53.7 (31)||65.6 (11)|
|TD-INT||14-9 (18)||21-1 (1)|
|YPA||7.4 (16)||8.1 (5)|
|Rating||81.4 (26)||116.7 (3)|
|Rush yards||343 (1)||293 (3)|
|Rush TD||5 (1)||5 (1)|
|Pro Football Reference|
How many more MVPs will Newton win? How many more Super Bowls will he play in? How much more of an impact can he make on a game he already appears to be changing?
We won't have those answers for years, but we'll get yet another hint Sunday night in Santa Clara, California, when Newton battles Manning—the oldest starting quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl—in what might be the game-changer's final game.
Manning represents everything the league became in the 2000s, while Newton is doing the same for the next generation. Unbeknownst to either, one passed the other his baton Saturday night. Now, on Sunday night, Cam Newton can begin to run away.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.