If you still have Cam Newton labeled, pigeon-holed, crammed into a one-size-fits-all mold and filed away in your cabinet of quarterback stereotypes, then you must not have seen "The Block."
Here's The Block. It happened midway through the second quarter against the Bears. Newton knocked seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs to the turf, helping spring Philly Brown for a few yards on an end-around.
It was a gritty play, a do-anything-to-win play. Newton, battling everything from bruised ribs to the aftereffects of dental surgery, laid out a linebacker because Brown and the rest of the practice-squad caliber Panthers offense needed all the help they could get. It was a leader's play.
OK, every quarterback has a tough-guy block or two on his resume. And Newton coughed up an interception to Briggs a few plays later. The Block did little to help the Panthers beat the Bears. But it did everything to shred the Newton labels and deconstruct the Newton narrative. The block shattered a wall of preconceptions that Newton has hammered away at for two seasons.
Immature. Crybaby. Overrated. Scrambler who cannot read defenses. Selfish. Phony. Can't handle an NFL offense. A Dapper Dan in fuchsia sport coats and skinny slacks who cannot be taken seriously. Not a winner. Not a leader. Newton has worn all the labels. He has earned one or two of them in the past.
Have you seen Newton lately? He is delivering the NFL's toughest performance this year. He is keeping the Panthers competitive by hanging in the pocket and taking charge of a huddle full of youngsters and newcomers. He is keeping his team alive with his arm, mind and guts.
The new Cam Newton is a study in contrasts, a free spirit with a dandy's wardrobe whose on-field actions now speak far louder than his words—or his clothes.
Connecting the Dots
Newton has worn a bright round bull's-eye for professional instigators since before he entered the NFL.
There was the pay-for-play scandal at Auburn, where Newton briefly lost eligibility amid allegations that his father solicited six-figure sums from colleges in exchange for his services. Newton's Pro Football Weekly pre-draft scouting report was a vicious personal attack by a draftnik notorious for them: Newton had a "fake smile" and a "selfish, me-first makeup," and lacked "accountability, focus and trustworthiness."
A stellar rookie season brought Newton "next big thing" status but also placed a man with a very youthful sense of humor (Newton openly campaigned for the Madden video game cover, recording silly YouTube videos) closer to the crosshairs.
When Newton was benched after three interceptions in a 2012 blowout loss to the Giants, sideline cameras caught him with his head draped beneath a towel on the sideline, apparently sulking. Steve Smith gave the second-year quarterback some tough love, then shared his thoughts with the press. "I lit into him because I thought it was an opportunity for him to see and understand what was going on. This is more than about playing football. It's about becoming a man." Newton's father (of pay-for-play fame) then told tales of a preteen Cam crying after losing church softball games.
That Giants game and its aftermath cemented Newton's reputation: selfish, immature, unprepared for adversity. Two years later, Newton still provides ammunition for the critics with his quirky, sometimes goofy antics. He ran onto the field to give a pep talk to the huddle in street clothes while inactive with a rib injury in Week 1. He called Ndamukong Suh "Donkey Kong Suh" repeatedly during a press conference before the Lions game. His postgame wardrobe choices have not painted an image of traditional ruggedness. Steve Smith, now in Baltimore, called Joe Flacco "refreshing" because he is "the same all the time" before a matchup with the Panthers, firing an indirect shot at his former quarterback's personality. And Newton still loves making gamer videos.
It is easy to connect the dots from those old scouting reports through the benching to the silly nicknames and pink suits and conclude that Newton really is a simpering man-child, all talent and no heart, a central-casting example of the million-dollar body, 10-cent head athlete we have categorized a thousand times before.
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You just have to ignore everything that has happened on the field: not just The Block, but a 12-4 season in 2013 that saw Newton throw for 24 touchdowns, rush for six and lead four fourth-quarter comebacks. You have to ignore Newton's performance in this next-man-up Panthers season that forces him onto the field with bruised ribs and a bad ankle, minus the services of three of his top four receivers from last season, his top three rushers and three of his five former starting linemen.
You have to ignore the fact that Newton had all four wisdom teeth removed on Tuesday before the Bears game. Most of us have never had our ribs cracked by a 250-pound defender, but dental surgery we can relate to: Practicing and studying the game plan must have been miserable, let alone taking the field. "It's been kind of kicking me in the nuts with the hurting, but it'll be all right," Newton quipped.
You have to ignore the fact that Newton has also been candid about his early-career unpreparedness and immaturity. He admitted that he struggled with NFL terminology and chafed under the tutelage of Rod Chudzinski, his first coordinator. "It was kind of force-feeding a kid with carrots," Newton said. "I didn't want to learn it, and I was always trying to complain about the workload."
Newton downplayed any friction with Smith before the Ravens game, praising his former top receiver's "every day, chip-on-his-shoulder attitude." He deflected contract chatter this week. Opposing quarterback Andy Dalton, selected after Newton in the 2011 draft, signed an extension in August, while Newton is only signed through a fifth-year option. Newton has made no excuses and talked up his inexperienced teammates.
There's a refreshing honesty to Newton's stunts and his admissions of past mistakes. Newton is being himself. But critics who labeled him long ago can still cram the new Newton's antics into all the cubbyholes they seem to fit. Newton's remarks about Chudzinski were interpreted as criticism of his former coach, forcing him to later clarify them. The Suh joke was chided as disrespectful—because no one has ever taken a sideswipe at the utterly reputable Ndamukong Suh—and Newton later apologized. His postgame lavender jackets and capri pants, admittedly a bit jarring in a football setting, riled up the usual suspects.
Newton is no more the traditional nail-chewing warrior than he is the all-legs, no-heart stereotype. After an offseason of defections and surgeries, he is seeking a middle ground: aching but upbeat, committed yet fun-loving. Newton is no longer playing the role of "talented disappointment" we cast for him, but his version of "gritty field general" comes with comedy routines and loafers. It's a hard course to chart for a former Heisman winner and first-overall pick, the most famous athlete in America's 16th largest city, a man burdened by stratospheric expectations that many feel he has already failed to meet.
Newton is unique, and the Panthers' cap purge and injury rash have placed him in unique circumstances. The NFL does not handle unique well: Players (particularly superstar quarterbacks) are supposed to act, speak and dress a certain way. So when trying to describe Newton, we fall back on tropes we understand: the scrambler, the leader, the "traditional" pocket passer and, of course, the quarterback controversy.
Contriving the Debate
Attempts to manufacture a quarterback controversy in Carolina have borne little fruit, though not for wont of trying.
Derek Anderson earned a surprise season-opening start due to Newton's ailing ribs. Anderson went 24-of-34 for 230 yards and two touchdowns against a Buccaneers team that, frankly, did not look ready to start the season.
Anderson then played well while mopping up losses to the Ravens and Steelers, games in which a still-wobbly Newton mixed big plays with strip sacks while the Panthers slowly crumbled on both sides of the ball. Anderson holds a 114.4 efficiency rating to Newton's 94.6. Anderson tops Newton in ESPN's total QBR metric and Football Outsiders' DVOA, though he has not thrown enough passes to qualify for the leaderboards.
Blessed be the backup who only plays against bad opponents and prevent defenses in the fourth quarter. If you wanted to frame an Anderson-over-Newton argument, and there were plenty who wanted to after the Steelers and Ravens losses, there was statistical grist for the mill. If the thought of a 31-year old career backup replacing Newton sounded too preposterous, the argument could always be couched in "just until Newton is healthy enough to scramble again" rhetoric.
The funny thing about all the "traditional pocket passer" talk is that Newton has been restricted to the pocket all season, and he has been productive. His efficiency rating on third down is 107.5, despite facing constant 3rd-and-long situations because of the Panthers' terrible running game. Allegedly a bad red-zone quarterback, Newton is 5-of-7 with three touchdowns inside the 20, despite the fact that he can no longer threaten opponents with his legs or Mike Tolbert's girth.
Perhaps you don't believe statistics. Watch The Block, and believe your own eyes. Look at the personnel on the field for the Panthers: Ed Dickson and Brandon Williams at tight end (Greg Olsen was briefly injured), Darrin Reaves, a patchwork line with a rookie guard and two former undrafted free agents at tackle. This team is scripting plays for someone named "Philly Brown." The Panthers would not be better off with Derek Anderson. They would be an old UFL team with Derek Anderson.
What the Panthers could use is a little more of the old scrambling Newton. A quarterback who has worn Newton's labels cannot win for losing: He gets stereotyped for scrambling too much, then criticized for not scrambling enough while his ribs and ankles heal. The Panthers need a leading passer and a leading rusher right now, plus a blocker who can open things up for what's left of their playmakers. Newton can only handle two of those three jobs right now. It's hard to criticize him for that. But we'll find a way.
If you don't believe The Block, believe "The Sneak."
Newton completed a nine-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery at the Bears 12-yard line 46 seconds before halftime, with the Panthers trailing the Bears by 14. Instead of calling timeout, he rushed the Panthers to the line and gained three yards on a sneak. Then, with a first down in his pocket and 20 seconds left, he called timeout, saving the third so the Panthers could call plays up the middle if needed. Newton found Greg Olsen for a nine-yard touchdown on the next play.
That was a heady play, a Tom Brady-type play in a critical situation when his team needed a spark to stay in the game. It was another example of the complete Newton using his mind, arm, legs and guts to lead his team. There have been many examples over the last two seasons.
On the stat sheet and in the standings, Newton is not having an outstanding season. But he is having the best season he could possibly have. It's a season of determination and will. It's a season that makes all the old Newton storylines sound contrived and silly.
It's also an easy season to overlook if all you see are final scores and fantasy stats. When Newton set rookie records, we built him up. When he sputtered as a sophomore, we tore him down. When he led the Panthers to the playoffs last season, we kept up our guard by talking about Riverboat Ron, Luke Kuechly and Steve Smith, shifting Newton to a talented-non-leader cubbyhole we built for so many past "scrambling quarterbacks."
And now that the Panthers are beaten up, understaffed and hovering around .500, it is easy to just keep Newton in his niche. The Panthers face a brutal upcoming schedule: at Cincy, at Green Bay, home against the Seahawks. A few wins might earn Newton some respect. A few losses will certainly restart the questions and controversies.
No one is doing more with less right now than Cam Newton. No one is enduring more pain or trying harder to change perceptions. The Block proved that the old labels no longer apply. Newton is becoming something new, and it's time to look at him in a new light.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of Football Outsiders.