Despite a litany of injuries, lack of surrounding talent and a defense not playing to expected levels, Newton continues to evolve into a near-unstoppable force of nature on the field.
During the Panthers' 37-37 tie against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, Newton's performance was impressive in every way. The box score only tells a portion of the story.
Two versions of Newton showed up during the Bengals game, and both were spectacular for entirely different reasons.
Newton accumulated 391 yards of total offense, but it's how he went about amassing those numbers that displayed an evolving quarterback behind center.
Carolina's QB was 13-of-17 passing for 110 of his 284 passing yards during the first half. The most impressive aspects of Newton's first-half performance were his poise and patience in the pocket.
Newton wasn't looking to run the ball when everything started to break down. He was able to step up into the pocket and still complete passes. If he wasn't pressured and nothing was open initially, he didn't force passes like he's done in the past. Instead, the fourth-year signal-caller appeared content checking down to his underneath options.
The quarterback was 6-of-7 passing on third down and converted four first downs in the first half, including a laser to rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a touchdown on 3rd-and-3 from the Bengals' 3-yard line.
The growing confidence in Newton shown by the Panthers coaching staff has allowed the quarterback to develop into a much better pocket passer than previously seen.
As Bleacher Report's Mike Tanier wrote Friday:
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.
Due to lingering ankle and rib injuries, Newton has been limited running the football this season. That all changed Sunday.
During the second half, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera finally unleashed the full might of his QB's impressive athletic arsenal. Newton finished the contest with a career-high 17 carries for 107 rushing yards.
Carolina used the zone read judiciously in the third and fourth quarter to great effect. Newton told Panthers.com's Max Henson why he continued to run the football:
When you pull it time and time again and keep getting numerous yards, you have to keep calling it. That's just the simplicity of football. Coming into this game, I didn't think I was going to run the ball as much. But like I said, that's my attitude — anything it takes to win, I'm willing to do.
Concerns for the quarterback's previous injuries certainly didn't seem to factor into the play-calling, as ESPN.com's Coley Harvey mentioned:
After only running the ball twice during the first half for six yards, Newton amassed 15 carries for 101 yards in the second half.
Sports Illustrated's Andrew Perloff noted Newton's rushing effort was a complete change of pace compared to what was previously seen this season:
The two styles clashed late in the game as Newton's improvement as a passer took precedence over his ability to run the football.
With Carolina trailing 34-31 and just 17 seconds remaining, the Panthers faced 3rd-and-1 at the Bengals' 29-yard line. As well as Newton ran the ball throughout the second half, it seemed to be an obvious running situation. But the staff believed in Newton's ability to make a play in the passing game. He zipped a throw to wide receiver Brenton Bersin for a first down.
The connection only gained three yards, but that the coaching staff now places so much confidence in Newton as a passer says a lot about his improvement.
There are areas in the passing game Newton can still get better, though.
There were multiple instances when Newton needed to display better touch, particularly late in the game. When the game was on the line, the Panthers quarterback nearly handed the Bengals the contest with an interception. Newton was pressured in the pocket and airmailed a pass over three defenders into the awaiting arms of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson.
It was an ill-advised pass at the wrong time, as the Black & Blue Review pointed out:
A poor pass or two late in the game can't overshadow how well Newton played overall. ESPN.com's Chris Sprow quantified exactly how special the quarterback's performance was:
Newton has always been a special talent and an athletic phenom. After six weeks of play, everyone is starting to see his natural ability coincide with his maturation as a passer. When these two areas of Newton's game fully mesh, the quarterback will be the most unstoppable presence in the NFL.
Center Ryan Kalil explained the difference in Newton to Henson:
Cam brings that explosive element to the offense. He's getting more comfortable, the ankle is getting better and he can do more of that stuff. We've had it in (the playbook) since the beginning, but we've been waiting to see how he feels. It's one of those things that will keep getting better. When you add that element it's just one more thing (defenses) have to worry about. That's part of our identity and part of what we've become. Having some that back is huge.
Sunday was merely the first glimpse of what Newton can eventually become over the long haul. And it was super.