CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton had just played three hours and 50 minutes of football in a relentless rainstorm, but the hot shower could wait a few more minutes.
A few stalls over in the Panthers’ locker room, one of his receivers, Philly Brown, just wanted to keep talking to his quarterback. Specifically, about how on point all his passes were. There was that ‘6’ route in overtime, a dig, which Newton had placed high and inside, where only Brown could catch it. They gained 23 yards.
“That was a tight-ass spiral,” Brown called over. “An absolute dime!”
“You looked like me catching that ball,” Newton told Brown, who leaped out of his 5-11 frame to make the play. Then Newton flashed a megawatt grin, his way of saying this is the most fun he’s ever had playing in the NFL.
The Panthers’ 29-26 overtime win against the Colts on Monday night improved their record to 7-0, uncharted territory for this 20-year-old franchise and its 26-year-old quarterback. Five seasons after being taken with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, Newton seems to have fulfilled his promise. He’s finally made the leap from having played just one season of major college football, winning a national championship at Auburn largely based upon his abundant physical gifts, to directing an NFL offense like a savvy veteran, calling the shots at the line of scrimmage in a flexible no-huddle system more than half the time.
“The evolution of our offense,” head coach Ron Rivera says, “has been as much the evolution of Cam.”
Newton doesn’t seem to care much for terms like evolution, or maturation, or coming of age, probably because they’re reminders that he needed to do all those things. But how else do you describe his story arc?
Eleven months ago, the Panthers were 3-8-1 after losing six straight. That’s when Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula installed a no-huddle version of their offense—not to push the pace of the game, but rather to get Newton to the line of scrimmage earlier, so he could survey the defense and get the Panthers into the best play possible. Carolina has now rattled off 11 straight regular-season wins, the longest active streak in the NFL, placing Newton in the elite company of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers as quarterbacks with 10 straight wins over the last five years.
Newton is doing it differently from those three, and perhaps differently from any quarterback we’ve ever seen. He’s completing less than 55% of his passes this season, with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions, middling stats. On Monday, when the Colts sent a double A-gap blitz on third-and-6 in the third quarter, Newton spun out of trouble and leaped over defenders on his way to an 11-yard gain, looking more like a tight end than a traditional NFL quarterback. But despite his athleticism and the Panthers’ unblemished record, he still hasn’t evaded a question that follows him like a spy defender: Is Cam Newton a franchise quarterback you can believe in?
Those in Carolina are convinced of the answer.
“He’s playing as well as anybody in the league,” Brown says. “He, without a doubt in my mind, should be up there with anybody else when they talk about the MVP. With what he is doing for this team right now? Everybody is rallying around him.”
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Football scarcely looks more fun than it does when Newton is playing it well. Consider how he reacted to throwing an eight-yard touchdown pass to Brown in the fourth quarter on Monday night.
That play stood out to Rivera for the adjustment Newton made before the snap—more on that later—but for the crowd of 74,136 at Bank of America Stadium, what happened after the play showed why Newton alone is worth the price of admission.
He bounded toward the end zone to celebrate, hurling his 6-5, 245-pound frame at Brown, who would later lament that his quarterback is much too big for that. “He’s a monster,” Brown teased. “Shoot, he can’t do that anymore.”
Newton then took the football from Brown and gave it to a pair of young fans in the front row who were wearing his jersey. He started dancing; he raised his index finger skyward; he mimicked a jump shot. Then he ran the length of the Panthers’ sideline to the other corner of the stadium, where he took his helmet off and waved his arms up and down, stirring up another round of cheers.
“That’s the thing I love about him,” says his position coach, former Miami Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey. “He doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. And I think that’s what people respect about him.”
Fairly or not, it’s what has also made Newton a lightning rod. His exaggerated first-down signals; how he channels Superman by pretending to rip open his shirt after scoring touchdowns; even the simple fact that he wears No. 1 has rubbed some people the wrong way. When the losses piled up early in his career, he wore his emotions all over his face and earned a reputation as a sore loser. This spring, not long after his Panthers failed to get past the divisional round of the playoffs for the second straight season, Newton made waves when he told Charlotte TV station WCCB-TV, “Nobody has ever been who I’m trying to be … so much of my talents have not been seen in one person.”
Newton’s unapologetic belief in himself has been a huge reason why the Panthers have been able to withstand trying circumstances: Losing top receiver Kelvin Benjamin to an ACL tear in training camp; losing star linebacker Luke Kuechly for three early games to a concussion; and fielding a reworked offensive line that was down two starters last week.
That resilience was on display Monday after the Colts battled back from a 17-point deficit to send the game to overtime. When the Panthers got the ball in the extra period, Newton aired out a perfect rainbow of a throw to Ted Ginn, Jr., who had a clear path to the end zone. But Ginn dropped it. How did Newton respond? He went back to Ginn two plays later, and Ginn made a 12-yard catch that set the Panthers up to kick a field goal and extend overtime.
“Even when the Colts kicked the [first] field goal in overtime, we felt good about where we were. I can’t really explain it,” veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery says. “We believe in [Cam]. He has that belief in himself, and everyone on the team sees it—we play the same way that our quarterback plays.”
It might be one thing for Cam Newton to say that “nobody has ever been who I’m trying to be.” But it’s completely different when Packers coach Mike McCarthy dishes out similar praise. “I don’t know if there’s a quarterback who does more than he does,” McCarthy told Charlotte-based reporters on a Wednesday afternoon conference call, as his team prepared to travel East for Sunday’s matchup between the NFC’s two best teams.
Defensive coordinators hate the dual threats that his arm and legs pose, though trying to do too much has gotten Newton in trouble at times. Former Seattle fullback Michael Robinson, now an NFL Network analyst, recalls the Seahawks’ mindset against Carolina when they used to face Newton. He says there would always be three or four plays that would ultimately determine the outcome, and “we knew on those three or four plays, the Panthers and Cam Newton were going to mess up.”
But that has changed in 2015, a feeling that was cemented with the Panthers’ Week 6 road win against Seattle. Newton’s Panthers had lost four straight matchups against the Seahawks, who have set the standard in the NFC in recent years. In this game, he threw two interceptions early on, and his team trailed by nine points in the fourth quarter. But then Newton led consecutive 80-yard touchdown drives to win the game.
“Cam Newton is the Panthers’ best player, he is the alpha, omega, he is it all in Carolina,” Robinson says. “Now, this year, he’s overcoming the mistakes early in games, and he is not making them in critical situations. I think something changed in him; it’s almost like he got out of adolescence last year, through this offseason, and he’s finally an adult in this league. I think it’s about time we start acknowledging that he is a grown man now, from a football standpoint.”
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There was a road game during the 2013 season that Ron Rivera views as a watershed moment for his young quarterback. Newton’s early years in the pros were what the coach calls “a grace period, a learning period,” as Newton adjusted from the simpler spread offense he ran in college. Late in his third season, the Panthers trailed by three points in the fourth quarter at Miami. Newton led a no-huddle drive, which included converting a fourth-and-10, to score the winning touchdown in the final minute.
It proved to the coaches that Newton was ready to take on more responsibility in their offense. The plan heading into the 2014 season was to adjust their system so he would have more control at the line of scrimmage. But his injuries intervened: Newton missed the spring program after major ankle surgery, and then fractured a rib in the preseason, sidelining him for the season opener. (In the meantime, the Panthers signed Joe Webb, another mobile quarterback who could mimic the new scheme in practice while Newton recovered from surgery.)
Much of 2014 became, as Rivera calls it, a “lost season.” But in early December, with the Panthers 3-8-1, the coaches figured they’d give the no-huddle scheme a try. It’s not uptempo like the Eagles’ no-huddle offense, but it allows Newton to stand in the shotgun and decipher the defense, often pushing the 25-second play clock to the end. On nearly 70% of the offensive calls, Rivera estimates, Newton has the ability to choose the play. Coordinator Mike Shula will send in a formation and a handful of play calls, and then it’s up to Newton to adjust the alignment of the skill-position players, call for motions and pick the play he thinks has the best chance of success against the defensive look. “It’s not much different than what you have seen with Peyton Manning in terms of being out of the shotgun, having to look at defenses and make determinations,” Rivera says.
During one of his two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to beat Seattle in Week 6, there was some confusion between the sideline and the field as the Panthers were trying to get the right personnel group and formation sent in. Suddenly, Newton put his hand up, giving the coaches a stop sign—his way of saying, I got this. Rivera heard Shula over the coaches’ headset: What is he doing … OK, good … Is he gonna … Yep, he did. … OK, he got it! Newton got the players into the formation Shula wanted, picked the play Shula would have picked, and then threw for a first down.
“It’s all through him,” says fullback Mike Tolbert. “As an offense, we’re going as Cam goes.”
As for that touchdown he threw to Brown on Monday night—the one he celebrated on both ends of the stadium—Newton made crucial pre-snap adjustments at the line of scrimmage. The play had called for Newton to work the left side of the field, but as the offense walked to the line, he noticed there were no safeties high and made a hand motion to his receivers to spread out so they had more room to work. He found Brown all alone, wide to the right side of the end zone.
On perhaps the most pivotal play of the night, Newton made another critical adjustment after surveying the defense. After Kuechly’s overtime interception, the Panthers needed about five yards to be comfortably within Graham Gano’s range to attempt a game-winning field goal.
Newton knew the Colts like to play man coverage in this kind of situation, but he wanted to confirm the look. He signaled for Cotchery to motion left and then back. The defensive back followed Cotchery, confirming man coverage, which helped Cotchery and Newton find the open spot on the field for a five-yard gain. Gano then booted the 52-yard winner.
Just how comfortable is Newton in the no-huddle offense?
“We don’t even huddle in the walkthroughs,” Cotchery says with a laugh.
The challenge is getting all the moving parts on the same page, and communicating adjustments with hand signals and avoiding mistakes. The upside is running a diverse offense that can wait until the moment when the defense tips its hand, and then choosing the play with the best chance of beating what they’re doing. Newton’s completion percentage might lag behind the NFL’s top quarterbacks, but the most important statistic is points, and the Panthers rank fourth in the NFL in points per game, trailing only the Patriots, Cardinals and Bengals.
“If he continues at this rate with what we are doing, it is going to be really difficult to stop him. That’s just my honest opinion,” Cotchery says. “To where he is going with this, and the way the coaching staff is developing this whole thing, it’s going to be difficult to stop. A lot of teams, you don’t have a lot on the menu when you go that no-huddle. But we have a lot of stuff. No matter what the situation is in the game, we feel like we are in control.”
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Football careers don’t always fit into neat narratives, but Newton’s blossoming on the field has also synched up with a pair of off-field events.
Rivera remembers very clearly visiting Newton in the hospital 11 months ago, after a two-car accident sent the quarterback’s truck tumbling across a bridge during his drive to Bank of America Stadium. Newton’s vehicle flipped over, and he was lucky to escape with just two transverse process fractures in his lower back. The relatively minor injury to the bony protrusions of the vertebrae kept him out of action for a week, but Newton was shaken by how much worse the wreck could have been.
“He looked at me and said, ‘This is about opportunities and chances, and I got another chance,’ ” Rivera says. “It was really profound.”
Six months later Newton signed a five-year contract extension worth more than $100 million. For Newton, it was financial security. For the Panthers, it was an investment that still came with risks.
Most people in the Carolinas hold their breath when their franchise quarterback takes hit after hit, and they’re not alone. Newton is running as much as he ever has this season: 64 times for 286 yards, on pace for the most carries in his career. The threat of his legs is the fulcrum for the league’s most deceptive, and prolific, ground game, but Newton is also scrambling more than Rivera would prefer, a consequence of a somewhat raw receiving corps not always getting separation against tight man coverage.
But that’s part of what makes Newton different.
“He’s dangerous, I think that’s the best way to describe him,” says former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, an NFL commentator for CBS. “He may not throw for 70 percent every week; he’s going to miss throws; he’s going to be late with his eyes; he’s going to miss a blitz or two. But he can also make a free blitzer miss and run for 30 yards. His ability to kind of improvise, his ability to extend plays with his legs, is always something that’s going to be a concern and keep defensive coordinators up late at night. That’s what levels the playing field. Whatever deficiency he may have in the passing game, I don’t want to say he more than makes up for it, but certainly he makes up for it with his ability to extend plays with his legs.”
So much about Cam Newton’s play this season has been about taking the next step, and there are still more to come. Two big NFC South matchups against the Falcons loom on the schedule, which will likely decide the division, and this week’s home game against Green Bay could have implications for home-field advantage in the NFC playoff field. But in the long view, there is only one way for Newton to validate the belief he has in himself.
“He may not have said it the right way, but he’s right—we haven’t seen a guy like this at quarterback,” Robinson says. “We haven’t. That’s why we need this guy to win a Super Bowl.”