Cam Newton has been dealing with negative perceptions for a long time, from a turbulent two years at Florida that led to his transfer to a junior college, to his Heisman-winning national championship season at Auburn, to the subsequent pre-draft scrutiny that came off as nothing more than character assassination from some corners. Even as he claimed Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and brought the Panthers back to respectability early in his career, he was labeled a running quarterback, generally by people more interested in his physical abilities than anything gleaned from tape study.
And even when he’s been on point, as he mostly has through the Panthers’ undefeated start to the 2015 season, he’s been criticized in ways that other, more ... “traditional” quarterbacks have not. The furor over his touchdown celebration in last week’s win over the Titans was a perfect example.
The people who are still focusing on all the ancillary crap are missing out on the fact that Newton is playing really, really well this season. The Panthers went to 10–0 with a 44–16 thrashing of the Redskins on Sunday, and Newton threw a career-high five touchdown passes. Those five scores, thrown to five different receivers, tied him with Tom Brady for the moment among quarterbacks with 26 total touchdowns: 20 through the air and six more on the ground. Newton tied Steve Beurlein’s franchise record for touchdowns in a game and threw four touchdown passes in the first half alone. He’s doing all of this with a heavily depleted receiver corps that was scuttled with the season-ending injury to Kelvin Benjamin, and tight end Greg Olsen is the only target Newton can consistently trust.
More than ever—and this is a far greater test of his maturity than the critics of his celebrations pose—Newton has become a master of tuning out the noise. One of those five touchdown passes went to rookie Devin Funchess, who made his first NFL start after Corey Brown suffered a shoulder injury in practice this week. Newton has been victimized by bad routes and big drops all season, but you never see or hear him throwing those undermanned targets under the bus. If throwing the ball doesn’t work, Newton can always lean on the most complex, and one of the most effective, rushing attacks in the NFL. The Panthers overwhelm teams with everything from pure wham power pulls to triple-option looks, powered by the fact that in the 6'5", 245-pound Newton, they always have an extra rushing threat who can break tackles and make plays beyond the norm.
And yet, you’ll still hear that this Panthers team has a low offensive ceiling. Perhaps it’s because in today’s NFL, people are used to high-octane passing offenses ruling the day. Never mind that the 49ers and Seahawks, who have represented the NFC in the last three Super Bowls, did so with a very similar style to Carolina’s. But the Panthers have scored at least 20 points in each game, and on Sunday, the ways in which Newton made those five touchdowns happen showed why there’s a hidden gear to this offense.
His first touchdown, to running back Jonathan Stewart, came off a quick route after play-action drew in Washington’s linebackers. The second came off a similar short route to fullback Mike Tolbert, with help from a crushing block in the backfield by the halfback. The third TD pass found receiver Ted Ginn sliding away from closing defenders in the end zone. Touchdown No. 4 went to Olsen on a red-zone post route, and the fifth was a pretty fade to Funchess.
Newton finished his day with 21 completions on 34 attempts for 246 yards. The other quarterback in this game, Washington’s Kirk Cousins, was under fire all day from Carolina’s opportunistic defense. The Panthers set a team record with five forced fumbles and sacked Cousins five times, restating what they’ve proved all season: This is a great team on both sides of the ball.
To some, none of this will matter. They’ll continue to find ways in which Newton offends them, or doesn’t fit their profile of what a quarterback is supposed to look like. All he can do is smile—yes, that infamous insincere smile—and keep helping his team win games.
Yes, Cam Newton danced again. Yes, Cam Newton scored again. Yes, Cam Newton’s team won again.
Perhaps at some point, those who criticize him will understand.