The new, mature Cam Newton was encapsulated in one facial expression Sunday.
It wasn't a big deal, and yet, it was. It was a little look on Cam Newton's face Sunday just after Eli Manning threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Odell Beckham and just before Josh Brown tied the game 35-35 with less than two minutes left in regulation. It was a look of resolution—an "I've got this" expression that his teammates may or may not have seen, but was captured by the sideline cameras.
Carolina's usually stout defense had squandered a 35-7 halftime lead, but Newton—who had already thrown five touchdown passes for the third time in his last five games—wasn't done turning things around for his team. While Odell Beckham, Jr. and Josh Norman were doing their best to turn the game into All-In Wrestling, Carolina's quarterback had winning on his mind. After the tie, Newton completed three of four passes for 39 yards and added 12 yards on the ground, including a 10-yard run with 32 seconds left that set up Graham Gano's 43-yard game-winning field goal and kept the Panthers' unbeaten season alive.
"Something that I don't think should be seen on a quarterback's face is panic," he said after the game. "It was just a matter of time until the tables turned. They had the momentum, and it was tough... For us, that last drive, we practice it over and over again in practice, and hopefully it showed today that it carried over."
And that, more than anything else, is the difference in Newton in 2015. He's not the same quarterback who was once pilloried by the draft media for his immaturity and insincerity. He's not the same person who was once upbraided by his teammates over his demeanor in a 2012 loss to the Giants. The year before, two of his offensive linemen took issue with the way he handled adverse situations. Back then, there were loose threads in Newton's mentality that tended to outstrip his estimable talent. Now, things are in check, and everybody's noticed.
"That's what he's done all year," head coach Ron Rivera said of Newton's performance Sunday in which he became the first quarterback in NFL history with five passing touchdowns and 100 rushing yards in a single game. "When we've been in tight ball games and we've had to get something done, he's been able to do it. That doesn't surprise me he made the plays that he did to put us in position to win the football game at the end."
A very different Newton than the one who was still figuring it out four years ago.
"They always get on me—I have a bad tendency of showing my emotions on my face," Newton said in 2011. "I have to change it, and I'm trying to change it. But those guys constantly stay in my ear, saying, 'You've got to be that same leader from the first quarter to the last quarter' ... It made me mindful it can be somewhat of a detrimental conduct to the team. If you're mad. If you're ticked off. Not saying that everybody else is not feeling the same way you [are]. But at the quarterback position, you have to stay even-keeled."
The on-field performances this season have been spectacular, and worthy of Newton's name in the MVP mix. In the second half of the season alone, he's thrown 22 touchdown passes to just two interceptions. And he's doing it with a receiver corps that wouldn't pass muster on most teams. His 33 touchdown passes for the season are already a career high, and he leads the league in touchdown percentage—7.5% of his throws go for touchdowns, and that rate would be higher still if Ted Ginn, the Panthers' number-one receiver this season, could hold on to the ball consistently.
Even there, Newton's way of addressing Ginn's inconsistent hands tells you a lot about how things have changed in his head.
"That's the name of the game—to give your teammates a chance to keep making plays," Newton said on Dec. 6, after Ginn dropped two touchdown passes and Newton threw for five touchdowns anyway—including two to Ginn. "Football is the ultimate team sport; especially offensive football. You've got to trust your guys. I mean Ted, he's not dropping the ball intentionally. I'll tell you that. I mean you've got guys out there who are trying to make plays and compete, and when that happens, mistakes are going to happen."
Ginn responded by saying that he owes his success to Newton, which is one of the nicest things one teammate can say about another. In the larger view, the Panthers owe a large part of their 2015 success to a quarterback who has grown up in all the right ways—ways that show up in the stats and on tape. More importantly, in little ways that may go unnoticed, and weave the fabric of championship teams.