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MAQB: This Is the Best Cam Newton has Looked Since Probably Early 2018

The former MVP may be playing like we saw before his foot and ankle injuries, and he's giving the Panthers an upgrade at QB. Plus, Kirk Cousins's trust in his receivers, Trevor Lawrence's growing pains, two Broncos extensions and Baker Mayfield on boos.

Wrapping up Week 11, with one game left on the ledger …

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• The Panthers didn’t win on Sunday, but I think it’s fair to say that the version of Cam Newton they got is the best one we’ve seen since probably the first half of 2018—before his shoulder and foot injuries. And it might be the best quarterback play they’ve gotten all year, too, with the 32-year-old’s hitting on 21-of-27 throws for 189 yards and two scores, while rushing for another 46 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, and only taking a single sack.

The question to follow, then, would be if Newton could potentially play his way into being the Panthers’ quarterback next year too. It’s something I did venture to ask Matt Rhule late last week and, as you’d expect, he really didn’t want to go there yet.

“We’re right where we are, simple as that,” he said. “We legitimately—I know this is going to sound like coach-talk, but it’s not—we’re gonna do whatever it takes to win this game against Washington to get to a winning record. The record before I got here was 5–11. Our record last year was 5–11. Getting to six wins for us would be huge, winning this one game would be huge. So we have P.J. Walker, P.J. went 22-for-29 last week, he was excellent. Cam came in, he played eight plays, he had two touchdowns in eight plays, he was excellent.

“So we’re only going to worry about that. … You make plans and God laughs. All of a sudden, you’re sitting there, saying we’re set at this position, a guy gets hurt. So we’re only focused on this week, trying to get Cam ready to play, get P.J. ready to play, and then Matt Barkley’s been awesome in the room, so getting him ready to play, and we’ll work back from there. And then we’ll look and see who’s healthy next week and what we have to do to beat Miami and get to the bye week. And then we’ll have five weeks left to try and go be a good team.”

What we can glean from that, and from Sunday, then is this: The staff certainly is giving off appearances that Newton gave them the best chance to win a close game against Washington. He played all 51 offensive snaps. Walker was the only player active for the game who didn’t play. Barkley was inactive.

And it’s fair to think Newton probably will be the team’s quarterback the rest of the year, and if he plays well enough he will give the Panthers a decision to make, one that is, of course, complicated by the $18.858 million in guaranteed money that’s due to Sam Darnold in 2022.

• Newton and Washington coach Ron Rivera did, by the way, have a moment after the game on Sunday, and Rivera affirmed there’s real meaning to their relationship, built over nine years together as coach and franchise quarterback.

“That’s the thing, the connection, it’s kind of unsaid and we know it,” Rivera said. “But my connection to him is that he helped me get to where I needed to be, where I wanted to be, and he’s just one of those people that I’ll always have some sort of connection to.”

Also, for what it’s worth, Rivera still thinks Newton’s got some bullets left in the chamber, even at 32 and with a lot of mileage on his body.

“Oh, s--- yeah.,” Rivera said, laughing. “I mean, look at the weapons. Going into this game, we knew, it was Cam, it was Christian [McCaffrey], and it was going to be D.J. [Moore]. And all three of those guys fricking scored against us, so we had that feeling and sense that it was coming that way. … There were a lot of things that he did that we expected him to do, it’s just, he does them well.

“And I will say this though, when he gets a chance to get a little more inundated in what they do as an offense, I think they’re gonna be even better, I really do. I like who this football team is, I think [Matt Rhule and his staff] have done a nice job here in Carolina.”

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• One thing I thought was interesting about how Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins finished Minnesota’s win over Green the Packers: His two biggest throws of the game, one to Justin Jefferson for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and another to Adam Thielen to set up the game-winning field goal, were timing throws based on trust. And the near-interception (intended for Jefferson) that Darnell Savage dropped in between those two was another where Cousins tried to give his guy a shot at making a play. Cousins just couldn’t get the ball quite where he wanted it for Jefferson, but it was another example of the advantage he feels like he has with heady, smart receivers he can trust, especially in the sorts of big spots they were in Sunday. “And I think we have more than two when you talk about what Dalvin [Cook] can do and what Tyler Conklin can do at tight end, and K.J. Osborn shows up for us and makes plays,” Cousins told me. “And that is such a big deal to have depth at those positions and to feel like you have enough players that defenses can’t just shade to one person and take them away. And we do try to spread the ball around, give everybody opportunities, and I think that’s important.” It was important on Sunday, to be sure, and will probably continue to be with a lot on the line for everyone in Minnesota over the next few weeks.

• So Urban Meyer said this on Trevor Lawrence’s afternoon against the Niners: “Actually, one of his better games. There was some surrounding cast that at times didn’t do very well. But Trevor would be the first one to tell you when he doesn’t play well. In my mind, he played well. Good enough? No, not good enough. But played well, made some great throws, scrambled when he had to, made the right reads. So we’ve just got to put it together in all areas and we’re not right now.” A lot of people will look at the numbers—16-of-25 for 158 yards, and no picks or touchdown passes—and scoff at what Meyer said. You shouldn’t. Lawrence is playing under different circumstances than Mac Jones or even Justin Fields. The Jaguars have taken the Peyton Manning approach to handling a rookie quarterback, letting him just go play, rather than coddling him much at all. Also, because the team isn’t great, he’s playing from behind a lot, and he’s in long yardage plenty. He’s learning a lot, he’s seeing a lot and the hope is that he’s a confident enough kid to take failure in stride, rather than let it break him. For Manning, in 1998, that sort of approach meant breaking the rookie record for interceptions—and then being ready to carry an offense in Year 2. We’ll see if it works the same way this time around.

• It’s hard not to look at the Denver receiver contracts of the last few days—the Broncos gave Tim Patrick a smidge over $11 million per year and Courtland Sutton right around $15 million per—and not think they’re aimed at creating an attractive situation for a veteran quarterback, whoever that quarterback might be in 2022. The Broncos are still two years away from having to pay Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, and having those two on hand with Patrick and Sutton part of the rotation (adding to Noah Fant at tight end and Javonte Williams at running back), and it’s fair to say Denver might have as good a young skill group as any team in football; and that could, in time, rival the Demaryius Thomas/Eric Decker/Julius Thomas crew that helped John Elway attract Manning to Denver in ‘12.

• I’ll preface this by saying I actually really like Baker Mayfield. I think he’s a better quarterback than some give him credit for, and a better dude too, considering how most of his teammates have looked at him. That said, he put a size 12 in his mouth on Monday, when asked about boos at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday. “Those are probably the same fans that won’t be quiet while we’re on offense and trying to operate,” the Browns’ quarterback said. “So, don’t really care.” Mayfield’s in a market that really, really gives a crap about its football team. And I’d say never in the history of the league (or maybe sports?) has a player’s trying to turn that passion around on the fans ever really helped the player in any way.

• My read on Taysom Hill’s new contract? It affirms the Saints are mostly done with him as a quarterback, and will likely be using him strictly as a slash-type weapon from here on out. He’s done nothing at the position he came into the league at to justify anything close to $95 million over four years, and the Saints wouldn’t risk having to pay him that, not with the number of mouths they have to feed. So that’s all likely window dressing for a player who really isn’t a young prospect at all anymore—he turns 31 in August.

• Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s strange walk-off on Sunday—he did return a half hour later, telling reporters he was back “out of respect to you guys”—is a pretty good indicator of the level of frustration internally right now. The roster needs a lot of work, and the team doesn’t have a first-round pick in 2022 (theirs belongs to the Jets, as part of the Jamal Adams deal). Carroll’s 70 now, and it’s worth asking whether he’s got another rebuild in him. Whether he’ll retire is one of the questions I’ve been asked most, when making calls the last couple weeks to get a gauge on the early stages of the 2022 coaching hiring cycle.

• Not for nothing, but it’s hard not to look at D’Andre Swift and wonder what he might look like with a little more talent around him. Swift, by the way, went six picks ahead of Jonathan Taylor two Aprils ago.

• Finally, I’ll be interested to see what sort of difference Rob Gronkowski makes for Tom Brady Monday night. Those who know that team well say that Brady has really felt the absence of Gronkowski and Antonio Brown over the last month—since his rapport with those two is just at a higher level than where he is with most of his other teammates. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we see September Brady against the Giants.

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