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WHY SO SERIOUS?

Nov. 30, 2015
Nov. 30, 2015

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Nov. 30, 2015

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CAM NEWTON
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  • Who's there? The Hawkeyes, Tar Heels and Gators, and much to everyone's surprise—including possibly their own—all three teams are at the playoff's door. The committee may want to step back before that thing gets kicked in

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WHY SO SERIOUS?

THE DAB, THE STANKY LEG, THE WHIP AND THE NAE NAE ... CAM NEWTON IS DANCING HIS WAY INTO MVP CONTENTION. AND IF YOU DON'T LIKE ALL THE FUN HE'S HAVING? YOU CAN TAKE YOUR INFERIOR RECORD AND GO HOME

This is an article from the Nov. 30, 2015 issue

WE HAVE SEEN Fun Cam, Mischievous Cam and Sulking Cam, although that last version of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton seems to have gone missing over the past few seasons. And here in the interview room following Carolina's 44--16, all-phases-of-the-game ass-whuppin' of Washington on Sunday was Willfully Milquetoast Cam. His franchise-record-tying five touchdown passes—to five different pass catchers—were "a tribute" to coach Ron Rivera, said Newton, who then warned against complacency. Sure the Panthers are 10--0, but take his word for it: They've got warts! "Winning covers up a lot of [mistakes], and we can't get lax," Newton warned. "We have to get prepared for Dallas"—Carolina's Thanksgiving Day opponent.

For a player who wears a Superman T-shirt under his jersey, who dabbled this off-season in Aussie Rules Football and something called "knockerball," who spent a good portion of last week discussing his dance moves, and who is described by Panthers center Ryan Kalil as "a huge 12-year-old running around in a grown man's body," Newton was downright staid and businesslike.

... Well. As staid and businesslike as a person can be while rocking gold-glitter hightops and designer jeans from which dangle a fluffy, two-foot-long fox tail.

GUESS WHO'S coming to dinner, taking his place at the table alongside the NFL's elite QBs, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer? Andrew Luck has stepped out of the room to take a call, but we expect him back shortly. Pull up a chair, Cam. Feel free to take the one vacated recently by Peyton Manning.

Do you have a problem with Newton's presence at this figurative repast? True, all of those P3s (prototypical pocket passers) have higher quarterback ratings and completion percentages. Only one, however, could match Newton's record this season. (Going into New England's Monday-night game against Buffalo, Brady's Patriots were the only other undefeated NFL team.) And none can match his uniquely formidable skill set. In his fifth season as a pro a light has gone on for Newton: He's emerged as a very good—if occasionally inconsistent—pocket passer. And one who's played his best in clutch moments.

When not airing it out, Newton remains a potent, punishing rushing threat—a recurring 6'5", 245-pound nightmare for cornerbacks who must come up in run support. Of his 86 rushes for 382 yards this season, 34 have resulted in first downs, good for a league-leading 39.5%. "He's just so dual," effuses Josh Norman, the Panthers' Pro Bowl--bound cornerback who famously scuffled with Newton in training camp. "You think you got him contained in the pocket? He's gonna run for the first down. Next play he'll throw it over the top and break your back."

It's what happens after Newton scores that tends to raise hackles across the republic. Following his game-clinching touchdown run against the Titans in Week 10—Newton scored by stretching his seemingly elastic right arm, then punching the plane, ball snugly enveloped in his giant hand—he launched into a sequence of hip-hop moves that included the Dab (which, when performed with less panache, looks like someone sneezing into the crook of their elbow). This crisply choreographed number irked, among others, Tennessee linebacker Avery Williamson, who exchanged heated words with Newton in the end zone, and Titans interim coach Mike Mularkey, who contended that the QB had violated some unwritten "code of ethics."

Williamson, for his part, didn't have a leg to stand on: After sacking Newton earlier in the game, he'd busted out an admirably tight rendition of Drake's "Hotline Bling" dance. And Mularkey didn't specify precisely which part of the "code" Newton had violated—possibly because that too is elastic. While it's perfectly fine for Rodgers to celebrate TDs by clamping on an invisible championship belt, where Brady's profane rants are seen as evidence of his passion, Newton's dancing is over the top, unsportsmanlike, in poor taste. It confuses children.

This, at least, was the contention of one aggrieved mother, who complained in a letter to The Charlotte Observer that as spectators in the end zone at Tennessee's Nissan Stadium, she and her nine-year-old daughter had been subjected to Newton's "chest puffs" and "pelvic thrusts," his "arrogant struts" and "taunting." (Upon further review, Newton had performed zero pelvic thrusts, leaving open the possibility that the letter writer had engaged in wishful thinking.)

Some found the letter more objectionable than anything Newton did on the field. "What this woman might have told her daughter," says George Whitfield Jr., the passing coach who directed Newton's draft prep, and who considers the QB "like family," was something along the lines of: "What you're seeing is an expression of excitement and exuberance by a player who worked his butt off for that moment, and who has earned the right to enjoy it. Incidentally, he is a preacher's son who has no police record, has never touched alcohol and does not use foul language. His celebrations are always fun, never nasty. And when he's finished, he gives the football to a small child or some other fan."

Ravens wideout Steve Smith has played 15 NFL seasons; he was Newton's teammate for three years in Carolina. He's familiar with a different, unwritten code. "When people talk about an athletic quarterback, they usually mean black," he says. "The same way that if they're describing a defensive end as a high-motor guy, that player is probably white."

Another edict of that code governs the behavior of the men who play certain positions. "People expect the quarterback to act a certain way," says Smith, who ruptured an Achilles tendon and is out for the season. "They see Cam doing what, in their minds, a QB is not supposed to do. And it makes them uncomfortable."

While the outrage attending Newton's antics seems selective and manufactured, it must be admitted that his more florid celebrations do drag on. If he played baseball, one suspects, his home run trot would begin with a series of back handsprings, after which he would circle the bases doing Deion Sanders's Prime Time shuffle.

By Newton's way of thinking, no umbrage should be taken, because no disrespect is intended. "We all know I'm a kid at heart," he says. "I try to make my game kidlike, so people will see that I enjoy what I do. I can't repeat it enough, I'm not [celebrating] to be disrespectful to anybody."

It all comes down to this: Newton does not traffic in false modesty. He's paid a price for that. He reaped a whirlwind of grief for telling SI's Peter King before the 2011 draft, "I see myself not only as a football player but an entertainer and icon."

Newton objected, saying the quote had been taken out of context. And he got clobbered for it. But guess what? Five years later he's three-for-three: an iconic figure in the NFL, the rare athlete who transcends his sport. There was far less blowback this off-season when Newton told a Charlotte TV reporter, "I say this with the utmost humility, but I don't think nobody has ever been who I'm trying to be. Nobody has the size, nobody has the speed, nobody has the arm strength, nobody has the intangibles."

It's not boasting when you back it up. This year Newton is backing it up.

FORTY MINUTES before kickoff at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, two quarterbacks stood on opposite 40-yard lines. On the Panthers' end, Newton was inside a raucous circle formed by his receiving corps. Turning counterclockwise, he high-fived his guys—Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery—inside this impromptu wheel of fortune.

On the other 40, closer to midfield, stood a solitary figure in burgundy warmups. Robert Griffin III crossed his arms to ward off the chill. Three years removed from his selection as the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, he is now the Redskins' third-string quarterback. That same season, 2012, saw a fleet, biceps-kissing signal-caller lead the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII. RG3 and Kap were doing nothing less, it seemed, than revolutionizing the quarterback position.

But not all dual-threat QBs were catching the wave. Newton, for his part, was struggling through a second-year slump, the nadir of which came during a lopsided loss to the Giants (the second of nine defeats in a 12-game stretch). Yanked late in that outing, he was sitting on the bench when Smith, a team captain, got up in his grill, lecturing: "You can get some mental reps—or you can sit on that bench and sulk."

Newton took the criticism to heart. Three years later the dozen or so teammates and coaches to whom SI spoke for this story agree that his work habits are first-rate. "His preparation, his study habits—that's never been an issue here," says tight end Greg Olsen. As Newton improved, Griffin and Kaepernick regressed. On a weekend in which RG3 was inactive (for the fourth time this season) and Kaepernick was put on injured reserve (likely signaling the end of his time in San Francisco), Newton completed 21 of his 34 passes against Washington for 246 yards, five touchdowns and zero picks. Several times he moved the chains with jaw-dropping scrambles. With that afternoon's work he thrust himself further into the MVP conversation. While Brady is the front-runner in most zip codes outside of Mecklenburg County, N.C., Newton is second. And closing.

Slo-mo replays of a 23-yard Newton scramble against the Packers on Nov. 8 appeared to show him smiling in the moments before he was hit. "I was smiling," he later reported. With a smile. "If you're not having fun, what's the purpose of you being out there?"

His pleasure manifests in different ways at different times. Three weeks earlier, in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks, recalls Trevor Moawad, a mental conditioning coach who has worked with Newton, the QB seemed to be exhibiting "the enjoyment that an assassin takes in his work." That game was a watershed for Newton, who'd never before beaten Seattle and was having, through three-plus quarters, his worst outing of the season. But in the final nine minutes he engineered two 80-yard TD drives, wiping out a nine-point deficit and shifting, possibly, the balance of power in the NFC.

To better understand Newton's passing success this season, look how this team is running the ball. Carolina's 139.9 yards per game is fifth best in the league. "Running makes everything easier," says marauding middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. "The more time of possession [the offense] gets, it makes our job easier. It eats clock and opens up the passing game for Cam."

Newton, of course, is himself part of the reason Carolina's running attack thrives. "Being the physical and athletic freak that he is," says Greg Cosell, a senior producer and analyst at NFL Films, "Cam allows the Panthers to have the most diverse and multidimensional run game in the NFL. They incorporate more option principles in their run game than any team in the league. That puts tremendous stress on the defense, particularly second-level players."

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has done a superb job designing an attack tailored to Newton's strengths. One of those is his ability to execute the zone read, which Newton ran at Auburn. That is not to say, as Cosell points out, that Newton is at all "a run-around guy." Griffin and Kaepernick were run-around guys. Newton, for the most part, "plays the game from the pocket," high praise from Cosell, a P3 proponent who has seen steady, if not dramatic improvement in the QB's passing. His completion percentage (56.9 in 2015—28th in the NFL) will never rival that of, say, Brady, because the two QBs operate different attacks. "Where Brady is rattling off short completions—nine yards, six yards, eight yards; bing! bing! bing!—the Panthers are more of a downfield team. Cam throws at the intermediate level, the 19- and 21-yard dig routes."

While their styles are different, Newton this season has been able to summon a kind of Brady-esque alchemy, conjuring extraordinary production from a receiving corps that can generously be described as ordinary. Weakened by the preseason loss of WR1 Kelvin Benjamin (ACL), that group has been much better than expected. It helps that No. 1 has had time to find them: Carolina's offensive line, a Superfund site for much of last season, has been surprisingly stalwart to date.

What else? The defense has been ferocious and larcenous: Carolina's fourth-ranked D has forced a league-high 25 turnovers this season, including five against woebegone Washington, which eked out just 14 rushing yards and nine first downs.

"Are we the most talented team in the league? Absolutely not," Newton allows. "But we have the potential to be the best." It helps, too, that the quarterback is enjoying much better health this year than last. After undergoing left-ankle surgery in March 2014, he broke a rib in a preseason game against New England. Four months later he fractured two transverse process bones in his lower back in a car crash.

From the Dec. 9, 2014, Charlotte Observer: "The violent collision shortly after noon sent Newton's black Dodge truck tumbling sideways across a bridge over Interstate 277 in uptown Charlotte. The truck came to rest on the passenger side, its roof flattened. Newton, who had been headed to Bank of America Stadium a block away to study game film on a day off, appeared dazed after crawling out a shattered rear window."

WITH THE anniversary of that wreck approaching, Newton donned his city planner's hat last week. Speaking with reporters four days before the Redskins game, he agitated for a stoplight to be installed at the aforementioned intersection. The right of way is unclear, he insisted. Other accidents had occurred at the same spot.

It was pointed out to him that a bigger stop sign had been installed. "If people are still getting into accidents," he insisted, "it's not better."

You'd think, what with preparing for Washington's blitz packages, he might have limited bandwidth for traffic-flow issues. But Newton, remember, sees his purpose as larger than football. He recently thanked the Almighty "for putting me on this pinnacle, that I can shine light to other people." By winning football games, yes—but in other ways, as well. With his so-called "Sunday giveaway," in which Newton hands the football to a fan, preferably a young kid, after Panthers touchdowns. But also by making the streets safer for his fellow citizens. He genuinely wants this traffic light, saying, "I'm just trying to find ways to make the city better."

"He loves superheroes, and in certain ways he is one," says Cedric King, a retired Army master sergeant who served with the 82nd Airborne, and whom Newton describes as a good friend. "He's strong, he's fast, and he's got a big heart for people."

King first met the Panthers the day before they visited the Redskins back in 2012. The team was 1--6. "They were going through tough times, and so was I," he recalls. King had stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost both his legs, one above the knee, one below. He was a patient at Walter Reed Hospital when Rivera invited him to meet the team at its hotel in Washington, D.C. King took a taxi over and told the driver to wait for him.

Seven hours later King was still inside, hanging out with the Panthers. So inspiring did Rivera find King and his story that he asked the soldier to address his team. King turned out to be a natural at public speaking. He's addressed the Panthers several times since and gives motivational speeches across the country.

He often talks about the ingredients of leadership. One of them, he says, is the ability "to elevate the performance of the people around you." You may not care for Newton's shtick, his gaudy touchdown numbers, his dramatic semaphoring after first downs. But there's no denying that he lifts the play of those around him.

"Cam's energy is contagious; guys feed off it," says Kalil. "Some people prefer a more traditional quarterback, and that's fine. But Cam is our guy, and this works for our team. We love it."

WHILE IT'S FINE FOR RODGERS TO CELEBRATE TDS BY CLAMPING ON AN INVISIBLE CHAMPIONSHIP BELT, NEWTON'S DANCING IS SEEN AS OVER THE TOP.
"NEWTON LOVES SUPERHEROES, AND IN CERTAIN WAYS HE IS ONE," SAYS KING. "HE'S STRONG, HE'S FAST, AND HE'S GOT A BIG HEART FOR PEOPLE."

38.3

Newton's rushing yards per game in '15, No. 2 among QBs. No passer is even close to his 2,937 yards since he arrived in '11.

39

Career rushing TDs, already within striking distance of Steve Young's QB record of 43 (which Young took 15 seasons to reach).

PHOTOPhotograph by Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesPHOTOANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGESCAM-DO ATTITUDE Newton found himself at a career apex Sunday: His five TD passes against Washington were two more than he'd thrown in any previous game. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] TWO PHOTOSSIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSTOMP ON BY With all the smiles and celebrations, critics miss this: Newton spends just as much time getting a positive message across to his young fans. PHOTOANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (DANCING)[See caption above]