After limping his way to helping Carolina get its seventh and final win of the season Sunday, Cam Newton stood in the visitor’s locker room in New Orleans and delivered a postgame speech to his teammates.
From his locker near the split in the room between offensive and defensive players, the second-year quarterback expressed pride in his teammates and coaches for not giving up when the team was 2-8.
“He said was that he was proud of us, everybody, because it could have been very easy to cash it in and nobody did,” head coach Ron Rivera said.
Newton helped turn the team’s season from a wash into a 7-9 year that placed the Panthers second in the NFC South. Spurred by winning five out of the past six games, the Panthers were able to one-up last year’s record with some of Newton’s most impressive and mistake-free football of his young career.
He finished 2012 with numbers comparable to his record-breaking rookie season. He threw for 3,869 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and had an 86.2 passer rating. Newton also ran for 741 yards, becoming the first quarterback to lead the Panthers in rushing and the first in the NFL since Donavan McNabb in 2000.
But those numbers were a long shot judging by Newton’s early-season trajectory. The quarterback struggled with fumbles, throwing mechanics and forcing tough passes.
He also battled questions about his behavior. From his sideline sulking to his demur postgame press conference following the Giants loss, Newton’s mental makeup was challenged locally and nationally. But as the coaching staff lightened Newton’s in-game load, he also was able to relax.
“The biggest thing more so than anything else was that he took a lot of the pressure off himself,” Rivera said. “He got to the point where he didn’t have to try and make every play and then I think upon that realization you just saw the development. From understanding things schematically and understanding things about the opponents he was attacking and working on his basic fundamentals and continue to do those things.”
After a 22-point loss to Denver at home that included seven sacks, Newton began to play some of his best football of the season. He threw 176 consecutive passes without an interception. That span of five-plus games was the longest in franchise history, as well as active in the NFL at the time.
He accounted for 13 touchdowns and zero turnovers in that stretch as Carolina went 4-2 over those six games. He was also working without Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil for most of the season and a fluid offensive line that had eight starting lineups this season.
An oft-repeated goal of Newton’s in 2012 was to cut down on turnovers. He did just that by throwing five fewer interceptions this season than last. When asked an hour after the Panthers’ 44-38 win against New Orleans, Newton said greater consistency is his goal for 2013.
“I have to be more consistent. Just give my guys more chances,” Newton said. “There are a lot of times throwing the deep ball I try to throw the ball as perfect as I can and being that, it gets away from me. I’m throwing to Louis Murphy, Brandon LaFell, Steve Smith, throwing at bona fide athletes and bona fide playmakers that can make my job very easy.”
Perhaps one of the biggest questions about Newton earlier this season was his leadership abilities. As the season went on, Newton was more active on the sideline and was seen encouraging linemen rather than sitting by himself on the bench.
Against New Orleans, Newton sat out five snaps following a left-ankle injury. The resolve he showed in playing injured – he required X-rays on his ankle and ribs Monday – showed his commitment to the team, Rivera said.
“Just that we were proud of the guys for the way they kept fighting,” Olsen said of Newton’s speech. “Obviously it was a disappointing year, there are no moral victories in this league. At the end of the day it was a disappointment, there’s no doubt about that. Not making the playoffs is a disappointment in this league. But we have a lot of brighter days ahead of us and things to build upon.”
Newton said earlier in the year the biggest lesson he learned this season was perseverance. And that showed not only with his team, but also within the quarterback himself.
“(The season) was very mentally challenging,” Newton said. “Having lots of ups and downs throughout the week, things being said, but we just kept fighting, and that just goes to show you how long this NFL season really is.
“We have some warriors on this team, and that’s a plus going into the offseason knowing you have guys that’s going to fight it out until there’s no more left.”