Cam Newton doesnt look like Jake Delhomme. Doesnt play like him. Cant mimic the Cajun accent.
And yet these days when I hear Newton talk about his teammates, I am reminded of Delhommes interviews during his best years with the Panthers.
Delhomme was legendary for deflecting credit and accepting blame. He always claimed his 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith that ended the double overtime playoff game against St. Louis was all Steve. Any interception he would automatically blame on himself. His teammates loved him for this.
And Newton does more and more of that these days as he grows into the role he has so long wanted to play that of an elite quarterback on a winning NFL team. He is starting to become Delhomme, but with a better arm and legs.
I asked Newton how it felt to finally go into December as a quarterback playing games that matter, like the one Sunday night at New Orleans that will be for the NFC South lead. He good-naturedly batted the question aside.
Your question is great, Newton said, but your question is trying to make it a me thing. We all wanted this. As a writer for The Charlotte Observer, writing about a 2-14 team is not going to get a lot of views. You know that and I know that. ... Yeah, its great to be around this type of atmosphere. But to hell with it if we dont continue to keep going and keep challenging ourselves.
Newton has learned to trust his teammates during this 9-3 season. And while he hasnt stopped the Superman touchdown celebration or the first-down point, he is far quicker to credit teammates than he used to be. He doesnt necessarily believe that, but its true.
I hear it all the time, Newton acknowledged. Maybe I just have the blinders on like one of those horses downtown that goes around carrying the couples. Im just trying to stay focused. Even though were having a great season, it could be better.
I dont want to take the credit for things that Im not doing. Its just not No.1 out there on the field. The plays that were made this past Sunday, I couldnt have done it without Steve (Smith) making an unbelievable block (on Newtons 56-yard run), and the time in the pocket. With me realizing that, it makes everything go smoothly.
Is this the real Newton now, or is he simply being coached in interviews?
This is not a facade, he said. This is not fake. This is not something that somebodys prepping me to say to deflect all the credit off yourself. Its true. If I wasnt being honest with you guys, I wouldnt have the integrity to go back in that locker room and look those guys in their eyes.
Its way better
Newtons teammates have noticed the difference in his demeanor. The player once referred to as Mr. Mopeyhead by coach Ron Rivera now is much more up on the sideline far more often when things are going poorly, as Delhomme always did.
Said wide receiver Brandon LaFell of how Newton carries himself now as opposed to when he was a rookie: Its way better. ... Back then, if we turned the ball over, he got down on himself pretty bad.
LaFell said he noticed the change in Newton starting when the Panthers went 5-1 to close out the 2012 season.
It started at the end of last year, LaFell said. When youve got the type of talent that Cam has got, you can really take over a game at any second. You cant blame him for having that type of talent God gave him that. But at the end of last year, I think he started trusting us more as receivers. He let us go make plays. He got the ball out of his hand quicker and let us run after the catch more.
Said Rivera: When we were scouting Cam going way back when ... several of the coaches from the SEC that I talked to said the same thing, that without him, that was a 7-7 Auburn team.
With Newton, of course, Auburn went 14-0 and won the national title. And so Newton tried to carry that same burden in the NFL for awhile.
You kind of got that sense that he was trying to put a lot on his shoulders and handle it all by himself, Rivera said. I think Brandons right. Cam has learned to trust his teammates.
Thats what Delhomme did. And, at the same time, Newton has simply become a smarter player in his third year.
Its not like Newtons career in the NFL started slowly, of course. He passed for 400-plus yards in his first two games. But that was more on a wing and a prayer.
Said Rivera: The one thing a lot of people forget is he only played one year of major college football. ... Even though he burst onto the scene, he burst onto the scene because he was making plays because of his abilities more so than knowing what he was really, truly doing. Now he knows it. He feels it. And hes got confidence in himself and his teammates.
Specifically, Newtons involvement with game-planning and his success rate on audibles has increased. We have all seen Peyton Manning conduct a graduate-level course in how to read a defense at the line of scrimmage. Newton isnt to that level, of course, but he is progressing.
Rivera said the first touchdown pass Newton threw Sunday against Tampa Bay was an alteration in a route that Newton had suggested to offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterback coach Ken Dorsey Saturday night only a few hours before the game.
Recounted Rivera: Cam said, You know, I like what we do here, but what if we do this instead. Mike called it the first time they got in the red zone and Cam threw the touchdown to Brandon LaFell. And in the second half coming out against Miami, Cam called a quarterback keep on a touchdown play. Mike had sent something else in, and he audibled out of it. Thats all part of the growth.
Newton was great at times during his first two seasons, too. But the Panthers went a combined 13-19. Now they are 9-3, and so of course everything smells better. He knows that.
Said Newton: If we were losing right now there would probably be some things in The Charlotte Observer about Oh, Cam is not the leader we expected him to be, hes not the franchise quarterback. I understand that... I respect that. Thats the name of this game. Coach Rivera always says we have one job and one job only, and thats to win.
The gum superstition
And then, like Delhomme, Newton ended his group interview Wednesday on a tangent. Delhomme was an expert on doing that hed usually start talking about horses.
For Newton, it was about gum. He chews gum constantly in games because his mouth gets too dry without it and he has a hard time calling the plays. But there turns out to be a system to when he changes sticks.
I just depend on Wrigleys Winterfresh chewing gum to get me through the adverse times in the game, he said. .... And in a given game, the superstition comes. You made a big play? Even if the gum is rock solid, you cant take it out. You got to keep fighting through it. You may put another piece of gum in, but thats that playmaking gum. But if youre sucking, of course, youve got to toss that gum.
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