Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was all smiles Wednesday.
Whether he was praising Tom Brady’s longevity or joking about emulating Steph Curry’s jump shot, Newton had a relaxed demeanor throughout his 17-minute press conference.
Receiver Russell Shepard didn’t hesitate when asked about Newton’s affability: The Panthers are winning.
“I just think he wants to win football games,” Shepard said. “Cam has accomplished a lot of things. When it’s all said and done, he’s left his mark on this team, this organization, this league. So I think at this point it’s about being the best winner he can possibly be.”
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Kicked to the also-rans pile last month after losses to Philadelphia and Chicago, the Panthers (6-3) have surged back into NFL conversations with a two-game win streak that has improved Newton’s mood and his team’s outlook.
Now in his seventh year, Newton said he’s starting to get “that kind of special feeling feel” about these Panthers.
“I just like the way that this team is forming together, especially what’s been happening in recent weeks of whatever,” Newton said. “This team has not been disconnected. We came together. Still striving, knowing that we haven’t played our best brand of football yet.”
When I see other people with shoulder injuries, I feel their pain. ... It’s a constant rehab.
The Panthers are winning mostly on the strength of the league’s top-ranked defense and Newton’s legs.
Newton has led the Panthers in rushing in four consecutive games – the first time that’s happened since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011. He’s had at least nine carries in each of those four games, something only Michael Vick and Tim Tebow have done over the past 15 years.
Meanwhile, his passing numbers are down.
Newton threw for 154 and 137 yards in the wins vs. Tampa Bay and Atlanta – the lowest, two-game passing total of his career. And Newton could not care less.
“You give me 50 yards rushing, 0 yards passing and Carolina Panthers win, it’s an unbelievable day,” Newton said. “You give me 300, 400 yards passing and even 100 yards rushing and we lose, I’m miserable.”
Newton was miserable most of last season, when both he and the Panthers fell off dramatically from their 2015 form. Newton went from league MVP to last in the league in completion percentage (52.9).
Thanks in large part to the arrival of running back Christian McCaffrey, Newton is connecting on 62.4 percent of his passes this season, which is on pace for a career high.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said 2016 was rough for Newton and the Panthers, who followed up their Super Bowl season with a 6-10 stinker.
“Last year was a very difficult year. People go through it. Atlanta’s going through it right now. It’s difficult. So much expectations, having to try to bounce back,” Rivera said. “Now I think he’s had a chance to reflect on those last two seasons he’s played. I think he’s learned a lot from it. You see it in his play. You see it in the way he handles things.”
Newton said he talked with people close to him this week and realized he shouldn’t obsess with being the perfect quarterback.
“I’m just trying to be the best football player I can possibly be,” he said. “And that’s what makes me different, having the ability to run the football, having the ability to pass and just putting my team in the best position to stay on the field.”
Newton also is focused on what he called his “overall wellness” following offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder. Newton goes through an extensive stretching routine for his shoulder before every practice and game.
And though he still has soreness the first couple of days after games, Newton is a lot better off than, say, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
“When I see other people with shoulder injuries, I feel their pain. I understand because I still have pain in my shoulder (from) time to time, from sleeping on it to just the rigors of practice or even a game,” he said. “So it’s a constant rehab. You don’t just say after four or five weeks you’re going to be 100 percent.”
It’s been a different kind of season, from dealing with his surgically repaired shoulder to losing one of his closest friends and top targets when wideout Kelvin Benjamin was traded last week.
But the Panthers have found a way to win most weeks – and their franchise quarterback says that’s all that matters.
“He’ll admit he’s a sore loser, something I don’t think he wants to get better at,” Shepard said of Newton. “I can’t be mad at him.”