Cam Newton is tired of people telling him what he can’t do.
Through his first four NFL seasons, the Carolina Panthers’ franchise quarterback couldn’t open a web browser without reading about his deficiencies as a pocket passer, a leader of men and a reader of defenses.
Newton broke Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record (since broken again by Andrew Luck) after the Panthers drafted him No. 1 in 2011. He’s been to two Pro Bowls and took the Panthers to the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in their history.
But the storylines surrounding Newton weren’t his rocket right arm or running ability, but his overthrown passes and sideline demeanor.
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Some of the criticism is warranted: Newton’s career 59.5 completion percentage lags well behind those of NFC South rivals Drew Brees (66.2) and Matt Ryan (64.0). Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson is only a 53.7 percent career passer, but he completed 66.2 percent of his throws last season in two starts against Tampa Bay.
Cam Newton says he’s not like other quarterbacks and he won’t allow the public to put him in a box.
The criticism extended to Newton’s off-the-field activities this summer after he signed a $103.8 million contract extension, the most lucrative ever given to a Panthers player.
Fans and media members chastised the newly minted Newton for risking injury by participating in an Aussie Rules Football practice during a Gatorade tour of Australia and playing a couple of snaps in a flag football tournament in Atlanta.
There were more questions last month after Newton fought with Panthers cornerback Josh Norman during a training camp practice.
Newton responded by saying he’s not like other quarterbacks and he wouldn’t allow the public to put him in a box.
During an interview with the Observer last week, Newton expanded on his camp comments about playing quarterback and living life by his own standards and measures.
“I’ve always had that somewhat alpha approach. We play in a league where you have to get yourself going in a rather unique way,” Newton said while walking back to Bank of America Stadium after practice. “But I never want anyone to play this game and feel obligated to be a robot. I think so much in society is morphing people into what they want rather than what the actual person wants to be.”
The same goal
What Newton wants first and foremost is to be a champion. Ask him about his goals for this season – any season – and he says, “Always, win the Super Bowl.”
Newton has a losing record (30-31-1) as a starter since entering the league after winning a national championship and Heisman Trophy at Auburn. But he won a playoff game for the first time last season and got the huge contract because the Panthers believe he can lead them to the “promised land,” as general manager Dave Gettleman said.
Anderson says Newton’s style is “not always going to be pretty ... or going to be what all the analysts want to see.”
(Cam Newton’s style is) not always going to be pretty ... or going to be what all the analysts want to see.
Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson
But Anderson has seen Newton develop into a more complete quarterback over his first four seasons. And not even Newton’s harshest critics can question his desire to win.
“Wins and losses in football go on the quarterback and head coach. That’s one thing that irks him more than anything, or drives him to be better,” Anderson said. “And he’s definitely a guy when the game’s on the line, he’s focused. He wants the ball. He’s going to make plays for us. ... I never have any doubt when the bullets are flying he’s going to be ready.”
Panthers go atypical
Ronde Barber, the former Tampa Bay cornerback who’s now a Fox game analyst, said not every organization would have drafted Newton, preferring a prototypical pocket passer as their franchise quarterback.
But Barber credits Panthers coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula for using a scheme that best suits Newton’s talents.
“There’s not a lot of teams that want a guy like Cam to be their franchise quarterback. They want the other type – the big pocket passers, guys that can control a game and keep the ball moving,” Barber said in a recent interview.
“Cam is so unique ... and I feel like Mike Shula and Ron really embrace who he is instead of trying to make him one of those other guys. And I think last year that started to show.”
The Panthers looked for ways to capitalize on Newton’s unique skill set even before drafting him. Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski studied Auburn’s offense and incorporated elements of the zone read, which Shula still uses effectively.
Cam is so unique ... and I feel like Mike Shula and Ron really embrace who he is.
Television analyst Ronde Barber
“That thought process for us came in April his first year,” Shula said. “Whether or not we wanted to draft him, and why, and what we knew about him and how he was wired and how to get the best out of him.”
Newton has thrived as a runner, be it on a zone-read play, a scramble or a quarterback keeper at the goal line.
During a 2014 season in which he missed two games – the first of his NFL career – with rib and back injuries, Newton picked up first downs on 43.7 percent of his rushing attempts, the best percentage in the league.
Newton is the first player in NFL history to gain 10,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his first four seasons, and joined Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick as the only quarterbacks with four or more 500-yard rushing seasons.
Newton is listed at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, although Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said this summer Newton’s playing weight is closer to 260.
His size, speed and elusiveness make Newton a load to bring down. Consider that since 2011, Newton has more rushing touchdowns than all but three running backs.
“He’s a different breed, that’s for sure,” Anderson said. “He’s not your typical quarterback who we’re used to seeing coming through the ’80s and ’90s. He’s kind of the new wave of athlete, probably your best athlete on the field at times. And he’s going to do things a little more unorthodox than people maybe want.
“But our goal is to make sure we’re refining those things – mechanically, pocket presence, all that sort of stuff, which I think he’s gotten a heck of a lot better at.”
Growth and tempo
Newton’s improved ability to read defenses and make the appropriate pre-snap checks coincided with Shula’s increased use of the no-huddle last season.
Newton says the hurry-up allows him to quickly survey the defense and get the Panthers into favorable plays and matchups.
“The more that you see, the better off you will be,” Newton said. “It’s not anything worth panicking about when we are in that type of tempo. It is tempoing just enough for us to play fast and have the defense hesitate somewhat.”
Anderson said Newton has become better at recognizing disguised coverages and blitzes, regardless of whether the Panthers are huddling or running their hurry-up attack.
Just seeing how defenses are disguising things, I think he’s got a better feel for that. But it’s a learning (process) every year.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula, on Cam Newton
“The things we’re doing give him a little more freedom at times. But also he gets in a flow, I feel like, be it no-huddle or coming out of the huddle,” Anderson said. “I think he’s doing a great job at both of them, which I think early on in his career he’d even tell you, he struggled a little bit. But I think it also just comes from growth in general.”
Newton faced a steeper learning curve than a quarterback like the Colts’ Luck, who spent three seasons in Stanford’s pro-style offense before the Colts drafted him No. 1 in 2012. Newton started only one season at a four-year school, directing an Auburn spread offense in which plays were signaled by hand.
Anderson said Newton faced an adjustment period calling plays in the huddle, especially with the NFL’s complicated verbiage. But Shula has seen Newton grow more comfortable with the entire offense, including the no-huddle.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to go no-huddle all the time. We’re going to mix it in like we’ve done,” Shula said. “Just seeing how defenses are disguising things, I think he’s got a better feel for that. But it’s a learning (process) every year.”
‘Still off target sometimes’
But there are still areas where Newton can improve.
His 82.1 passer rating last season was the worst of his career and ranked 26th among 33 qualified quarterbacks.
Shula said he’d like to see Newton, who has a 59.5 career completion percentage, be closer to the mid-60s. Shula said the Panthers can help Newton by being more productive on first and second downs and staying out of third-and-longs.
But some observers believe Newton will always struggle with his accuracy, particularly the high throws he has become known for. Drafting a pair of tall receivers in Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess the past two years should help, although Benjamin tore his ACL during camp and is out for the season.
“He’s still going to have the errant throws and the ball’s going to come out high. He’s still off target sometimes,” said Barber, the Fox analyst. “But I think they understand that about him now. They play to his strengths a lot better.”
He’s still going to have the errant throws and the ball’s going to come out high. ... But I think they understand that about him now. They play to his strengths a lot better.
Television analyst Ronde Barber, on Cam Newton
The Panthers’ receivers have struggled since Benjamin’s injury. In the third exhibition against New England, Newton completed 17 of 28 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. Still, his rating of 88.4 was nearly 30 points higher than Tom Brady’s.
But Newton’s numbers would have been better if not for at least five drops by his receivers.
The lack of a play-making replacement for Benjamin and the shaky performance by the receiving corps during the preseason begs a familiar question: Does Newton have enough weapons?
“I don’t have any choice. The answers are in the locker room,” he said after the Patriots exhibition. “It is not up to me. I have full confidence in the personnel, I’ve got full confidence in myself.”
How should Newton be measured?
After Newton’s fight with Norman in Spartanburg, a reporter mentioned that most quarterbacks don’t get into those types of scraps with teammates.
“Says who? You’ve never seen a guy in a red jersey like me,” said Newton, referring to the practice jerseys worn by the Panthers quarterbacks.
“I know you guys want to make a story about the scuffle and, ‘We’ve never seen a franchise quarterback involved ... .
“Yeah, but there’s a lot of what I do that is not prototypical. You know what I’m saying?”
There’s a lot of what I do that is not prototypical. You know what I’m saying?
Cam Newton, on his playing style
The Panthers’ Pro Bowl tight end thought the media made too much of Newton’s training camp fight, but said that’s been the case with whatever Newton has done throughout his career.
“People can’t seem to get over trying to put Cam into a box and judge every move and every facial expression, him sitting on a bench, the way he walks, the way he talks,” Olsen said last month. “We’re going into Year 5 now. I think that storyline both locally and nationally is played out. I think guys are tired of answering it. I’m sure he’s tired of answering it.”
Once the regular-season games start the questions will involve Newton’s decisions and throws, what he saw on a particular play, and, ultimately, what went right or wrong for the Panthers in 2015.
How will Newton measure up?
“I guess we’ll see,” Newton said, reiterating the Super Bowl is his top goal. “But we have to put actions to (work), and not talk about it.”