Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton says there is nothing different about him or his team this year, but the statistics beg to differ.
Just look at what he’s done in the fourth quarter this year. And remember all those red zone problems in 2014? The Panthers are fifth in the league this season with their highest rating inside the 20 in the Newton/Ron Rivera era.
So something must be different, right?
“Nothing. Nothing. It’s just been great focus, great team ball,” said Newton, who on Wednesday was named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this season. “Guys bringing a professionalism each and every day, and it’s carrying over to game day.”
But that’s too simplistic.
In the fourth quarter this season, Newton has completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 673 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.
And inside the 20 he has a 111.5 passer rating with 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Even Newton’s offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, can’t explain it.
“The best answer I can give you is I’m not sure, but I do know this,” Shula said Monday following Carolina’s 41-38 victory over New Orleans. “There was more of a relaxed calmness about him yesterday. And the other time I noticed was in the overtime against Indianapolis. Just where I think it’s confidence in himself and in his teammates. It doesn’t matter what’s going to happen, we’re going to get it done.”
111.5 Cam Newton’s passer rating inside the opponent’s 20 this season
19 Touchdowns Newton has thrown on red-zone trips this season
0 Red zone interceptions for Newton so far this season
The red zone issues plagued the Panthers in 2014. They suffered through it to get a 7-8-1 season and win the division. They scored a touchdown on 48.15 percent of their trips inside the 20, which was 26th in the league and the worst in Newton’s five seasons.
Center Ryan Kalil said the offense took a long look at that statistic at the end of last year and made it a point to improve on it. They take extra repetitions in practice on red zone drills, and it’s paid off.
The Panthers are now scoring touchdowns on 65.31 percent of their trips inside the 20, which is the fifth-best in the league. They’re doing it all without 6-foot-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin but with a more cohesive offensive line.
“It’s hard to score when you get down there. The more consistent you can be the better chance you have of giving the quarterback and receivers confidence when we get down there,” Kalil said. “A lot of it starts with the offensive line and protecting the quarterback, giving him confidence to take the time he needs to execute and to zing it in there. And that, in turn, helps the receivers.”
Newton’s fourth quarters have been equally as impressive. They began in Week 6 at Seattle, where he went 14-of-15 with a touchdown in the fourth quarter to notch his 10th career fourth-quarter comeback.
The magic continued in Week 8 against Indianapolis when Newton helped the Panthers become the first team in NFL history to win after trailing in overtime.
And then on Sunday against New Orleans, Newton was 9-of-13 for 149 yards and two touchdowns during his third fourth-quarter comeback of the season.
Newton has evolved as a quarterback in the NFL in his fifth year, but he says nothing about his football makeup has changed.
And now, he’s 12-0.
“This is the same person that people critiqued and analyzed when I first came into this league and I would sulk under the towel,” Newton said. “I hate to lose. Let’s not get that wrong. It’s the same person. Nothing’s pretty much changed. We’re just winning.
“I haven’t changed. The people in that locker room know I haven’t changed. The people upstairs know I haven’t change. And as a matter of fact they haven’t changed, either. It’s just guys growing up and seeing more football and understanding what to do in different circumstances. That’s overall growth.”