On the eve of his first Super Bowl appearance, Cam Newton is expected to win his first MVP trophy Saturday night during the NFL Honors program.
Many league observers don’t expect it to be his last.
Newton is 26, but he’s younger in quarterback years: He played only one season of major-college football before the Carolina Panthers drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011.
A number of current and former players and NFL coaches believe Newton is just scratching the surface of his potential.
Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib puts Newton in the same class as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two quarterbacks destined for the Hall of Fame who have combined for five Super Bowl rings and seven MVP awards.
“Definitely, man. That guy’s talented,” Talib said. “He’s in Year 5 and already on his way to being one of the top quarterbacks in the league right now. You can’t leave his name out. If you’re doing that in Year 5, the sky’s the limit for you.”
Manning, who will oppose Newton in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, was 26 when he won the first of his record five MVPs in 2003. Four years later Manning won his lone Super Bowl when he guided Indianapolis to a 29-17 victory against Chicago.
A 2013 study by footballperspective.com, an online football analytics site, concluded that quarterbacks reach their peak at 29, with the five-year period from 26 to 30 which Newton is just entering considered the prime of a quarterback’s career.
Newton has five years left with the Panthers on a contract extension last summer that made him the highest paid player in team history and one of the highest paid players in the league. With 24-year-old Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly also signed to a five-year extension and a core of talented young players, the Panthers are positioned to compete to go deep into the playoffs for years ahead.
“I don’t think anybody in Year 5 is a finished product,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “It’s kind of a scary concept to think about when you’ve had the success that (Newton) has had individually since he got drafted. We all know he’s a special talent. He’s playing arguably better than anybody in the league.”
Newton is the only quarterback in history to throw for at least 100 touchdowns (117) and run for 25 or more (43) in his first five seasons.
Newton combined for 21,470 total yards (including 18,263 passing) over that span, breaking Manning’s record for combined yards (21,174) over a quarterback’s first five seasons.
So what’s the ceiling for Newton as he enters what should be his prime years?
“I don’t think he has a ceiling,” said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. “I think the biggest thing when you look at greatness, it’s consistency. I think if he can do this year in and year out, that’s the greatest measure.”
That was the knock on Newton early in his career. He would make great plays, then overthrow receivers, force passes into coverage or fail to show patience when pressured.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera credits offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s use of a no-huddle offense late in the 2014 for Newton’s improvement in the pocket.
Usually when teams use the no-huddle look they’re in hurry-up mode, especially at the end of halves. But Shula’s goal with the no-huddle was just the opposite: To give Newton more time to stand at the line, survey the defense and adjust accordingly.
Newton established career highs during the regular season with 35 touchdowns passes and a 99.2 quarterback rating, and threw a career-low 10 interceptions.
While Newton remains a threat to run – on called running plays or while avoiding the rush – he has become a complete quarterback who has the patience to stay in the pocket behind his line and wait for a receiver to come open.
“He is a pocket-throwing quarterback. That is the biggest reason why he has success,” said Phil Simms, the ex-Giants quarterback who will call the Super Bowl for CBS.
“He can stand there and throw it no matter what. There’s no window too small to throw it into. He’s fearless just like he was in college. People all around him, he doesn’t flinch. He can throw off-balance. That’s No. 1.
“Hey, run every once in a while and it scares the defense. His throwing ability is what really separates him.”
The Panthers list the 6-foot-5 Newton at 245 pounds, same as they did when they drafted him following a Heisman- and national championship-winning season at Auburn.
But Newton hasn’t weighed 245 since college, and Rivera this week referred to him as 260. There’s no fat on Newton’s frame, making him a tough guy to bring down.
“They’ve got this freak athlete playing quarterback that just shakes guys off and runs over people. It’s really amazing,” said ex-NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. “It’s like a combination of (former QBs) Daunte Culpepper and Randall Cunningham.”
Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips says there’s no one that compares to Newton in terms of his size and running ability.
“I’ve never seen one like him,” said Phillips, a college and NFL coach for 45 years. “And nobody else has.”
While even seasoned NFL observers are awed by Newton’s stature and muscular build, Simms says his arm strength gets overlooked.
“That’s why we’re not going to see a lot of Cam Newtons. You might get somebody that big and fast, but are you going to have that arm? That gets lost in all this,” said Simms, who was one of the broadcasters at the Panthers’ Thanksgiving Day win at Dallas. “I remember preparing going, man, I’m looking at this all wrong. This guy, if he couldn’t run, would be a big-time NFL quarterback.”
Esiason said he voted for Newton for MVP over Brady and Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer for “everything he did” in leading the Panthers to the sixth 15-1 season in NFL history and the second Super Bowl berth in the franchise’s 21-year existence.
That Newton did it with a receiving corps that lost No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in August makes Newton’s accomplishments all the more remarkable.
Cowher, the former Pittsburgh coach, says Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula deserves credit for running a system that takes advantage of all Newton has to offer.
The funny thing is when Shula was a Jacksonville assistant before joining Rivera’s staff in 2011, the same year Newton arrived, he was dubious about a system that relied heavily on a running quarterback.
“I was talking to one of our other coaches who had come from college and I had said, ‘I don’t know how that offense is going to ever work in the NFL. Those guys are gonna take too many hits,’” Shula said. “Then all of a sudden Cam Newton comes along.”
And armed with a $103.8 million contract extension that will keep him in Carolina through the prime of his career, Newton is going to be around for a while.