The TV shots of a smiling, dancing Cam Newton during the Carolina Panthers’ rousing win at Atlanta last weekend stood in stark contrast to some of the images of the franchise quarterback from earlier this season.
Newton spent the better part of two months picking himself up off the turf. Newton was sacked 25 times during a six-game losing streak in which the Panthers used six different offensive line combinations.
But that stretch of football frustrations paled in comparison to what Newton went through Dec. 9 when he rolled his truck in a two-vehicle accident in uptown Charlotte that left his 1998 Dodge Ram totaled and sent him to the hospital with two fractures in his lower back.
During a press conference two days after the crash, Newton said he was thankful to be alive and to have “breath in my lungs.”
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And while the focus has returned to football as Newton prepares for Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against Arizona, Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Newton’s accident gave him a greater perspective on life.
“I know when I visited him in the hospital, just listening to him, I felt like he felt it was enlightened,” Rivera said Wednesday.
“Maybe somewhere along the line he’s realized that he was getting too serious about certain things. And I think that’s helped him relax and play relaxed. When he’s having fun and he is relaxed, he’s pretty doggone good.”
Newton’s season has been something of a microcosm of the Panthers’.
He’s endured injuries, the accident and stretches of inconsistent play. It hasn’t always been pretty, but Newton and the Panthers (7-8-1) are back in the playoffs for the second straight season.
“Overall, this season has not been the prototypical season of a playoff team. But who cares?” Newton said. “Everybody has an opportunity. There’s some teams that wish they were in our position, so we’ve got to make the most of this and not take this opportunity for granted.”
Newton had an uneven performance in the 23-10, divisional-round loss to San Francisco last January. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown, but he was intercepted twice and sacked five times.
“I don’t think we got beat talent-wise. We got beat experience-wise. It was a lot of people’s first time in the playoffs, didn’t know what to expect,” Newton said. “I don’t think it was a lot of guys that were in culture shock. I just think if we were in that same position again, I don’t think we’d do the same things.”
Newton said the loss to the 49ers showed him the importance of every possession in a playoff game. He twice used the expression, “laser-sharp focus,” on Wednesday.
“Playoff football is different. You have to turn it up just another notch, and appreciate the great things that this game has to offer,” Newton said. “No matter if it’s first down, second down, third down ... you have to be ready to go because every chance or opportunity is very valuable.”
Newton struggled in a 22-6 loss to the Cardinals last season in Arizona. He threw for 308 yards, but also tossed three interceptions, was sacked seven times and finished with a 47.8 quarterback rating that is among the lowest of his career.
Arizona’s seven sacks were the Cardinals’ most since 1987. One of the sacks resulted in a safety, while another caused Newton to fumble and led to a Cardinals touchdown.
While only four defensive starters from that game will be in the lineup Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, Newton said the Cardinals are just as good, if not better, than last season.
But Arizona (11-5) has had trouble containing the two mobile quarterbacks in its division. In two games against the Cardinals, Seattle’s Russell Wilson has rushed 16 times for 161 yards, with gains of 55 and 40 yards.
Arizona did only marginally better against San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, who ran for 117 yards on 19 carries in the two matchups with the Cardinals.
Newton has been an effective runner in the two games since he sat out the Week 15 win against Tampa Bay after his accident. But he downplayed the impact his running might have against Arizona.
“I’m not going to go into this game thinking I’m going to have 200-plus yards in the run game myself because that’s not what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s about being productive and executing the game plan.”
Panthers center Ryan Kalil said Newton has been a study in resiliency in his fourth season.
“I know he’s been battling injuries all year long. I feel like he’s finally getting out of that and hitting his stride again,” Kalil said. “I know emotionally that’s been tough for him, early this season. So it’s good to see him come out of that and it also says a lot about how tough he is.”
Rivera said when Newton is relaxed and playing loose, it has a trickle-down effect on his teammates.
After all he’s gone through to get to this point, Newton was asked Wednesday whether he was having fun.
“Of course,” he said. “We’re still playing football, so that’s something to smile about and be thankful for.”