Scott Fowler

He’s been NFL MVP, but Panthers QB Cam Newton has never played better than right now

Cam Newton’s bar is set very high. He was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2015, after all, and led Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance that year.

But after three games in 2018, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney — who drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011 — is as effusive as he’s ever been about the Panthers’ star quarterback.

“He always amazes me,” Hurney said of Newton after Carolina’s 31-21 victory over Cincinnati Sunday. “And I think right now … his all-around game is as good as it’s ever been. ... He’s confident. He’s making great decisions. And he’s making great throws.”

Newton accounted for all four of Carolina’s touchdowns Sunday — two rushing, two passing — and once again did not commit a turnover. He now has eight total TDs through three games (five passing, three rushing) and only one turnover, which was an interception that bounced off the hands of running back C.J. Anderson at Atlanta.

Is that MVP form? Well, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes has had an even better start to the year and would be the MVP leader at the moment. And you could make an argument for several other players, too.

But Newton is playing spectacularly well — again. And when that’s the case — when Newton is feeling good and talking about swag and handing out player nicknames like they are Halloween candy — the Panthers can beat anybody.

This was Carolina’s seventh consecutive win at home dating back to last season, which is the longest active streak in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) looks for extra yardage against Cincinnati Sunday in a 31-21 win. Newton had his sixth career game with at least two rushing touchdowns Sunday. Jeff Siner

‘Been bashed before’

Plus, Newton jumped on a fumble Sunday.

Every true Panthers fan remembers the one against Denver in the Super Bowl that he didn’t jump on — a loose ball when the game still hung in the balance. I asked him about leaping on this one Sunday, which came after Newton was clobbered on a fourth-quarter blindside hit that he never saw coming.

“I’ve been bashed before for not jumping on fumbles, so I just wanted to make sure, hell or high water, I was going to get that fumble,” Newton said. “Just trying to create good habits.”

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He has created a number of them so far this season. In his first season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Newton is completing 67.4 percent of his passes. That’s about nine percentage points higher than his career average. His quarterback rating of 99.7 through three games is almost exactly what it was in the MVP season. He has never finished a year above 90 in his other six NFL seasons.

And he continues to run the ball as well as ever. On a naked bootleg on third-and-goal from the 2 Sunday, he came pounding down the left side like a freight train with a full head of steam and rumbled into the end zone standing up. I mentioned to Panthers wide receiver Jarius Wright that I wouldn’t have wanted to tackle Newton on that play.

“Exactly,” Wright said. “And I don’t think they did either.”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (right) reaches out to congratulate guard Greg Van Roten during the fourth quarter Sunday. Newton threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more in Carolina’s 31-21 win over Cincinnati. Jeff Siner

‘Kids ... don’t do that’

Newton threw for a modest 150 yards, but that was in large part because Christian McCaffrey (184 rushing yards) was having a career day. Newton executed almost every play well, with the glaring exception of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he was flagged for in the fourth quarter that took Carolina out of field-goal range.

“The defender just kept slapping at the ball,” Newton said of the aftermath of his third-down run. “He kept slapping, tapping, miss, slap, miss, slap, miss — so I just gave him the ball. I didn’t know that was taunting. Can’t do that. Kids, if you’re watching, don’t do that at home. I was more embarrassed off the mere fact that I got a penalty because I’m always the preacher of “Focus, hone in!” As I’m taking the walk of shame back to the bench, I was like, ‘Golly, I need to listen to my own self talk.’”

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Newton’s 6-5, 245-pound build has always inspired a bit of awe.

“He’s a big body,” Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert said after the game. “I’m surprised that kind of athlete is playing quarterback.”

But Newton’s mind is also a weapon when he plays smart, effective football like this. And when he’s playing like this, he’s also feeling his oats — as evidenced by this quote about the few seconds before his 24-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Anderson.

“It’s one of the few times I wished I was miked up because I had some choice words for Uncle Junebug (Anderson), telling him you better get your fat --- in the end zone. And he replies and he says, ‘Don’t talk to me like that bro, I’m sensitive.’”

Newton said he then called out “Set hut,” threw the ball to Anderson and saw him score, which made Newton think he needed to tease more people just before the snap count. Or something like that.

Maybe the quarterback is exaggerating that story and maybe he isn’t, but whatever. Right now Newton has found a killer wave, and everyone else in the locker room is just happy to surf alongside him.