For a team that is 3-0, the Carolina Panthers have a number of problems.
Quarterback Cam Newton, on the other hand, keeps becoming their solution.
Newton may not be old enough to get certain calls – we will get into that controversy shortly – but he is playing as well as he ever has in his five-year NFL career. He provided more evidence of that in a dramatic, 27-22 Carolina win Sunday at home over New Orleans.
Newton threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns. He ran 13 yards for a third TD, celebrating by first holding his hands high and then taking an exaggerated bow. He also never committed a turnover on a drizzly day in which the Panthers made enough mistakes to lose.
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Newton, however, wasn’t going to let that happen.
There was no Superman flip into the end zone like last week, but Newton’s overall performance was even more impressive. He fired footballs all over the field for those 315 yards – the most yardage he has thrown for in a single game since his rookie season in 2011. And it is worth repeating that the quarterback’s best wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, is out for the year.
“Outstanding,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of Newton’s performance.
About the only thing that really went wrong for Newton on Sunday was when he didn’t draw a late-hit penalty on the sideline after a fourth-quarter incompletion. Newton was angry that the penalty wasn’t called on New Orleans defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, but angrier still at what the quarterback said was veteran referee Ed Hochuli’s explanation to him.
“It was right on the cusp,” Newton said later. “Was it a late hit? I don’t know. But the response that I got (from Hochuli) was, ‘Cam, you’re not old enough to get that call.’ I’m looking at him like what? … I didn’t think you had to have seniority to get a personal foul. … Heaven forbid he gets any rookies. They are going to have a long day, man.”
So that didn’t go very well – although Newton’s explanation of the no-call was entertaining. (A source close to Hochuli said the referee denied making the statement to Newton.)
But lots of other things did go right for No. 1 on Sunday, as he played one of those sorts of games that makes you think the Panthers spent their $103 million for his contract extension wisely.
There were certainly other Panthers stars on Sunday: Cornerback Josh Norman made a dazzling interception to save the game. Tight end Greg Olsen caught 134 yards worth of passes from Newton and scored twice. But Newton was everywhere – throwing passes of 55 and 52 yards and scrambling around on one amazing third-down conversion that Olsen would later call perhaps the biggest play of the afternoon.
Newton’s quarterback rating of 119.7 Sunday was his highest since 2013, when the Panthers went 12-4 and he had three games with quarterback ratings of over 125.
“A guy like Cam can bring so much to the table,” Olsen said. “We throw for 300. He runs for a touchdown. He converts a couple of third downs with his legs. Those are game-changing plays.”
Rivera and Newton both joined the Panthers in 2011 and have been joined at the hip since. The coach knows the highs and lows of Cam as well as anyone. I asked him Sunday if he believes Newton is playing some of his best football right now, and he said he thought so.
But, Rivera added: “The truth of the matter, though, is that I think he can play better. There are some things that he’s still missing and he knows that. … That’s important, for a young man to know he hasn’t quite arrived yet. And hopefully he does. Because I tell you when he gets there, he’s pretty impressive.”
Rivera is right. Newton is not perfect, on or off the field. He hasn’t won a Super Bowl and only has one playoff victory to his credit. He got into a training-camp fight with Norman. While he has gotten better at making quick decisions with the ball, he’s not at the Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady level.
But right now the quarterback is the best thing about an offense that is flawed at several positions. Newton has the Panthers off to their best start since they started 5-0 in the Super Bowl season of 2003.
At 26, Newton might not be old enough to get the 50-50 late-hit calls. But he is plenty old enough and good enough to lead the Panthers to the promised land. If he can sustain this level of play – and the suddenly shaky Panthers defense can get back middle linebacker Luke Kuechly at full strength – this is a team and a quarterback that can make all things possible in 2015.