Cam Newton has always been a great athlete.
On Sunday, he was a great football player.
In Carolina’s 27-23 comeback victory at Seattle Sunday, what you saw in the final eight minutes was a quarterback playing the position as well as he has ever played it. That was as close to perfect as Newton has ever been.
I watched the last two drives again on Monday, and here is what I saw. Newton threw a 25-yard strike to Devin Funchess that Funchess managed to drop. He spiked the ball once to kill the clock.
And other than that, he went 11-for-11.
Running? It wasn’t even part of the equation for Newton.
Was Greg Olsen just bailing him out over and over? No.
Here are Newton’s last six passes of the game, in order (not including the spike):
Eight yards to Jonathan Stewart.
Eighteen yards to Ted Ginn.
Fourteen yards to Ed Dickson.
Sixteen yards to Funchess.
Seven yards to Jerricho Cotchery.
And, finally, 26 yards to Olsen for the game-winning TD.
Six completions. Six different receivers. In a storm of noise. And all without his No. 1 wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin.
Richard Sherman called the winning touchdown pass to Olsen a “fluky play” since the Seahawks got confused on their coverage and left Olsen wide open.
But what Newton did on Sunday? That was no fluke. That was the continuing maturation of one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
That is what the Panthers gave Newton that huge contract to do. Early in his career, he had all kinds of trouble completing fourth-quarter comebacks – even though he usually had a better corps of receivers to throw the ball to then he does at the moment. He would try too often for the big play, and then the big mistake would come instead.
Early in his career, that moment after the sack vs. Seattle that Newton took on the final drive that pushed the Panthers into a second-and-19? That would have been the beginning of the end.
Not anymore. Now Newton is doing an amazing job for these 5-0 Carolina Panthers. On a team that lacks offensive explosion, he led four 80-yard touchdown drives – four! – on Sunday. On the road. Against a team that has made the Super Bowl the past two years.
I would rank No. 1 as the No. 3 quarterback in the NFL right now, trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. You can make a number of arguments against that, of course. But I look at Newton’s supporting cast and I look at how he has limited his mistakes and I don’t think he has ever had a longer, more consistent stretch of good play.
Said linebacker Thomas Davis following the win about Newton: “I think he’s going to start getting some of the respect that he deserves as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, a guy that can flat-out lead the team and go out there and get it done. He’s going to erase some of the doubters that he has. We’re excited to have him as our quarterback.”
Said coach Ron Rivera of Newton on Monday: “I thought Cam made some really good decisions, especially in the fourth quarter.”
Said Newton after the game of the winning drive: “I don’t want to make this about me. It was a great team win, and an unbelievable catch by Greg. Just an unbelievable game by him, being there when I needed him the most.”
Certainly, Olsen was phenomenal. The Panthers came into the game dead last in the NFL in number of offensive plays of 20 or more yards. They had a respectable four Sunday, and Newton-to-Olsen passes accounted for all four.
And it truly wasn’t all about Cam. Other than that one sack, the Panthers’ offensive line protected beautifully on the last two marches. Cotchery made a third-down catch in worse traffic than what you find at 5 p.m. on I-485. Funchess, who dropped three balls during the game, made a leaping grab in the final minutes. Olsen was, well, Olsen.
“Yeah, they just made some plays,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We were able to pressure him at times in there and get some balls thrown away, but he had enough.”
Yes, Newton had enough. For the first time in five tries against Seattle, despite two nasty interceptions earlier in the game, Newton had more than enough.
Newton made it sound businesslike after the game concluded.
“Well, we were just doing our job,” he said. “Nothing special. They’re a good team. We’re a good team, too.”
But you could tell what his true reaction to this win was right after that touchdown, when Cam went screaming and jumping to the sideline.
This was a huge game in Newton’s development. He knows this. And in the wake of that comeback from 13 points down, nothing seems out of reach for a team that has a quarterback playing like that.