As the award season gets into full swing, Cam Newton is a shoo-in for Greatest Showman on Turf. Love him or hate him, everyone has an opinion about Newton and his non-game antics as he gives footballs to kids, dances and mugs for the camera in group portraits.
What no one can deny, however, is the quarterback’s versatility and his role in bringing a team that squeaked into the playoffs last year at 7-8-1 to being a lone touchdown away from a red-carpet 16-0 this season.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Newton said that the same virtue that helped the Seahawks in the second half applied to Panthers’ whole season.
“I just think that as an offense, we’ve been capitalizing as best as I’ve ever seen,” said Newton. “When teams give us specific looks, we’ve got guys that are capable of understanding what defenses and teams are trying to do and maximizing their role, and perfecting it as well.”
The change elevated Newton’s game significantly. In 2014, the quarterback had a rating of 82.1, throwing for 18 touchdowns and rushing for five. In 2015, Newton became the first quarterback in league history to throw for 30-plus touchdowns ( 35) and rush for 10, on the back of 3,837 passing yards with an overall rating of 99.4, plus 636 yards on the ground.
When Newton is on, there seems little that can stand in his way. In a telling performance, Newton threw for 340 yards, ran for 100 and passed for five touchdowns against the Giants in Week 15. (The only other quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in a single game? Russell Wilson.)
CB Richard Sherman says he’s noted the change.
““He’s got more confident,” said Sherman. “He’s gotten more comfortable standing in there and delivering the ball. Stepping up, stepping into his throws, moving people with his eyes, he’s just become a little more diverse.”
That confidence helped Newton manufacture two 80-yard drives in the fourth quarter in a comeback win against Seattle back in Week 6, leaving the stunned Seahawks at 2-4.
LB Bobby Wagner, who did not play in the first game, said he is happy to have a shot at Newton and the Panthers’ offensive weapons.
“We’ve grown since the last time we’ve played them, and we’re just going to show that growth,” said Wagner. “It’s more important for us to get that rhythm, to make sure that everybody is on the same page, and watched enough film, and practiced well enough to where we can really slow the game down and figure out everything they’re trying to do.”
Still, Wagner admitted that Newton’s six-foot-five, 245-pound frame was a lot to handle.
“You have to actually account for him in the running game,” he said. “Other running quarterbacks might run the ball a couple times, but not that much.
“He’s such a big guy that he can take the pounding that a running back can take, so you have to be ready for all the runs that he’s going to have.”
DE Cliff Avril, who at times seemed as if he and fellow end Michael Bennett were in the backfield before Teddy Bridgewater was against the Vikings Sunday, said that a more measured approach would be important against Newton.
“When you’re rushing the pocket, you’ve got to keep an eye on him, understand what kind of a quarterback you’re dealing with,” said Avril. “He has a great feel for the pocket and he will run it, so as you’re rushing you have to keep your eye on him.”
“You have to be smart about how you coach the run game. They throw a lot of different things at you. But penetrating and making the right reads, I think we’ll be fine.”
Avril’s confidence that the defense can stop Newton is more than the expected self-assurance. As Jeff Dooley of Pro Football Focus pointed out, Newton’s passer rating is almost cut in half when throwing under pressure versus from a sturdy pocket.
If the Seahawks get pressure on Newton in the passing game, they will limit Newton’s big play opportunities, forcing him to run to run and throw for short gains.
If they can’t? Newton will dance his way into the end zone, and a lot of young Panthers fans will be handed footballs Sunday.