With the advent of mobile quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick in 2012, some may have forgotten that it was Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers who started the NFL's post-Vick wave of functional throwing mobility with an epic 2011 rookie season in which he broke several records for first-year quarterbacks. The bloom came off the rode a bit in Newton's second season, when the Panthers put far more on his plate from a playbook perspective, and he struggled in ways he hadn't the year before.
The Panthers ranked 18th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted passing offense metrics through the first half of the 2012 season, and Newton threw a total of just five touchdowns to eight interceptions in the months of September and October. Once former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula got things back on track with a faster-paced offense more reliant on the run game, Newton bent his own game back into shape. He threw 13 touchdown passes to just four picks in Weeks 10-17, the Panthers moved up to eighth in those same FO metrics, and Newton looked far more like the first overall pick who made such waves in his rookie campaign.
With Chudzinski off to coach the Cleveland Browns and Shula now in charge of the Panthers' offense, Newton goes into Year 3 with a better idea of his NFL responsibilities, and a great deal of confidence.
"Coach Chudzinski was a key to our success. He obviously moved onward and upward, and Coach Shula is going to pick it up and make a success on his own by putting the offense in the best positions possible," Newton told Shutdown Corner on Wednesday, during a media blitz for Gatorade's 'Beat the Heat' campaign. "So for us, we want to take when we've started here and make it easier for us to communicate, hone in on our communication skills, and make everyone play faster."
That would seem to indicate that the Panthers will run in the direction of current NFL trends that have teams playing faster, with more no-huddle sets, and with simpler play calls. That's not an indictment of Newton's football acumen; when the New England Patriots went with a heavy no-huddle system last season, Tom Brady's play calls were often reduced from things like "Gun Empty Left 75 Linda All Go X Under" to mini-calls such as "39 Crack Blow." Newton, who had a digit-based playcalling system at Auburn, now finds himself on the right side of that curve.
"The game is changing, and one of the ways it's changing is to more high-tempo offense," he said. "Whether you're running a traditional or a spread offense, everyone's having the tempo to try and run as many plays as possible. If you run a lot of plays, it usually ends up that you score a lot of points ... We came in this offseason, [Shula] already had a plan in place. To keep learning, and try to minimize all the verbiage like you said, and pick up the tempo to a degree, so that guys in the program can play faster."
More than playbook factors, through, is Newton's increasing awareness of the way he carries himself, and how that affects the team. Last year, he was justifiably criticized in the media and by his own teammates for his demeanor on the sidelines and during press conferences. Receiver Steve Smith, who has always been publicly supportive of his quarterback, blasted Newton last September after Newton was pulled in a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants. Newton sat dejected on the bench, and Smith just earholed him. Later, Smith expressed his concerns.
"Cam Newton has a very unique opportunity to be a franchise quarterback to an organization that needs one," Smith told the Charlotte Observer. "Statistics don't lie. Athletic quarterbacks, they either excel or they fail. And I told Cam that. This is an opportunity for him to learn — at that time they were benching him — and observe. They put D.A. [Derek Anderson] in. You can sit there -- if this is the worst [it's] going to get, you're in for a long day, and this is not what it's about."
Offensive linemen Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil expressed similar concerns in Newton's rookie year, and with his third season awaiting, Newton seems to be getting the message.
"On the sideline, you have so many different emotions," he said. "You're watching the game, watching the defense out there, cheering them on as much as you can. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do things. There are so many things that happen on the sidelines that will never hit the fans, or that people will never know about. For me, I try to stay composed on the sidelines, because you never know if you're body's reacting a certain way, and you know you're on TV. The camera's always rolling.
"I have looked at it this year -- my approach to the game and postgame interviews, and I feel I can get better at it. At the same time, I'm not going to change my competitive nature. I do not like losing -- I've said it before, and I'll say it again. But it's the way you go about it, and I understand that."
Most importantly, Newton appears to understand the responsibility given to every starting quarterback in the NFL. You don't just move your team -- for better or worse, you define it.
"I think for me, or for anyone who plays the quarterback position, it's almost an unspoken word when you think about leadership. Some guys can be a leader and be a running back or a lineman, or wide receiver, strong safety, or linebacker. But when you speak of quarterbacks, it's automatically a default that you're supposed to be a leader. The quarterback is an extension of the coach and has a certain type of swagger mentality, on and off the field. For me, it's a sense of accountability -- I have to make sure I'm holding myself to a standard that my franchise can be happy for, and the city I play for can be happy for, and my family can be happy for, and my teammates. Everybody's always going to be looking to see what you're going to do, what you're going to say, and how you're going to react to different things."
And finally, after two years of wrestling with those responsibilities, Cam Newton can sum it up in a sentence that sounds less like a drag of a responsibility, and more like a clarion call for the potential he finally understands how to realize. Nothing else will do at his position.
"Any other position, you can get away with it, but not the quarterback."
I asked Newton if he watched the exploits of Griffin, Wilson, and Kaepernick with any specific awareness that it was his rookie season which opened the minds of many when it came to mobile quarterbacks as trend-making starters. More than any pride in that aspect, he said, it was what having more quarterbacks with similar skill sets in the NFL has done for his own game.
"I'm happy to see the success of other athletes, because I'm a fan of this game and I'm a fan of so many different athletes playing this game. So, when I see RG3, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, and the ones before us like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Michael Vick, I see how they've succeeded in this league, and I try to apply it to my own game. The competitive nature comes out to try and beat the records, or beat them if we happen to play them. But at the end of the day, I respect those guys' careers and their games, If anything, it's going to make my game better as a competitor in the long run."
And with more mobile quarterbacks and their different skill sets, is there more to watch and say, 'Hey -- I'd like to try that?'
"Yeah, absolutely. And it's the thing that every single quarterback in this league does. And whether you want to be a fan of it or not, success is success. For me to look at it, I try to apply those things to my own, and see if there are things that are going to be compatible or not."
By the way, Newton's interest in Gatorade's hydration campaign was more than just a product plug -- it was 86 degrees at the Panthers' most recent OTA practice, and as a man who's played a lot in the hyper-humid South, Newton's learned more than he ever expected about the subject.
"Oh, absolutely. Especially playing the game as long as I've played, in the NFL and college and rec ball, it's something I feel that every athlete has faced. Pushing your body to the limits, you've got to be careful."
This offseason, Newton's expanded that to his nutritional focus, dropping 12 pounds and gaining a new awareness about what he puts into his body, and how that could improve things on the field.
"I just want to feel light on my feet -- hopefully, I can feel like I'm faster," he said. "it's the work I've put forth on myself and what I've put into my body. Talking to nutritional people about the things I can and can't eat. Or healthy things -- not necessarily things I can't eat, but the preferred things to put in my body ... especially during the season when you spend so many hours at the facility. You tend to put things in your body just to stay up, whether it's energy drinks or candy, but you try to have more of a focus on the right things."
Focusing more on the right things seems to be the theme of his offseason. And a newly-focused Cam Newton, with his priorities in order, is just what the doctor ordered for the Panthers.