"Yeah — he broke my single-game yardage record, and he just broke my single-season rushing touchdown record. Join the crowd -- everybody laughs when I tell them that! My rookie year, I had six rushing touchdowns, mostly because I was running for my life. That was the year we went 1-15."
That was how my conversation with Chris Weinke started on Friday. We were to discuss Weinke's work with Cam Newton at IMG in Bradenton, Fla. over the summer, and the drastic upturn in performance Newton's shown since some shaky throwing sessions at the 2011 scouting combine and at a pro day he put on soon after. The Newton we're seeing now shows a progression I've never seen from a quarteback in a six-month period of time, and I wanted to talk to the guy who was responsible for a lot of that.
But before Weinke started working with quarterbacks at IMG a couple years ago, he had a few moments in the sun as an NFL quarterback after an estimable career at Florida State. When Newton threw for 432 yards in his second NFL game against the Green Bay Packers, he actually did break Weinke's franchise record, set against the New York Giants in 2006. And Weinke did indeed have six rushing touchdowns in his rookie season of 2001, when he was bailing out of the pocket on an abysmal Panthers team.
Things are different for Weinke now — he's gaining a major reputation as a coach for quarterbacks, and his work with Newton has been a big part of that. In part two of our exclusive interview with him, we talk about some of the myths Newton has had to overcome, and the real reasons behind his early success. You can find part one of our interview here.
Shutdown Corner: Newton's pocket presence has been another revelation -- with some running quarterbacks, they say that they want to be pocket passers, but it really doesn't take. He seems to have an unusual ability to stay in there and make throws when he's got bodies all around him or he doesn't have a clear picture.
Chris Weinke: That's the thing that's been the most impressive to me. Because you talk about being pocket passers — he's already shown it. He's such a great athlete that he should never lose the portion of his game where he's getting out of the pocket and making plays with his feet, but I've been most impressed by his ability to make those decisions and be able to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball with, as you said, the opposite-colored jersey all around him.
One of my philosophies is that I teach quarterbacks to work in a telephone booth. And the reason you do that is that you're going to have people all around you. You must be able to be mechanically sound in that "telephone booth" — in essence, the pocket. You have to do that to be successful, and if there was one indication of his ability to do that, it was last week [against the Washington Redskins] — he threw a pass to Steve Smith in the fourth quarter down the left sideline where there were about five guys in his face and all around him.
He took a short stride, put the ball up, and turned it over — he threw what I call a "bucket throw." I try to teach a quarterback to throw with arc and pace, and that's to be able to throw over defenders and put it to a spot. That epitomizes what I was coaching as a quarterback coach to Cam, and I pointed that out to him after the game, 'That's exactly how you deliver the football.' He's been able to do that as well as anyone, especially this early in his career.
SC: Watching him at the scouting combine and at his pro day, he seemed to be wildly inaccurate and inconsistent on different throws — five-yard outs, skinny slants, seam throws — the throws you must be able to make. What was it in his mechanics that caused him to vary in his performance?
CW: In my evaluation of him, I watched every throw he made at the combine, and I saw the throws he was missing on. It was two minor things — placement of his front foot, and then, it was his shoulders. He was trying to rock back to generate power, and what that did was to make the ball fly. It would sail on him, and if you watch him now, he plays with much more level shoulders, and he takes a short stride. Before, he would try to throw across the midline, which means that I try to teach the front foot to open to the target, not outside the target. You don't want to throw outside your body, because the ball's going to slice on you.
Now, he opens that front foot and he gets over the top. He pulls the ball down without having to generate power by dropping his back shoulder. At the combine, his throws were either sailing over on the outs or they were a little bit short, and I think that now, he's been able to consistently work on his mechanics. He's created some muscle memory where that's how he's operating — that's how he's throwing the football. It wasn't major overhauls — it was smaller tweaks that made a huge difference.
SC: And he obviously has a much better arm than your average college spread quarterback. How much of an advantage has it been to him that basically, when he hit the NFL, he had one of the best pure arms [at least from a velocity perspective] in the league?
CW: Yeah, he's got one of the strongest arms in the NFL. I mean, he's a physical specimen at 6-foot-6 and maybe 250 pounds. He's gifted in terms of arm strength, and it's always a little bit easier to work with a guy like that if you can get him fundamentally sound and take advantage of the arm strength.
SC: You spoke to his work ethic, and I've told people … I mean, you can't have this kind of progression pace unless you're working like a dog. But do you think that in the end, his intelligence as a football player has been downplayed? Because it seems to me that the Panthers have been able to put an unusual amount on his shoulders from a playbook perspective, and that seems to increase every week.
CW: Yeah, and that was very evident to me early on with him. As I've mentioned, the media is very powerful, and the knock on him was that he wasn't an intelligent player. Well, I can say this — he did what he was asked to do at Auburn in a simplistic spread offense. He was portrayed on the [ESPN] Jon Gruden special as a guy who wasn't very intelligent, and that was an unfair knock. I realized that the first day I worked with him.
The guy loves to be challenged, he wants to be great, and he's got the mental capacity to be a very, very successful quarterback. He's able to understand the intricacies of a complicated offense, which shows that, yes, the guy can do it, and that he's willing to work. His work ethic is as good as anybody's, he was asking the right questions, and he always wanted to be challenged. That's starting to pay dividends for him, and he's showing that he is a smart guy. He can handle those things, and he'll only continue to get better.