NFC South: Offensive Rookie of the Year

Cam Newton better than No. 100?

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
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Cam NewtonAP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe Panthers like what they've seen from Cam Newton so far during training camp.
Let’s start this off with a trivia question: Whatever happened to Cam Newton?

Yeah, I know he's still the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. But why is Newton, the offensive rookie of the year for the 2011 season, no longer even mentioned breathlessly as one of the NFL’s top young quarterbacks?

It seems as if Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have made Newton an afterthought outside of Charlotte.

The latest example comes in ESPN.com’s list of the top 100 offensive players, which kicks off today. For the record, I had a vote and gave Newton high marks. But, apparently, I'm one of the few who thinks highly of Newton.

He came in at No. 100 on the list. He also came in as the No. 16 quarterback. Luck, Kaepernick, Griffin and Wilson all came in well ahead of Newton. So did Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, whose names rhyme with mediocrity, at least in my book.

I’m not saying Newton belongs in the upper echelon (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, the Manning brothers, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan) just yet. But I do think Newton is substantially better than the 100th-best offensive player in the league right now, and I think he could be a top-10 quarterback by the time this season is over.

The guy has thrown for 7,290 yards and 40 touchdowns in his first two seasons. He also has run for 1,447 yards and 22 touchdowns in that same time frame.

So why does it seem as though Newton is in the witness protection program whenever people talk about great players or great quarterbacks?

The answer is simple. Newton hasn’t won, and the way he has handled losing (pouting on the sideline and his body language in postgame interviews) hasn’t earned him fans among the national media.

But I think all that is about to change. I say that after having a one-on-one sit-down with one of the most guarded coaches I’ve ever covered. I say that after talking about Newton with Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

“I feel really good -- and anybody that knows me knows I usually don’t say things like that -- but I do," Shula said on a July morning in Spartanburg, S.C. “When I think about why I feel good, it’s because of the look in [Newton’s] eye. He’s highly motivated. When you get guys that are motivated and are going to listen and do the things you’re asking them to do, you’re way ahead of the game."

Maybe we’ll be able to forget the body language, because Shula knows Newton’s eye language better than just about anyone. Shula spent the past two seasons as Carolina’s quarterbacks coach before being promoted when Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Teammates also are noticing a difference in Newton.

“I think we’re getting ready at the quarterback position, which is the most important position on the field," center Ryan Kalil said. “Experience is a big part of that, and he’s growing. His leadership skills have gotten better, and he’s somebody that guys are looking up to. Those are all good things."

But the main reason I think Newton is in for a big season is because the Panthers finally have figured out how to use his unique skill set. They started off 2-8 last season when they were asking Newton to run the read-option often. They largely scrapped that in favor of a more conventional running game late last season and won five of their last six games. Expect that trend to continue.

The Panthers are ready to let DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart be running backs, and they’re ready to let Newton be just a quarterback.

“One of the things I’ve talked to him about is don’t let a day go by here in training camp where you don’t think about how you felt the first half of the season last year and then how you felt at the end of the season," Shula said. “And just think about that every day as you’re going through practice and use it as motivation."

Maybe, by the time this season is over, Newton no longer will be a forgotten man.

PanthersElsa/Getty ImagesThe Panthers plan to feature a power running game and Cam Newton's pocket passing next season.
We haven’t heard much about Cam Newton lately.

Since early last season, it seems Newton has been overshadowed by a bunch of young quarterbacks. Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III started winning and took a lot of attention off Newton, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.

But it would be a huge mistake for anyone to overlook Newton. Call it bouncing back, breaking through or whatever you want, but I’m predicting a big 2013 season from the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers. Yeah, I’ll even step out on a limb and say he has a better 2013 season than Wilson, Kaepernick, Luck and RG III.

Why?

Several reasons pop to mind, but let’s start with this -- Newton has more all-around talent than any of those guys.

Luck can pass nicely, but opposing defenses don’t have to game plan for his running ability. Wilson, RG III and Kaepernick each have some throwing ability, but they aren’t pure pocket passers, and their big 2012 seasons came largely because of their mobility.

Newton is capable of more than any of those guys, because he’s as mobile as RG III, Kaepernick and Wilson. At the same time, he’s as good a pocket passer as Luck.

A lot of people think Newton slumped in 2012. But that’s not necessarily true. His numbers were comparable to his rookie season, but his visibility lessened because the Panthers didn’t take the leap many expected.

They went 7-9 and were largely overlooked.

But you can’t overlook Newton and the Panthers headed into the 2013 season, and that takes us back to Newton’s rare ability. He is so talented, I don’t think Carolina’s coaching staff really knew how to maximize his ability in his first two seasons.

For reasons that never have been explained and I sure as heck can’t figure out, the Carolina coaching staff didn’t take advantage fully of what Newton brings or what else was on the roster at the start of last season.

Although the Panthers had a talented (and very pricey) backfield with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, they barely used that trio at the start of last season. Instead, they featured Newton heavily in the read-option early last season.

In other words, they turned their quarterback into a running back.

Opposing defenses didn’t have to worry much about Newton’s passing, and that was one of the major reasons the Panthers got off to a 2-8 start.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireA physical running game led by Jonathan Stewart could help quarterback Cam Newton turn the Panthers into a contender next season.
That changed down the stretch. The Panthers got back to using a power running game, and they let Newton be a pocket passer. They won enough games to save coach Ron Rivera’s job.

Rivera and his staff took notice of what happened late in the season, and that is another reason I think Newton is in for a big season. Rivera has said he wants to rely more heavily on the power running game in 2013.

In other words, it sounds like the Panthers are going to let their running backs be running backs, and they’re going to let Newton be a quarterback. That sounds to me like a formula for success.

Carolina is going through a change. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula is taking over the play-calling duties.

Shula had a reputation for being too conservative when he was the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, and the head coach at the University of Alabama. But, like Newton, I think Shula is ready for a breakout season.

Part of the reason Shula was so conservative in previous stops was because he didn’t have big-time talent at the skill positions. He has that talent now with Newton, the running backs, receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen.

I still expect Shula to be a bit more of a traditionalist than Chudzinski, but I think that’s a good thing. He’s going to rely on that running game more, and that’s going to open up the passing game for Newton.

Newton threw for more than 7,900 yards in his first two seasons. He also rushed for more than 700 yards in each of his first two seasons.

Newton’s legs are a valuable asset, and the Panthers can’t ignore that. The Panthers can use the threat of Newton’s running skills to keep defenses off balance, but they also need to keep their offense balanced.

I think they need to adjust things a bit and take an approach similar to what they were using at the end of last season. Scrap the read-option, or at least cut way back on it. Let Newton use his legs to scramble and keep plays alive.

But, first and foremost, let Newton be a passer.

There aren’t many quarterbacks in the league with Newton’s arm strength. The Panthers need to play to that strength.

If they do, Newton won’t be overlooked anymore, and this team could be in the playoffs.

NFC South programming notes

February, 2, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- I’m about to head over to take part in the meeting to select the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013.

By late afternoon, we’ll find out if former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp and former Carolina Panthers linebacker Kevin Greene made the cut and I’ll have analysis if the NFC South has a new Hall of Famer (or two).

And there is one bit of news I want to touch on before I run. The Bucs reportedly have hired Dave Waanstedt to coach their special teams. Wannstedt's history is as a defensive coordinator, but he did handle special teams while he was the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Wannstedt also has plenty of NFL experience. He's been a defensive coordinator for several teams and also was a head coach for the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. Wannstedt hired Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano as a defensive assistant when he was in Chicago.

In the meantime, please keep checking back here. I have another item scheduled to post in a few hours to help pass the time while I’m in the meeting. If any news happens between now and the end of the meeting, I’ll weigh in on it when we get to a break.

Also, it could be a busy night in the NFC South as all the major awards are announced. I’d say Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly has a good shot to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is probably a long shot to win Offensive Rookie of the Year because he’s up against some big-name quarterbacks. Atlanta’s Mike Smith might get some votes for Coach of the Year, but he also probably is a long shot.

If there are any award winners from the NFC South tonight, I’ll put my spin on it soon after the announcement is made.
NEW ORLEANS -- The best NFC South quote of Super Bowl week came Friday afternoon.

I was sitting on radio row waiting for my turn with Doug Martin when the Tampa Bay running back delivered an order to fans in an interview with WDAE’s Steve Duemig.

Martin
Martin said he’s more than fine with fans calling him “Dougernaut," “The Dougernator’’ or “Muscle and Hustle.’’ In fact, he’d encourage the use of any of those nicknames.

But there’s one nickname that Martin doesn’t like.

“Muscle Hamster has to stop,’’ Martin said in a very firm tone.

Duemig laughed, I laughed and I’m sure listeners laughed. I think Martin laughed, but only a little.

As Martin came away from his interview with Duemig and began chatting with me, I got the sense that he’s somewhat serious about putting an end to the nickname that’s followed him since college.

“I’ve been trying for the whole year and it hasn’t helped,’’ Martin said. “There are shirts and hats and all sorts of things. Half of my teammates are helping to keep it going and that doesn’t help.’’

But there’s at least a chance Martin could add a new title Saturday night. He could be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’s one of the finalists for the award.

“It’s an honor just to be considered and just to be here,’’ Martin said.

Martin realizes his chances of picking up the award might be slim because he’s up against quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Quarterbacks are more visible than running backs and usually win popularity contests.

But even if Martin doesn’t win, that doesn’t take away from a sensational rookie season. He rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 49 passes for 472 yards and one touchdown.

“I was happy with my season,’’ Martin said. “We didn’t make the playoffs and I’m not happy about that part. But, overall, I’m happy with it. I’m already looking forward to next season and hitting the ground running.’’

And maybe, after his plea, Martin finally can run away from the nickname he despises.
Luke KuechlyAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtRookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has a league-best three games with 15 or more tackles.


There’s a lot of talk out there about who should be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Andrew Luck? Robert Griffin III? Russell Wilson? Doug Martin?

You could go on for days with that one. But there's another, less-talked-about question out there.

Who should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year?

I say that one’s much clearer than the offensive award. Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best defensive rookie in the NFL.

Think about it for a second and see if you can come up with someone better than Kuechly, who has flown under the radar, mainly because Carolina’s season has left the Panthers largely ignored.

I look at players such as Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, Denver’s Derek Wolfe, Green Bay’s Casey Hayward, Minnesota’s Harrison Smith, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Mark Barron, New England’s Chandler Jones, St. Louis’ Janoris Jenkins and Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict and nobody blows me away.

Kuechly does.

Amid the rubble that has been Carolina’s disappointing season, Kuechly has been a huge bright spot -- and he seems to be getting better as the season goes on. He had a career-high 16 tackles in Sunday’s victory against Atlanta.

His 130 tackles (we’re using press-box stats, not revised numbers from coaches) lead the league. Kuechly has a shot to be the first rookie since Patrick Willis in 2007 to lead the league in tackles and to at least challenge Willis’ record for tackles by a rookie (174).

Not bad for a guy who freely admits he’s still getting used to his new job.

“The theme of what I’ve learned from the older guys since I’ve been here is that it’s a job now and you have to treat it like one," Kuechly said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “You’re not in college anymore. You don’t leave practice and go back to the dorm and hang with your buds. You put in a full day here and you go home and rest. You have to take care of yourself mentally and physically because, at this level, you have to stay on top of everything."

He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do.

-- Steve Smith, on Luke Kuechly
The main thing Kuechly has been staying on top of has been whomever has the ball. He leads the league with three games recording at least 15 tackles. No other player has more than one such game. Go back and watch any Carolina game and Kuechly always seems to be around the ball.

“The guy he reminds me of -- that's had this much success so quickly -- would be Dan Morgan," veteran receiver Steve Smith said. “Very smart. He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do."

I like Smith’s comparison of Kuechly to Morgan a lot. That’s mainly because that’s the first thing I thought of when I first watched Kuechly go through a workout and interviewed him at IMG Academy as he was preparing for the scouting combine last February.

After the interview, I talked to IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke, who came in the same 2001 Carolina draft class as Morgan and Smith. When I mentioned the comparison, Weinke nodded in agreement and said, “They’re both all about football."

Carolina fans might not like the comparison of Kuechly to Morgan, but it’s meant as a huge compliment. Morgan is a bit of a tragic figure because persistent injuries prevented his career from truly blossoming and cut it way too short. But when he was on the field, Morgan was as good as any linebacker.

I look at Kuechly and I see what Morgan could have been.

Apparently, so does Smith.

“He just makes plays," Smith said. “He's a young guy that came in, didn't come in entitled, real eager to learn."

Much like Morgan, Kuechly has a low-key personality. He is quiet and exceedingly polite -- until you put him in pads and have people run at him. That’s when Kuechly tackles anything that moves.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kuechly led the nation in tackles in two of his three seasons at Boston College and finished second in the other season. That’s why the Panthers used the ninth overall pick in the draft on him.

The Panthers opened the season with Jon Beason in the middle and Kuechly on the weak side. That lasted four games before Beason went down with an injury and Kuechly shifted to the middle, the position he played in college, and took over the role of the leader of the defense.

Carolina’s defense has drawn a lot of criticism this season. But there has been a noticeable difference since Kuechly moved to the middle. In the first four games, the Panthers allowed an average of 393.8 yards. In the past nine games, the average has dropped to 328.9 yards, which ranks eighth in the league during that span.

“You see his leadership,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “You see his maturity as far as leading the defense. You see how he rallies his teammates, how he handles his teammates. How his teammates work with him, how he works with them.’’

If it continues, you could see a Defensive Rookie of the Year in Carolina.

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 27-21 overtime victory against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.

What it means: The Bucs were within 12 seconds of being a .500 team. Instead, Vincent Jackson caught a late touchdown pass and Tampa Bay scored in overtime to improve to 6-4 on a day when the offense wasn’t quite as explosive or efficient as it was in the past five weeks. It wasn’t a particularly pretty win against a bad team, but the Bucs remain very much in the playoff hunt. For the Panthers, this might have been the low point of a season that’s been filled with crushing losses. Carolina led by 11 points with less than five minutes remaining and managed to squander that lead. The Panthers are 2-8, which guarantees they’ll continue their streak of non-winning seasons that started in 2009. That’s about the only thing that’s guaranteed. As the losses pile up, the futures of coach Ron Rivera, his assistants and many of the players become more and more uncertain.

Dougernaut: With 138 rushing yards and four receptions for 23 yards, Doug Martin continues to make his case for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. In fact, I think I’ll call up AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky sometime soon and see if he wants to do a Double Coverage debate on Martin versus Andrew Luck as the top offensive rookie. Heck, we might have to loop in NFC East guru Dan Graziano and make it a Triple Coverage. But I feel pretty confident I can make a strong case that Martin has had a bigger impact than Luck or Robert Griffin III.

Not all about Newton: The natural instinct for fans at any level of football is to blame the quarterback when a team loses. But Cam Newton doesn’t deserve the blame for Carolina’s collapse. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 252 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions and added 40 rushing yards. If Carolina’s defense had been able to come up with one stop late in the game, we might be talking about what an efficient game Newton had.

What’s next: The Bucs host the division-leading Atlanta Falcons next Sunday. The Panthers travel to Philadelphia for a Monday night game on Nov. 26.

Buccaneers can wait for help at CB

November, 17, 2012
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During Friday’s NFC South chat, I got a couple of persistent questions from Tampa Bay fans.

One had to do with why the Bucs traded away their best cornerback (Aqib Talib) in the middle of the season. I’ve answered that multiple times and I’ll do it in a nutshell here. Although talented, Talib was probably the most prone to trouble player the Bucs have had since the great Tyji Armstrong in the 1990s. Talib’s contract was scheduled to expire after the season and there was no way he was going to be on a team coached by Greg Schiano next year. The Bucs had a fourth-round draft pick dangled in front of them by New England and they wisely grabbed it. Talib still had one game remaining on his four-game suspension and as a repeat violator of the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, he was one mistake away from being banned for an entire season or permanently.

Talib’s departure and Tampa Bay’s lack of quality depth at cornerback also has brought up another question that got a lot of play right after the draft and it’s surfacing again: Why didn’t the Bucs draft cornerback Morris Claiborne?

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
Kim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay LB Lavonte David has emerged as arguably the league's top rookie defender.
Seriously, there are people out there questioning Tampa Bay’s draft, which might have been the best in the NFL this year?

Let’s think about this a little before we go into more depth on the cornerback situation. If the Bucs had drafted Claiborne, they wouldn’t have strong safety Mark Barron. More importantly, they also wouldn’t have running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David, who are at least being mentioned as candidates for the Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Think back to the draft. When it started, the Bucs were holding the No. 5 overall pick. When they were on the clock (and Claiborne still was on the board), they traded down to No. 7 and they added a fourth-round pick, which may turn out to be one of the great draft moves ever if Martin, David and Barron continue to produce like they have.

Adding that fourth-round pick set off a series of events that landed Martin and David in Tampa Bay. The Bucs had a second-round pick, No. 36 overall, but they feared Martin wouldn’t last that long. They packaged picks and jumped back into the first round and got Martin.

Then, the Bucs used the acquired fourth-round pick and their third-round pick (No. 68 overall) to move back into the second round and get David at No. 58.

The Bucs got three guys that have been starters since Day One. They should only continue to get better and should be core players for the next five years or so.

You’d prefer Claiborne over that?

Yeah, I know Tampa Bay’s immediate cornerback situation isn’t great. Eric Wright has been banged up and there was a FOX Sports report that he could be facing a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

That’s forced the Bucs to play E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson lots more than they probably wanted to play them. Rip on Biggers and Johnson all you want, but let’s take a look at how what they’ve done compares to what Claiborne has done in Dallas.

Johnson has three interceptions and Biggers has one. Claiborne has one interception. According to Stats Inc., teams have completed 61.5 percent of their passes on which Claiborne has been targeted. The same survey says teams have completed 47.1 percent of their passes against Biggers and 44.8 percent of their passes against Johnson. Claiborne also is ninth in the league in touchdown passes allowed with four.

Oh, by the way, did you happen to catch Claiborne’s recent outing against Philadelphia? He was flagged five times, including one penalty that negated an interception by a teammate.

Yeah, Biggers and Johnson aren’t going to the Pro Bowl and the Bucs are likely to continue to struggle with pass coverage the rest of this season. But you can’t solve all your problems at once.

The Bucs elected not to draft a cornerback early this year and the word is Schiano wasn’t sold on Claiborne’s tackling ability, which is kind of an important item for a coach like Schiano. But the Bucs walked out of the draft with solid starters, maybe potential stars, in Barron, Martin and David.

They can address cornerback in next year’s draft or free-agency period.

New looks for NFC South QBs

September, 6, 2012
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Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman and Drew BreesUS PresswireMatt Ryan gained weight, while Josh Freeman and Drew Brees lost weight this offseason.
Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Josh Freeman remain the unquestioned faces of their teams.

But take a closer look at the bodies of the four NFC South quarterbacks and you’ll see plenty of changes from last season.

Tampa Bay’s Freeman has dropped about 20 pounds. Atlanta’s Ryan has put on about 10. New Orleans’ Brees says he’s stayed the same, but he sure looked different on the first day of training camp. And, this just in: Carolina’s Newton has grown five inches, added 50 pounds to his bench press, can throw the ball 10 yards further, has trimmed a full second off his time in the 40-yard dash and does it all while wearing a Superman shirt.

I’m just kidding on the Newton stuff -- I think. Newton hasn’t really talked about his weight this offseason, but team officials said the quarterback has made a conscious effort to drop somewhere between 5 and 8 pounds from what he carried last season when he was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Let’s start with Ryan, since he’s bucking the trend of the other three quarterbacks, putting on weight, instead of shedding it or at least tightening it up.

If you were an employee of the Falcons and you saw the look on owner Arthur Blank’s face the January day they lost, 24-2, to the New York Giants in the playoffs, you instantly might have started to think of ways to make yourself better. Blank looked exactly like what you would expect from a man who has seen his team have four straight winning seasons without a postseason victory. He clearly was angry after his offense was held scoreless.

It wasn’t necessarily the look from Blank. But sometime in the days after the Falcons left the Meadowlands, Ryan figured out one thing that was lacking.

“More muscle,’’ Ryan said. “It’s not like I was looking to put on 25 pounds or something like that. I just wanted to get a little stronger, a little more flexible and position my weight a little bit better on my body. I think I’ve done that. I worked really hard with (Falcons’ director of athletic performance) Jeff Fish developing a program and I stuck to it. I feel really good at this point. I feel strong and in really good shape and I’m excited about it.’’

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
Charles LeClaire/US PRESSWIREEven Cam Newton, according to a team official, has dropped some weight in an effort to become more durable.
Let’s be clear and squash one popular theory that’s out there on why Ryan hit the weights so hard in the months right after the season. Although there’s been a lot of talk about the Falcons waiting to have more of a downfield passing game, Ryan isn’t one of those guys that subscribes to the theory that more muscle in your arm will allow you to throw the ball further. In fact, the former high school baseball player believes you can get too muscle-bound and have it limit the way you throw the ball.

Ryan wasn’t aiming for increased distance as he put on muscle throughout his body. He was aiming more for endurance.

“Just improving on the field,’’ Ryan said. “One of the things I’ve learned in four years is that durability is key. Being out on the field every week is huge. But being out on the field and feeling good is even more paramount. I wanted to feel better, not Week 1 or 2, but Week 14 or 15. I think I needed to spend more time in there and be more dedicated there in order to feel that way.’’

Durability, in the traditional sense, hasn’t been much of an issue for Ryan. In four seasons, he’s missed two starts, but he admitted he hasn't felt at his best late in previous seasons.

“I think everybody does to a certain extent,’’ Ryan said. “That’s kind of the nature of the grind of an NFL season. I wouldn’t say worn down. But I felt like I could do things differently to feel even better than I was feeling. Mentally, I’ve always felt sharp. But, physically, I wanted to get my body to where my mind was.’’

Maybe the extra conditioning will leave Ryan fresher in January and maybe it will lead to his first postseason victory.

Although Freeman took a different approach, it’s fair to say, like Ryan, he was out to make himself a better player.

After the Bucs lost the final 10 games of last season, Freeman made a big decision even before coach Greg Schiano was hired.

“I stopped going to Taco Bell late at night,’’ Freeman said.

He also worked with a personal trainer and now looks like he could be an NBA small forward.

“He’s a really competitive kid,’’ Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said. “I just want him to harness and really channel that into being the best he can be and he said that when he decided to show up at the weight that he’s at and start to really get his body in the right shape as a professional athlete and make good choices off the field. That told me he was going to take this the right way and that was before we even hired coach.

“He feels like it’s increased his mobility, as well as his flexibility and being able to rotate in his hips and his torso area. That was the main element. Josh can carry the weight he was at and play effectively. But this was something he wanted to do for himself to be looser as an athlete.’’

Like Ryan and Freeman, Brees and Newton weren’t ordered to change their bodies. Whatever decisions they made were made on their own.

When he showed up for the start of training camp, just after getting a new five-year, $100 million contract, the New Orleans media hadn’t seen Brees in some time. Several media members asked Brees if he had lost weight because his face looked thinner.

“I’m 208,’’ said Brees, who is listed at 209. He then smiled a bit and said, “I might have moved some weight around a little."

That wouldn’t be a surprise. Brees has been a workout warrior throughout his career. Whatever Brees was doing while he was away from the team, it’s obvious he was staying very active.

Newton didn’t look like he needed to drop an ounce after running for 706 yards as a rookie. But the team official said Newton took it upon himself to drop a little weight and, like Ryan, the goal was more about adding durability not necessarily speed.

“In this league, everybody’s infatuated with getting better,’’ Ryan said. “I think we all talk to other quarterbacks and we talk to former quarterbacks and it’s all about finding different ways to improve. Every offseason, I try to find ways to get better and this was my way to get better this offseason.’’

Now we know all about the weight gains, weight losses and readjustments of the four NFC South quarterbacks. We’ll find out who was the biggest winner and loser by the end of the season.

The place where QBs are made

September, 5, 2012
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I’m making the short drive from NFC South Blog headquarters down to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to do some post-practice interviews with the Carolina Panthers.

As most of you know, the Panthers have left their facility at Bank of America Stadium to get out of the way of the Democratic National Convention. It’s a logical move since the Panthers open their regular season Sunday at Tampa Bay.

They pondered several facilities in the Tampa Bay area, but quickly settled on IMG Academy because they have strong ties to the place. Former Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke is the director of football operations at IMG Academy.

Weinke is also one of the people that helped prepare Carolina quarterback Cam Newton for his rookie season because the lockout prevented Newton from working with his coaches. Newton and Weinke have remained close and Newton spent some of this offseason working out at IMG Academy.

We all know Newton went out and was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. But Newton isn’t IMG’s only success story and Weinke is gaining a reputation as a quarterback guru.

When I went down to do some pre-combine stories in February, I spent some time with Russell Wilson and Weinke was singing his praises. Ryan Tannehill also was there that day, but was limited because it was his first day back after an injury.

Now that Wilson and Tannehill have been named Week 1 starters, IMG Academy has a claim to fame. One quarter of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks have trained at IMG Academy.

Most of them have been there since Weinke has taken over in recent years. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has worked out there in the past, including during last year’s lockout.

But one other NFC South quarterback worked out there long before the Weinke era. That was New Orleans’ Drew Brees. He did his combine prep there in 2001. Coincidentally, one of the other rookie quarterbacks working out at IMG that year was Weinke, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Panthers.

I'll be back with more on the Panthers after the interviews are finished.
We continue our season previews and predictions with the Carolina Panthers.

You can see the Panthers’ preview page and predictions if you click here. Our expert panel gave the Panthers a couple of second-place votes, but the consensus is that they’ll finish third in the NFC South. That’s the same thing I predicted.

Here’s what I wrote about the Panthers:

Five things you need to know about the Panthers:

1. What sophomore slump? I can't understand why people even suggest that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton might have a sophomore slump. It simply isn't going to happen. Did you happen to notice what Newton did last season, when he was selected the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year? Newton set all sorts of records and, most important of all, he did it in a lockout year in which he couldn't work with his coaches until training camp. Newton has had an entire offseason program with his coaching staff, and he's a year older and wiser. There's no way he takes a step backward. If anything, he takes several steps forward.

2. Looking to break out: Aside from Muhsin Muhammad, the Panthers never have had a real complement to Steve Smith. But that's about to change. The Panthers firmly believe third-year pro Brandon LaFell is ready to be a solid No. 2 wide receiver. LaFell was held back as a rookie because former coach John Fox was opposed to the team's youth movement, and his offense didn't feature the passing game. The Panthers brought LaFell along slowly last season, but he showed some promise as the year went on. After seeing LaFell in the offseason program, they are convinced he's comfortable in the offensive system and ready for a breakout season.

3. The comebacks: Much has been made about defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis missing almost all of last season due to injuries. You can't understate the significance of that because those are three key players, and the defense fell apart without them. The fact that Beason and Edwards are back is reason enough to think Carolina's defense will be significantly improved. Edwards should give the Panthers the kind of run-stuffer the Panthers have lacked since the departure of Kris Jenkins, and Beason is the defense's leader. Davis is coming off his third torn ACL, and the Panthers are realistic with their expectations. If he can contribute as a situational player, that will be viewed as a bonus.

4. Backfield in motion: A lot of people seem to be worried about how the Panthers are going to use DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the same backfield. Let offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski figure that one out. Chudzinski previously coached Tolbert in San Diego and lobbied the Panthers to sign him as a free agent. General manager Marty Hurney listened, even though he had signed Wiilliams to a big contract last year and later would sign Stewart to a contract extension. Chudzinski, called "The Mad Scientist'' by his players, must have big plans for all three. The Panthers are listing Tolbert as a fullback, but they freely admit he'll get time at tailback. Are there enough carries to keep all three happy? Chudzinski must believe so, or else he would have been lobbying for more wide receivers or tight ends.

5. The next step: One of the best moves I saw this preseason was when coach Ron Rivera called out defensive end Charles Johnson. Rivera said Johnson has been doing what's required, but not anything extra. It's not difficult to figure out what that was all about. Rivera sees a player who's accounted for 20.5 sacks the past two seasons just getting by on natural ability. The Panthers had a guy like that once. His name was Julius Peppers, and he was sometimes very good, but never consistently great. The Panthers want Johnson to step up and be great.

Hurney tempering Carolina optimism

August, 16, 2012
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My trips to training camps are over and all four NFC South Camp Confidential profiles have run on the blog. I’ve got lots of leftovers in my notebook and on my tape recorder and I’ll be using some of that for our season previews that run in a few weeks.

But I’m going to start rolling out some bits and pieces of what I’ve collected in the coming days. Let’s start with a conversation I had with Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney in Spartanburg, S.C.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney knows expectations are high for the Carolina Panthers this season.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of optimism among Carolina fans. Nationally, a lot of media members are calling the Panthers a team on the rise and some even give them a chance to finish ahead of the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.

So what does Hurney think about all this?

Well, let’s preface it with a little background. By nature, Hurney is one of the most superstitious people I’ve ever met. He has an inner confidence, but, on the outside, it always seems like Hurney is fearing the worst.

That brings to mind a story from the 2005 postseason. The Panthers were playing the Giants in the wild-card round. It was late in a game that the Panthers went on to win 23-0. Hurney was sitting directly behind the Carolina media in the Giants Stadium press box when a former co-worker I’ll call “Stan’’ did what a veteran reporter should do in that situation. He picked up the phone and started booking a hotel room in Chicago, where the Panthers would play the Bears the next week.

“Olson, hang up that phone now,’’ a red-faced Hurney started screaming.

A defiant -- perhaps “oblivious’’ is a better description -- sort, “Stan’’ simply continued booking his room. When finished, he turned to Hurney and said, “Relax, Marty, this one’s over." Hurney muttered something about it never being over until it’s over as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

So, as you might expect, the rest of the Carolinas are excited about this season, but Hurney is something closer to cautiously optimistic.

“If we stay healthy, we have a chance to compete,’’ Hurney said. “I think the excitement comes from the offensive production we showed last year. We showed we have the ability to score points and you have to score points to win in the league these days. We have that and we feel like our defense and special teams have improved.’’

The real reason for the excitement among fans might be the presence of quarterback Cam Newton, who probably will go down in history as the best player Hurney ever drafted. That move surprised many because Hurney previously was perceived as being too cautious to take a chance on a quarterback that had many critics as last year’s draft approached. But Hurney did extensive homework on Newton and concluded that there weren’t any problems. It sure looked like Hurney was right as Newton went out and was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

“His competitiveness brings an energy to the whole team,’’ Hurney said. “When that dynamic player plays the quarterback position, that’s going to impact your team more than anywhere else because that’s the guy that has the ball in his hands every play. That confidence has a domino effect through the entire football team.’’

So Hurney is as optimistic as he can be about the offense. Although he made some personnel moves and the Panthers got some injured players back, Hurney’s not ready to say the defense has arrived.

As we wrapped up the interview, I thought about having some fun with Hurney. I thought about pulling out my cell phone and pretending to book a hotel room in New Orleans (site of this season’s Super Bowl) for late January or early February. But I decided against it, mainly because equipment manager Jackie Miles wasn't nearby to give me a set of ear plugs for me to drown out the aftermath.

“We made a step offensively last year,’’ Hurney said. “Now we have to deal with increased expectations and it’s an important year for us.’’

That’s as close to optimism as you’re going to get from Hurney.

NFC South top 25: No. 4

July, 17, 2012
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We continue our series of my projected top 25 players in the NFC South for the 2012 season with No. 4:

Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina

What he did in 2011: The lockout didn’t seem to hurt Newton’s rookie season at all. He passed for over 400 yards in each of his first two games. He also became the first rookie to throw for 4,000 yards and Newton made some plays with his legs. He was the obvious choice of Offensive Rookie of the Year. The only knock on Newton was the Panthers finished 6-10. It’s important to note that was a four-win improvement over the previous season. It’s also important to note that Carolina’s defense gave the offense almost no help last year.

Why he’s No. 4 in 2012: A lot of people are speculating Newton could be hit by “the sophomore slump." I just don’t see it. He’s had a full offseason with his coaches this time. I’m not quite ready to put Newton in the same category with Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning just yet. But there’s no denying his potential appears limitless. What we saw out of Newton last season might have been only a preview of things to come.

NFC South top 25: No. 6

July, 13, 2012
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We continue our series of my projected top 25 players in the NFC South for the 2012 season with No. 6:

Ryan Kalil, center, Carolina

What he did in 2011: Kalil made his third straight Pro Bowl. He and the offensive line helped rookie quarterback Cam Newton win Offensive Rookie of the Year and the Panthers put up big numbers on offense.

Why he’s No. 6 in 2012: Kalil is mentioned by many coaches and scouts as perhaps the best center in the game. At 27, he is in his prime and is playing with plenty of confidence. Left tackle Jordan Gross is still the leader of the offensive line. But Kalil is emerging as a vocal leader. That’s a good thing because his position is so important and Gross is nearing the end of his career. Whenever Gross is done, it should be a smooth transition to Kalil taking over as the unquestioned leader of the offensive line.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Panthers in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): With the Saints dealing with turmoil and the Falcons facing enormous pressure, it’s at least possible that the two teams that have dominated the NFC South in recent years won’t win it in 2012. The Panthers are the next logical choice, and there are all sorts of reasons for optimism.

Coach Ron Rivera’s entering his second season and so is quarterback Cam Newton, who was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year despite not having an offseason with his coaches and their playbook. Newton should only continue to improve, a scary thought for a guy who lit up defenses with his arm and his legs last season. He has Steve Smith still going strong, a backfield that includes Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and has added fullback/tailback Mike Tolbert.

There are far fewer questions about Carolina’s offense than there were a year ago. It’s obvious the Panthers are going to score some points on offense. But the defense will tell the story. If this team is going to make the playoffs, Jon Beason and Ron Edwards must make strong comebacks from injuries and rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly must make an instant impact.

Nightmare scenario (6-10): Anything less than last year’s 6-10 record would be a huge disappointment. Although I don’t think it’s likely, it’s at least possible that Newton will take a step back. If he does, then maybe Smith no longer looks so young and maybe that loaded backfield doesn’t look so good. Then there’s the matter of the defense that was so bad a year ago. A lot of people seem to assume the return of Beason and Edwards and the addition of Kuechly will solve everything. But maybe Beason and Edwards aren’t the players they were before their injuries, and maybe Kuechly doesn’t live up to his billing.

If all that happens, then the Panthers really aren’t going to be any different than they were the last couple of seasons.
When Cam Newton wasn't selected to be on the cover of "Madden 13," there seemed to be a huge sigh of relief from fans of the Carolina Panthers.

One potential crisis was avoided, but it seems like Carolina fans now are creating another. A lot of them seem to be worried about Newton following his offensive rookie of the year season with a “sophomore slump."

SportsNation

Will Cam Newton suffer a sophomore slump?

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    31%
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Discuss (Total votes: 4,945)

I have a tough time buying into that one. First off, Newton is incredibly talented. Second, he’ll have a full offseason with his coaches and the playbook, a luxury he didn’t have during last year’s lockout.

But let’s turn to someone who knows Newton a lot better than most. That’s Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who was asked in this interview about the possibility of Newton taking a step backward.

“I will say this about a sophomore slump: If there’s anybody that’s going work through it, he’s going to work through it,’’ Rivera said. “When the season was over, one of the things he said was he wanted to find a way to make sure he didn’t have one. I think the less we talk about it, the less we get caught up in it, the better. It’s like the Madden curse; he really wanted to be the cover. I think that’s the thing. Instead of running from it, saying, 'Oh, I hope it doesn’t happen -- it’s not going to happen.' I’m not going to let it happen. I think that’s his approach to the sophomore slump.’’

I think that’s an excellent approach. But Rivera was quick to point out that Newton can use some help from his teammates.

“I also think the guys around him have to continue to step up,’’ Rivera said. “Our running backs have to continue to go. I think the addition of [Mike] Tolbert gives us something extra because it’s now a fullback that’s a multitalented and versatile guy. Our tight end situation with Greg Olsen is solid. We have [Gary] Barnidge and Ben [Hartsock] sitting there -- guys that give us a different kind of look. And the continued development of our receiving corps. The young guys have got to step up, whether it’s David Gettis getting back to 100 percent, whether it’s Kealoha [Pilares] taking the next step, whether it’s Armanti [Edwards] stepping up, Darvin Adams stepping up, Joe Adams becoming a part of that.’’

Like I said, I only see Newton continuing to progress. But I’m not a big believer in curses, slumps or jinxes. But I could be wrong.

Let’s hear what you think. Cast your ballot in our accompanying SportsNation poll and use the comments section below to share your thoughts on if Newton will have a sophomore slump.

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