CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Five years into what is turning out to be an incredible NFL career, Cam Newton still can't be figured out. That's because he's still clearly evolving, developing a skill set that now far surpasses any idea that he's a running QB who can occasionally beat you with his arm.
Consider: With 1 minute, 56 seconds left in the first half of the NFC Championship Game, the Carolina Panthers led the Arizona Cardinals 24-7. Check any win probability figures at that point, and you'd see the game was all but over. And yet with his ticket all but punched to a Super Bowl, Newton had only five rushes for 7 yards to that point.
Just accept the reality, folks. Cam Newton is one of the most unique quarterbacks you've ever seen, and greatness is just starting to embrace him. Sunday's 49-15 destruction of the Cardinals illustrated that even if you consider Newton the perfect embodiment of the "next generation" of quarterbacks, he can also do what the best of the previous generation does so well -- carve up opponents from the pocket. In some ways it's fitting that he's taking on Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 50. Manning is old school. So is Tom Brady and Carson Palmer. Newton showed Sunday and throughout this season that he's ready to open a new era of quarterbacks who can run, but that arm is still his greatest weapon.
That said, even his own teammates can't get over Newton's non-throwing ability.
"I think it's been the case there is no quarterback like him in the league and it's been that way for years now," tight end Greg Olsen said. "There are plays he makes no other quarterback in the league can make. We had a third-and-10 in the third quarter. We were running a designed power run on third down. He's the only quarterback in the league picking up the first down [with an 11-yard gain]. On the next play, he had another designed quarterback run for a touchdown.
"That sums him up. He's different. He's a special guy. What more can I say?"
What isn't said enough is how complete he has become as a quarterback. This year, Newton completed 59.8 percent of his passes against the blitz. Naturally, he expected to be blitzed heavy by the Arizona Cardinals. They blitzed. Newton burned them. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Newton competed 60 percent of his passes against the blitz Sunday, had 12.7 yards per attempt on those throws, and threw two touchdown passes.
"He's playing quarterback," Olsen said. "He's been playing quarterback. I'm just glad people are finally starting to catch on."
It was at the end of last season when Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman truly caught on to Newton's growth as a passer. He watched Newton turn a 3-8-1 team last year into a division winner in the final month of the season. The Panthers won their final four games last year and beat the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs. It was that stretch run that solidified Gettleman's belief in Newton as a complete player, and he signed Newton to a contract extension. Gettleman didn't blink when he gave Newton a five-year, $103.8 million deal. He knew he had a once-in-a-generation quarterback who was evolving into something special.
"John Elway was probably as gifted a big athlete at quarterback as I've seen otherwise," Gettleman said. "John had the speed, the size, the power. I can still in my head remember that Super Bowl against Green Bay when he took off and he did the whirley-bird. I was sitting with my wife and two boys and said, 'We just won the game.' Cam, because of his size and speed, is just like that."
Newton is 6 feet 5, and probably a little bigger than his listed 245 pounds. He's faster than some defensive backs. The way he's evolving at quarterback, though, is even scarier. Look at his numbers in the pocket. During the regular season, he completed 60.4 percent from the pocket for 3,543 yards and 32 touchdowns. He had a 66.5 QBR.
He's not just a runner, he's an all-encompassing destroyer of defenses.
"I just want to find ways to win the football game," Newton said Sunday night. "I knew today was going to be a tricky thing. So today, I didn't want to do too much. I wanted to get the balls to the right guys and give them opportunities as well. Facing a defense that has so much firepower and so much talent and athleticism as the Cardinals, I just wanted to stay on the plus side of the pendulum for down and distance. It's a big difference being in third-and-3 and second-and-short instead of third-and-long."
Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. watches Newton do so many incredible things on the practice field and in games it's almost becoming second nature.
"It's getting to the point now where you just say, 'Ah, that's him,' " Ginn said. "I've seen him do a lot of things on the field, but I've seen him do a lot of things off the field preparing and being a leader and stepping up when he's supposed to step up. He may be the youngest, but he's the oldest in the room [as far as his leadership]."
Critics never got it with Newton. Coming out of Auburn, many thought Newton just relied on his incredible talent. What they neglected to recognize is the hard work he put in to take his passing ability to new levels, and the leadership that is so hard to quantify.
Sure the transition from college to pros was tough. As the first pick in the draft, he went to the team with the worst record. It was going to take time for Newton to grow, and it was going to take time for the roster to grow around him.
"It's been a long time, but we still have a long way to go," Newton said. "I'm excited. It's a process. ... It was going to be a process, like long-cooked collard greens. I think those collard greens are brewing right now. You can smell it from 100 miles away."
So can defenses.
Newton heads to Super Bowl 50 cooking as a quarterback and a leader. Some might not like the way he celebrates. Others might not like his personality. But he's one of the most unique quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL, and Super Bowl 50 and future years are now his stage. Sure, he'll beat defenses with his legs, and power. But it was his arm that put his team ahead on Sunday, and defenses now must deal with that reality.