Cam Newton knows key stat: 0-2
Coach doesn't have to tell rookie that his primary job is winning, not piling up numbers
Ron Rivera has to keep reminding himself. He's only a rookie. He's only a rookie. He's only a rookie.
Cam Newton has been that good. In fact, he has been ridiculously good, better than even Rivera, who is banking his coaching future on the kid, thought he would be at this early stage of his professional career.
Newton has the arm and the size and the strength and the mobility. He has the work ethic and the leadership and the charisma.
He has all of the tools to be great. And then there is this: Newton recognizes that, despite his taking a blowtorch to the section of the NFL record book dedicated to rookie quarterbacks, the only numbers that matter are 0 and 2. Zero wins and two losses make 854 just a three-digit number. Newton gets that. He understands that the NFL is a results-driven league. Individual statistics are meaningless if your team doesn't win.
So although it is nice that, in the first two weeks of the season, Newton became just the sixth quarterback to pass for 400 yards in consecutive games -- Tom Brady became the seventh a few hours later on Sunday -- it really doesn't mean squat because the Carolina Panthers lost both games. Winning praise for being poised in the pocket and throwing for 854 yards, more than any other quarterback this season not named Brady, doesn't make up for losing games. Nothing does.
It is more than important for a rookie quarterback, especially one as potentially Hollywood as Newton, to understand that. It is everything. It has become clear that Newton won't be satisfied until he leads Carolina to a victory, and then another, and then another. He will try again Sunday against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that also will start a rookie.
So far, at least -- and certainly this could change -- Newton seems unfazed by everything except the final results.
Asked this week during a conference call with Jacksonville media about his eye-popping performances against Arizona and Green Bay, Newton said, "It's still not enough.
"It doesn't matter how precedented or unprecedented it is. It isn't about stats in this league, it's about wins and losses," he said. "I'm not on my high horse right now. This is an uncomfortable feeling for me to be oh-for for the season."
Rivera doesn't like being oh-fer his first season as a head coach, either, but he has been more than encouraged by what he has seen from Newton. The Panthers drafted Newton at No. 1 in April to be their franchise quarterback. The plan was for him to play, just not this well this early.
But, in early August, having not declared who would start between Newton and Jimmy Clausen, Rivera got a glimpse of the future. The team was at Bank of America Stadium holding a practice before 15,000 fans.
Carolina quarterbacks coach Mike Shula went to Rivera and said, "You know, Coach, I think, when the lights come on, he's going to be pretty doggone good."
"I don't want to call it an aerial show, but he showed he had the ability to make the deep throws," Rivera said by phone Wednesday night. "He showed he had the ability to make those quick decisions, and that's what was impressive, especially with the two-minute drill."
By the middle of the preseason, Rivera shelved the idea of bringing in a veteran quarterback who could play and help mentor Newton.
In the Panthers' last preseason game, against Pittsburgh, Newton led Carolina on a 10-play scoring drive. The next week, Newton was officially the starter.
"I guess conventional wisdom would say, 'Well, maybe you don't do it,'" Rivera said. "But you know what? There is just something about the kid that tells you he's going to learn best when he's on the football field doing it as opposed to sitting back watching people."
Rivera was coaching the linebackers in Philadelphia when the Eagles, behind a rookie coach named Andy Reid, drafted Donovan McNabb second overall in 1999. Rivera called Reid and Brad Childress, who was the Eagles' quarterbacks coach in '99 and later the offensive coordinator, and asked about how he should deal with his rookie quarterback.
Rivera and his staff set up a weekly and monthly calendar for Newton. He listed expectations, how Newton would work on Mondays and what he would do on Tuesdays, typically the players' only day off during the season. He made sure to stress that Newton take "Cam time," when he could just forget about football for a couple of hours. They also came up with a plan to limit the media's access to Newton, to keep potential distractions to a minimum.
Against Green Bay, Newton again threw for more than 400 yards, but he also threw three picks and stopped short of the end zone on drives to the Packers' 2-, 3-, 6- and 15-yard line. But his total of 854 passing yards is unreal, even to Newton's coach.
"Based on what he's done the first two weeks, you'd say he's ahead of the curve," Rivera said. "We always felt confident, but, man, he's exceeded those expectations I guess is the best way to put it."
Don't tell Newton that.
"I'm in the business to win football games," he said. "I'm not in the business to wow as far as statistics goes. Those will come when you win football games."
He's only a rookie, yet Newton gets it. With that attitude, the wins will come, most likely sooner rather than later.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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