There's no doubting Cam Newton now
Rookie's fast start erases questions about his ability to become a top quarterback
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On a recent afternoon, after heavy rains nearly thwarted a Carolina Panthers practice, rookie quarterback Cam Newton glumly trudged into a half-empty news conference room beneath Bank of America Stadium. It surely wasn't the dismal weather that had him so down. Instead, his sour face probably involved facing more questions during a season in which he already has lost more games than in his entire college career. As Newton leaned against a tiny lectern, he looked about as cheery as a 10-year-old who'd just learned his new bike had been stolen.
The hardest thing for Newton to grasp -- even in the midst of a season where Carolina is now 2-5 following Sunday's 33-20 win over Washington -- is that there should be plenty of optimism stirring in this franchise. In just seven weeks, he has gone from being the most scrutinized No. 1 overall pick in NFL draft history to being hailed as a burgeoning superstar.
Newton threw for 422 yards in his first start, 432 in his second and then tied Vince Young's record for rushing touchdowns by a rookie (seven) in his seventh appearance. Despite two three-interception games, he still ranks fourth in the league in passing yards (2,103) while completing 60 percent of his passes. Newton has been so good it's easy to forget how many cynics doubted his potential. Those same people may now be wondering how this 22-year-old has blossomed so quickly.
It may not be a question that fascinates Newton -- "This is a team game, so it's not about me or what I do," he said, when asked to assess his development -- but it's one that has the league buzzing. There were plenty of ideas about why he wouldn't succeed in the NFL. This is a story about how he has proved those beliefs to be so ridiculously wrong.
Myth No. 1: He wasn't smart enough
George Whitfield first met Newton in late January, when Newton flew to San Diego to start working with the quarterbacks coach. Because Whitfield would be mentoring Newton for a private workout, the NFL combine and Newton's pro day, the coach wanted to gauge his knowledge of the game immediately. So before they had lunch at a downtown restaurant, Whitfield asked Newton to explain the adjustments his team made during Auburn's national championship game win over Oregon. Newton immediately straightened up upon hearing the question, smiled wide and grabbed the salt and pepper shakers.
By the time Newton had finished, he had scribbled enough notes to cover both sides of six napkins and had detailed his team's strategies with silverware and condiment containers.
"I kept thinking to myself, 'I wish I could record all of this,'" Whitfield said. "The impression people had about Cam in college was that they just snapped him the football and let him do his thing. He's much smarter than that."
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But that knock on Newton's intelligence wasn't confined only to outsiders. As Panthers center Ryan Kalil said, "The perception I had was that he wasn't that bright of a guy because of the simplified offense they ran at Auburn. But it's like he said, you can't judge him off the offense they put him in. He did what they asked him to do."
The reality is that Newton's comprehension and retention skills are especially impressive. To challenge him, Whitfield routinely asked college students at the University of San Diego -- where Newton trained -- to join their classroom sessions. Once they sat down, Whitfield would leave the room and have Newton teach those same kids the defensive concepts.
"I didn't judge him on what he knew," Whitfield said. "I judged him off what they knew."
Newton was similarly impressive when former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke started training him during the lockout. On their first day together, Weinke drew 20 to 30 plays that he had gleaned from a playbook Carolina coaches had given Newton after drafting him. Weinke wanted to assess Newton's grasp of personnel groups and formations. What he learned was that Newton could answer every question he offered.
"Once he did that," Weinke said, "I knew his mental capacity was right where it needed to be."
Today Newton feels comfortable enough in Carolina's system that he doesn't even wear wristbands with plays written on them in games.
"You can see his comfort in everything from handling verbiage and calling plays to making adjustments at the line with protections," said offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. "We threw a lot at him early."
Myth No. 2: He was more athlete than quarterback
Newton deserves some blame for this one. When a 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback dominates college football as he did in 2010 -- when he ran for 1,473 yards, threw for 2,854 and amassed 50 total touchdowns -- he doesn't look like a prototypical signal-caller. But as one NFC personnel director noted, people too often ignored more telling statistics about Newton, such as how he completed 66 percent of his passes while throwing only seven interceptions.
"The guy always had a big-time arm and he's always been accurate," the personnel director said. "If you go back and look at the games he played in the second half of last year -- many against great competition -- he made some throws that proved his coaches trusted his arm."
During his time with Whitfield, Newton focused on three areas of his development: (1) transition of his body weight (basically learning how to move toward the target when he threw); (2) pocket mechanics; and (3) varying the speed on his throws.
"We were basically concentrating on his organization -- his footwork and mechanics," Whitfield said. "I told him that if you look at guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, they don't have his athleticism. But he had to learn to operate from the pocket while also knowing how to use his mobility as a parachute if he got in trouble. If he could become that disciplined, it would be scary."
Newton was so diligent about perfecting his footwork that Whitfield would enter a classroom and find his student practicing his drop-back motions in the same way a dancer would hone his tango steps. To help Newton avoid scrambling at the first sign of trouble, Whitfield would stand behind the quarterback while four defenders stood in front of Newton. When Newton dropped back, Whitfield would instruct a player to rush. The rule was that Newton was allowed one evasive move before resetting his feet and focusing back downfield.
The full extent of Newton's development was on display in Carolina's win over Washington. Facing third-and-9 on the Panthers' first drive, he was flushed out of the pocket, reset his feet, evaded another tackler, finally gave up on the pass play and weaved his way to a 25-yard gain. Newton looked even more deadly in the fourth quarter when he launched a 36-yard throw that hit receiver Steve Smith in stride between two hapless defenders.
"Even when he was throwing for all those yards in his first two games, he wasn't doing that with backyard football," Whitfield said. "He was throwing in rhythm."
Myth No. 3: His time in the spread offense would be a hindrance
Newton was supposed to have a hard time taking snaps under center after playing in the shotgun throughout his college career. However, one of the first things Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula noted about Newton in training camp was how he looked better taking direct snaps than shotgun snaps. Because Newton ran plays that his coaches signaled in from the sideline at Auburn, the popular belief also was that he would struggle with audibles at the next level. That was before Panthers coach Ron Rivera met with Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and learned that the Tigers' system required plenty of checks and reads from the quarterback.
That isn't to say the Panthers haven't pared down the offense, because Rivera has done just that to help Newton feel comfortable early. The Panthers also have eased Newton's transition with a strong supporting cast, including two receiving tight ends (Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey), two 1,000-yard rushers (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart), a veteran offensive line and Smith. Yet Newton's experience in the spread does offer benefits. If a pass play does break down, he can quickly turn it into a "SportsCenter" highlight.
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said, "Guys don't mind hitting Michael Vick in the open field, but when you see Cam, you have to think about how you're going to tackle him. He's like a big tight end coming at you."
Added Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton: "He's very good at extending plays and he can get the ball downfield in a hurry. It's very unorthodox when you play him because he's not just at the line making checks. He forces you to be very disciplined on defense."
Myth No. 4: The lockout would ruin his rookie season
If anything, Newton's time away from the Panthers may have been a subtle blessing. Instead of being besieged by media and swamped by daily reports of his development, he essentially went underground for three months and worked with Weinke at the IMG football academy in Bradenton, Fla. It helped that Weinke had played in Carolina and was able to understand the system being installed by Chudzinski (though Weinke never played in that offense). Weinke also wanted to create a structured environment that might closely mirror what Newton would've experienced in an NFL offseason workout program.
A typical day started with Weinke honing Newton's mechanics during a morning workout. The two then had two classroom sessions that lasted at least 60 to 90 minutes. The first would involve installation of concepts; the second would focus on review.
"He always wanted more information," Weinke said. "He wanted to challenge himself and he was asking the right questions."
The Panthers saw that growth firsthand when Newton arrived for training camp. He still had a ways to go in mastering the playbook, but Chudzinski said, "The hope was that we could start him. We wanted to get him on the field as soon as we could. There were some struggles but he also kept improving."
Added Rivera: "Mike Shula came up to me at one point and said, 'When the lights go on, this guy really performs.' Even when he was having some tough times in preseason [Newton completed only 42.1 percent of his passes in four games], we kept asking ourselves, 'Is he making the right decisions?' And even though the ball might have been low or behind receivers, we really felt he was seeing what he was supposed to be seeing out there."
Myth No. 5: His ego would get in the way
This criticism is the direct result of one infamous comment that Newton gave Sports Illustrated in February. As soon as Newton said, "I see myself not only as a football player but as an entertainer and an icon," you could hear the figurative axes being sharpened all across the football-watching universe. It's hard to know exactly what Newton was trying to say then, but what's revealing is what has happened since this season started: Nobody has complained about his being full of himself.
Kalil said he can see how people mistake Newton's swagger for arrogance but added that "the guy is really goofy" and "the best thing about him is that he's not out to prove people wrong."
Rivera talks about the day he planned to name Newton the starter, a moment that just happened to follow an especially bad practice by the rookie. When Rivera found Newton in his dorm room, the quarterback was so despondent that he promised to improve quickly. "Before I could give him the news, he said he didn't want to let me down or the coaches or the other players on the team," Rivera said.
Rivera also recalled when he saw Newton before his pro day. As the coach sat in the stands, he watched as players gravitated toward Newton. Rivera knew that natural-born jerks didn't draw people to them like that, and his instincts were affirmed in pre-draft meetings.
"When I asked Mike [Shula] why we should take Cam, he mentioned everything the kid had gone through," Rivera said, "He'd transferred from Florida, gone to junior college, and won the Heisman and national championship at Auburn. Mike said that through all that, the kid never broke down. If Cam could do that, he could handle being the No. 1 pick."
Whitfield also believes that too many people made the mistake of seeing Newton as another raw, oversized talent who was more hype than hope.
"When you look at black quarterbacks, there really haven't been enough for a true sampling," Whitfield said. "A lot of people looked at Cam and saw JaMarcus Russell or Vince Young instead of seeing Warren Moon or Steve McNair. They thought they knew what kind of player he was. What they didn't know was they were going to see something they'd never seen before."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.