After winning a JUCO national title, a pair of BCS nationals title as a Florida backup, then as the Tigers starter, a Heisman Trophy before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Cam Newton’s had blueprints of NFL superstardom formulating in his mind.
"I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon,” Newton told Sports Illustrated's Peter King before he was drafted in 2011.
His throwing mechanics were still a concern after his atrocious rookie preseason, but his meteoric rise continued once he put two feet on the ground as an NFL quarterback and found the gravity was lighter in his orbit. Newton could throw over tall buildings in one windup, bowl over linebackers with ease and had swag to match.
Early in his career, Killa Cam found early success chucking balls to receivers on nearly every down. When he wasn’t being asked to make it rain on NFL defenses with an empty deposit of talent at receiver, the Panthers had him using his tree-trunk legs to burrow forward for yardage. Throwing for 400 yards in each of his first two games set NFL history had folks peering into the sky at birds, planes and searching for Supercam.
Since then, Newton’s been entertaining. His development, on the other hand, began to plateau. But winners become icons, and Cam’s 16-22 record as a starter have put his dreams of touching playoff soil on ice. Once coaches studied the tape on Cam, his deficiencies throwing against the blitz became even more apparent, secondaries caught up to him and his astronomical passing numbers plummeted to Earth. His swag on the field remains immune to criticism, but his aura has dimmed.
Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s read-option sunk Newton’s sophomore season early on until they switched to a pro-style system.
Newton was still a fantasy football god because of Ron Rivera’s implementation of him as the Panthers’ redzone battering ram in addition to his garbage time passing numbers. According to ESPN’s Stats & Info department, Newton was hit 29 more times than any other quarterback in the league last season.
The Panthers matador defense used to get bumrushed by opposing offenses and force young Newton to spin the magic bean at a prolific rate to keep Carolina in contests. However, Rivera’s defense which is currently the NFL’s second-stingiest, fourth in rushing yards allowed and fifth against the pass has finally begun living up to expectations.
Led by Charles Johnson and 2012’s Associated Press Rookie of the Year Luke Kuelchy, their unit now rivals the ones that have lifted Geno Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson’s winning percentages.
As a result, Newton can now get his discount double checkdown on. Over the Panthers recent 2-0 stretch, Newton has averaged a pedestrian 223 yards, while scoring five touchdowns without throwing a single interception. His consecutive games with a 77 percent (vs. Minnesota) and 87 percent completion rate (vs. St. Louis) have been most impressive and revealing: Killa Cam doesn’t have to stay on the attack to get the Panthers into the postseason, he just has to avoid killer mistakes.
However, Panthers fans shouldn’t unravel the Mission Accomplished banners too soon. Two games does not qualify as a new leaf for Newton. Until he can matriculate the ball consistently against a defense ranked outside the league’s bottom eight, he’ll still face questions.
There’s also the matter of Newton’s fourth quarter narcolepsy. Icons create iconic moments. While Tim Tebow was extinguishing fourth quarter fires he helped set, rookie Cam was scrambling in circles trying to find the exit. Two years later, he still hasn’t uncovered a cure for his fourth quarter woes. Through his first two seasons, his fourth quarter QBR when trailing was 35th among 45 quarterbacks and Newton is now 2-17 in game-winning opportunities.
Newton’s penchant for falling asleep at the wheel in late-game situations is not a media concoction, either. Three years into his career, Newton’s only led two fourth quarter comebacks and game winning drives. Robert Griffin III has led twice as many with a playpen defense.
Watching Bills rookie E.J. Manuel steal his shine and finish a game-winning drive after Newton failed to squeeze the ball into the end zone in the waning seconds of their Week 2 matchup had to leave him queasier than witnessing Rick Ross Harlem Shaking in a sleeveless tank.
The only thing Cam has to be envious of is his lack of a hungry, young, yard-consuming, bruising tailback who can force defenses to pack the box and respect the run. Obscured behind the headlines generated by Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and RGIII, Newton’s next opportunity to showcase his evolution under the bright lights comes against the winless Tampa Bay Bucs on Thursday night. A win would propel him into November with a winning record for the first time in his career.
Newton’s no icon yet, but in his make-or-break third season he's well on his way to breaking through that playoff ceiling.