Time For Rivera To Unleash The Beast 

Cam Newton has received excessive praise this season for being a smarter, more polished QB. He may not move the crowd with the daring excitement and beautiful recklessness of his record-breaking 2011 rookie season, but his turbulent 2012 sophomore slump is a thing of the past. Entering last night’s showdown against the deadly Saints, Carolina was tied with New Orleans at 9-3 and tied atop the NFC South.

Newton gets credit for being more responsible with the ball, being an improved leader and handling adversity better than last season. When Carolina limped to a 7-9 record, a frustrated Cam’s post game pressers were like soap operas. It became so bad that after his legendary 2011 campaign Cam was the forgotten dual-threat QB, as a crop of Newton-knockoffs like RG3, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick started stealing his shine. In just one season, Cam went from a “game-changer” to just another QB.

Cats forgot overnight that Cam burst onto the scene with a record 854 passing yards in his first two games, which topped the previous NFL mark of 827 yards — set by the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” orchestrator Kurt Warner in 2000 (Tom Brady broke it the same day finishing with 954 yards). Last season, teammates questioned his leadership, the media questioned his ability and some fans began to question his heart.

This season was considered pivotal for Newton and his HC Ron “Riverboat” Rivera. Odds makers predicted that if Cam had another 2012 in 2013, Rivera wouldn’t be there in 2014. 

Before the season started, both guys knew what they had to do to reach the playoffs. With limited targets at Cam’s disposal, Rivera’s D would have to become as much a lethal weapon as Cam’s arms, legs and ability to turn dookey into dumplings. This season, the Panthers are man-eaters, ranking first in the NFL in rush defense (79.4), points-per-game allowed (14.9), second in yards allowed per game (296.2) and fifth in passing yards allowed (216.8 ypg). This has alleviated Cam’s immense burden, but now Carolina is ranked 29th in passing with a janky 191.7 passing yards per game. You can’t knock Rivera’s hustle because the philosophy switch has manifested itself in a 9-4 record and an eight-game winning streak that ended at the hands of scoring-machine Drew Brees and the Saints with a 31-13 loss at the Superdome on Sunday night.

The game was significant for several reasons. It was a battle for sole-possession of first place against the most dynamic offense the Panthers have faced to date. Carolina handled Tom Brady’s Pats 24-20 at home on Nov. 18th, but most of Carolina’s wins have come against Patsy’s like Tampa Bay, the Giants, Atlanta, Minnesota and St. Louis. Their losses have come to playoff-caliber teams like Seattle, Arizona and New Orleans.

Few people outside of Carolina are ready to cosign the Panthers as studs. Defense aside, the offensive-weapons cupboard is still bare, and on nights like Sunday when the defense isn’t up to the task, and Newton’s ball-control offense isn’t putting the rock in the end zone, the results can be brutal.

The Panthers had the ball for 11:30 of the first quarter and moved it like a farmer plowing fields, but only got two field goals out of it after New Orleans came up with clutch third-down stops, including one on third and goal from the six. The inability to score injected life into an already-raucous Superdome crowd.

Carolina blew a chance to bury the Saints in a 14-0 hole and then let its D go bonkers, while Brees and Co. try to pass their way back into the game. That’s basically what happened to the Saints last Monday night in a 34-7 loss to Seattle. Instead, after scrounging up a measly six points, the momentum swings that so regularly dictate the outcome of NFL games shifted to Drew Brees and the Saints.

New Orleans improved to 7-0 at home and became the first team not to lose a turnover to the Panthers all season. Brees continued his legendary passing resume (313 passing yards), becoming the fifth QB in NFL history to eclipse 50,000 career yards passing.

New Orleans sacked Cam Newton five times and did not allow a touchdown until 5:15 left in the game.

Rivera is building a death squad in Carolina, but they won’t be able to compete with the elite—the ones who can put up 30 on any D—until they can offer a little more punch than DeAngelo Williams and rocking chair-ridden Steve Smith.

The Saints had a bit more to prove this time around. "We wanted to kind of hit our stride and get our swagger back and no better way than to come in the dome and do that. All three phases played exceptionally well tonight,” Brees said after the game.

But there are still three crucial games remaining and Cam gets another crack at Brees in two weeks. Despite the fact that they are at the bottom of the league in most offensive categories, Carolina’s going to have to open it up to have a crack at the division.

The conservative, play-not-to-lose system is cool, but even with a lack of obvious weapons, Carolina could have so much more. Cam Newton isn’t Tent Dilfer. He’s not Matt Cassel. He’s not Alex Smith. This cat runs like a young Mike Vick, tosses it like John Elway and is built like Andrew Luck. Now is the time to take the cuffs off and let him do his thing again. Carolina has nothing to lose.

Get everybody involved; Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon LaFell…hell, if the dude selling beers in Section A can generate some offense, then suit him up too. Carolina will need it, because It’s time to let the golden arm of your Superman slinger do his thing. C’mon Riverboat Ron. The stats are not supporting your name. There should be no more 160 yard passing games for Killer Cam. It’s looking like the Panthers are a playoff shoe-in for the first time in Cam’s career. If this season’s anything more than a job-saving, quality effort by Rivera, then he knows as well as anybody that playing scared gets you nowhere. Unleash the beast. It’s Superman Cam time.

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.