Opinion: Carolina embarks on new territory in Newton era
A lighthearted spirit is often good medicine.
It has been for the Carolina Panthers this season, as they have watched their 24-year-old quarterback become the leader most imagined when the team drafted him. The honor of being named a captain at the beginning of the season appears to be more than just pageantry at this point. When teammates exchanged words with Rams' players in Week 7 that led to several scuffles and an ejection, Newton was nowhere to be found in the scrum.
He joked with reporters during the postgame news conference about the particular words teammate Steve Smith had for Rams' defensive back Janoris Jenkins, even making light of his own injury during the game. Four days later, he delivered on a short work week in a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A curious takeaway from Newton's last two performances is his improved efficiency passing the football. Put simply, he does not need to use his feet to win football games. Carolina has faced the Rams and Buccaneers in those weeks, teams which have 11 losses between them. The reality remains, however, efficiency is a word infrequently used to describe Newton throughout his first three seasons in the league.
With the win over the Buccaneers, Newton has the Panthers over .500 for the first time during his tenure. This can easily be seen as a glimmer of hope for a franchise that has had too few of them over the three years since the former Heisman trophy winner became the No. 1 overall pick in 2011.
At a time when fellow high draft picks have made huge strides in the area that matters most — the win column — Newton has not completely capitalized on his immense talent. No doubt, his size, skill and superb arm strength elicits excitement and has energized the fan base in Charlotte, but murmurs of frustration have surfaced.
In other instances, the selection of spread option quarterbacks has accelerated rebuilding processes in Washington and New York. The Panthers' front office must have asked itself last season what it did wrong while watching Robert Griffin III light up defenses in leading his team to the postseason as a rookie.
In four of the last five years, quarterbacks have been taken first. Matthew Stafford, the last in the line of pro-style quarterbacks and a 2009 pick of the Detroit Lions, has a 5,000-yard season and playoff game under his belt. Andrew Luck had a stellar debut in 2012, leading the Colts to an 11-5 record and a Wild Card appearance. Sam Bradford, who the Panthers faced in Week 7, has been the least successful in putting up jaw-dropping numbers, but once guided the lowly St. Louis Rams to the postseason.
The quarterback position has changed drastically since statuesque Peyton Manning was the No. 1 pick in 1998. Bradford, considered a traditional drop-back passer capable of making all the throws at the highest level, was actually the first to begin to shift the tide from old school to new. At Oklahoma, he orchestrated Bob Stoops’ spread offense.
Though different than the playbook written for Newton, the principles of how to attack defenses are the same. Newton simply brings the additional dimension of running the football to an offense designed to create one-on-one matchups all over the field. Explosive in the open field, he represents the most difficult matchup defensive coordinators have to account for — a 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback meeting a linebacker of comparable size in the hole.
As his skills finally translate to wins, the question remains whether or not Newton can take the next step in his development by leading the Panthers to the postseason. Despite his improvement as a passer and building momentum, it will be a tough task with two games left on the schedule against Drew Brees and the Saints, two games with Atlanta and a game apiece with both San Francisco and New England.
Perhaps the Panthers have what it takes to win half of those games and become a viable contender for one of two NFC wild card spots, or maybe they do not. Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, Newton's coming into his own continues to perpetuate the evolution of the quarterback position. And soon he will be laughing all the way to the bank.
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org.