CHARLOTTE -- Let’s start with the comic books. One of the reasons the Superman story is so compelling is that we watch the struggle Clark Kent goes through. He grows up in Kansas, in a typical small town. He doesn’t even know all the powers he has. He has to learn how to harness those powers, develop them, so that he can constantly rescue Lois Lane from countless dangers and stop various crimes while they’re happening and shut down Lex Luthor’s perpetual efforts to take over the world.
He has to learn how to become Superman.
And this is what makes the Cam Newton story so compelling. He knows all about his powers. He has harnessed them. He’s 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, he is faster than … stronger than … able to leap … he can blast through a linebacker … he can outrun any safety … he can throw down-and-out passes so hard and with so much rotation they actually buzz when cutting through the wind. He is, as the line goes, bigger than anyone who is as fast, and faster than anyone who is as big.
Cam Newton always knew how to be Superman.
The trick this year: He has been learning how to become Clark Kent.
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Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera will take the blame. They got caught up in it. All of them. A year ago, the Carolina Panthers were thinking that maybe, just maybe, they were ready to break through, make a serious run at the playoffs and Super Bowl. Hey, why not? The defense looked vastly improved. The running game looked strong. And, more than anything, they had Cam Newton.
Wow. Newton was something else as a rookie. He had just left Auburn -- “And remember,” Rivera says, “he really only played one year of Division I football” -- and first game out of the chute he completed 24 of 37 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns. That doesn’t happen. No quarterback had ever thrown for 400 yards his first game in the NFL. Heck, up to that point, only one (a guy named Peyton Manning) had ever thrown for 300 yards in his first game.
He was limitless. That’s all. He had this absurd arm, of course, and he was shockingly accurate with those throws. And when he ran the ball, he was even more amazing. He scored 14 touchdowns. Fourteen. No rookie quarterback had ever done that. No, check that, no NFL quarterback had ever done that, not at any age, not Steve Grogan, not Michael Vick, not Johnny Lujack, not Otto Graham, not any of them.
Where do you go from there? Well, as you might expect, Ron Rivera had some ideas. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula had some ideas. They all did. How often do coaches get a talent like Cam Newton to develop? How often do coaches get a player like Cam Newton to build a new offense around? It was like unleashing kids into FAO Schwartz at Christmastime and Newton wanted it too. They loved this about him. He always wanted bigger things.
“In retrospect,” Rivera says, “you look back at his rookie year and he did a lot of things based on who he is as an athlete. I think because of that he was able to make things happen. And I think his second year, the expectations got out of whack. We probably grew the playbook more than we needed to. We tried to take a different approach. I think that kind of backfired…”
Rivera stops himself.
“No. It definitely backfired on us. We didn’t handle it right.”
The Panthers unveiled this new offense and Cam looked lost. The instincts that had carried him through his magical rookie season betrayed him. The Panthers lost six of their first seven games -- Newton had five touchdown passes, eight interceptions, and seemed utterly miserable. He had never hidden his belief that the Panthers were Super Bowl contenders. And the losing crushed him. “He took it all on himself,” Rivera says. “Cam is his own worst critic. When we struggled, he blamed himself entirely. I think he had always been so good, so gifted, he always wanted to take the team on his shoulders and win the game.”
The Panthers shifted gears. They simplified things. They ran more two tight-end sets to protect Newton. They simplified the offense somewhat to allow Newton to be himself a bit more. And more than anything, they told him: “You don’t have to win the games by yourself. You have teammates. Let them help you.”
“At the end of last year, he started to trust everybody more,” receiver Brandon LaFell says. “When you’ve got the kind of talent Cam’s got, you can take over a game at any second. … God gave him that. ... At the of the year, he started trusting us receivers, putting the ball up, letting us go make plays.”
Newton’s improvement was staggering, The last nine games, he threw 14 touchdown passes against four interceptions, ran for five more touchdowns, led the Panthers to six wins in those nine games (including the last four of the season). He avoided sacks and he protected the ball and he generally played the way winning quarterbacks play. And it looked like he had it down.
But it’s not that easy to become mild-mannered Clark Kent.
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Cam Newton is almost as good at avoiding questions as he is avoiding tackles. He does not avoid questions the way many do -- by sidestepping them or working around them or belittling the questioner. No, he avoids them straight on.
“Your question is great,” he tells the Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler when asked if the Panthers winning has been personally rewarding. “But you’re question is trying to make this a me thing. We all wanted this.”
Many of his answers have this sort of vibe. He understands why you’re asking the questions -- how he has changed, how he has matured, what he feels about his own transformation, what it’s like to be such an extraordinary player -- and he is not upset or offended. It’s just that there is nothing to be gained by answering. He says “prepare” in all its variations a lot. He’s spending more time with preparation. He’s more prepared than ever before. He has learned how to prepare, which is good, because he has to be prepared. This week’s enormous game against New Orleans --the biggest game for Carolina in a few years -- will come down to (you guessed it) preparation.
“This is not a facade, this is not fake,” he says. “This is not something someone is prepping me to say, you know, ‘Deflect all the credit off of yourself.’ it’s true. If I wasn’t being honest with you guys, I wouldn’t have the integrity to go back in the locker room and look those guys in the face.”
Rivera says that this is indeed Cam Newton in 2013. “I’ll tell you something,” Rivera says. “He has that same thing Walter Payton had. They both have that drive to be the greatest who ever played. Cam has this inner drive pushing him, but the thing is it’s not really about him. He spreads the credit around to his teammates, talks about how they set him up, with Cam you never have to worry about him taking it all. And Walter was like that too.”
Rivera played Payton when he was a linebacker for the Bears, so this is not just some wild comparison. “I got to know Walter after he had matured,” Rivera says, “I didn’t know him the first couple of years like I know Cam. But I see the similarities more and more. That’s why I think as Cam grows, we’re only going to see bigger and better things.”
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This season began with Carolina losing to Seattle 12-7. It was a game Carolina might have won with a couple of breaks, but Newton was mostly blunted. This was something different from his sophomore season slump when he was trying to do too much. This game, he held back.
“In the Seattle game, he played conservative,” Rivera says. “I think he tried to protect the ball too much. I think he tried to avoid the negative plays too much. … He was efficient. But it’s like he wasn’t out there. That wasn’t Cam Newton.”
Yes, this is why it’s hard to be Clark Kent. You have to pull back, but not entirely. You have to trust your teammates, but also trust yourself. John Wooden always told his UCLA basketball players, ‘be quick but don’t hurry.” And that’s the challenge of being Cam. The coaches want him to play safe, but still be dynamic. They want him to be dynamic, but still play safe.
The next week in Buffalo, Newton let it go more but missed a few open receivers and was shut down as a runner and the Panthers lost again. The Panthers did something interesting then: They went back to the film of Newton when he played at Auburn (“We have on file every single play Cam ran at Auburn,” Rivera says) and put three or four of his most successful plays into the playbook. It was just this simple idea to make him more comfortable, to remind him of his successes.
Two weeks later, in another loss -- this time to Arizona -- Newton threw three interceptions and no touchdown passes. But there was something different.
“I actually thought Cam played well in the Arizona game,” Rivera says. “If you look back at the film of that game, he had three major drops that really cost us and weren’t his fault. I thought that game was really a big step for him. He seemed to find that balance. And he has been great since then.”
Since the Arizona game, the Panthers have not lost. Newton has completed 64 percent of his passes, thrown 13 touchdowns against six interceptions, and he has run for five more scores, one of those a superman leap over the goal line for a touchdown against Tampa Bay last week.
That, however, is not the touchdown run Rivera remembers best. Instead, he talks about a play in the third quarter of the game against Miami. The Panthers trailed 16-6 at the time and faced first and goal at the 5. Shula sent in a running play, but as Newton looked over the defense he noticed a shift to where the play was supposed to go. Newton changed the play, called his own number, and swept in for the touchdown that helped bring Carolina back.
That may not seem like much -- this seems like the sort of things quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady do all the time (well, not the running part, but the audible). But Rivera says it was another sign of Newton’s growth and awareness. Everybody knows about Cam’s physical powers, but they say that he has a great mind for the game. Every Tuesday, he comes in on his own and spends a couple of hours with Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey to have input on the week’s game plan. It was Newton’s idea. And each week, he has become more and more assertive in his points of view. Before the Tampa Bay game, he came up with a wrinkle on a play and presented it to Shula. “Not bad,” Shula thought. In the first quarter of the game, Shula called it and it led to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Newton to LaFell. And LaFell, as Newton had predicted, was wide open.
“He audibles and checks at the line more than people realize,” Rivera says. “And that’s good. He will do more and more of that. He has grown so much in his understanding of the game. And the exciting part is that there’s so much more room for him to grow.”
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Cam Newton knows, in the end, it comes down to winning. “If we were losing right now,” he says, “people would be saying, ‘Cam’s not the leader we thought he was. Cam’s not the franchise quarterback.’ I understand that’s the name of this game. I respect that.”
But they are winning. The Panthers have won eight games in a row -- including victories over San Francisco and New England -- and they look more and more like a Super Bowl threat. The defense -- led by the energy and force of linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback pressures of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy -- has allowed the fewest points in the NFL. And Newton’s offense is the best in the NFL at controlling the ball, picking up first downs and completing long drives. This is an overpowering combination of things.
This is not to say Newton is a finished product. He is not. The Panthers offense can still stall. The coaches concede that Newton will sometimes get lazy with his footwork, and the ball tends to sail on him. He sometimes relies too much on the power of his arm and misses those over-the-shoulder touch passes. He still can be too aggressive or too conservative depending on the day.
“He’s got running back instincts which, to a degree, is good,” Rivera says. “But there are times he tries to push beyond himself. Even though he runs a 4.55 (40-yard dash) sometimes he will make a cut that’s for a player with 4.4 speed, a cut that is for someone 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, not someone 6-foot-5 and 250. Sometimes, he still tries to be …”
“Superman?” I ask.
Rivera smiles. “But you know what?” he added. “it works for him a lot too.”