When the 2013 season opened with three losses in four weeks for Newton and the Panthers, alarm bells went off and Head Coach Ron Rivera's job security became a fashionable topic of discussion. This time, however, the team didn't wait until their playoff hopes were buried before turning things around. Since that 1-3 start (it's worth noting that two of those three losses went right down the wire, and a 38-0 win over the New York Giants came in between), the Panthers have won seven in a row, the longest current streak in the NFL. Their playoff hopes are very much alive, as they stand one game behind New Orleans in the NFC South with the third-best record in the conference overall.
By all accounts, Newton has led them there. He certainly has been one of the NFL's most productive offensive players, with 17 touchdown passes and 379 yards and five scores of his own running the ball. Newton had an eye-opening rookie campaign with 21 touchdown passes and another 14 TDs on the ground, a record for an NFL quarterback, but there was a sense that he was trying to do too much during that season and the one that followed. Rivera says that Newton is now directing a more successful full-team effort.
Newton says that message has been communicated to him loud and clear by two new members of Rivera's staff in 2013, Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula and Quarterbacks Coach Ken Dorsey.
“It’s just been a constant reminder in practice," said Newton. "As preparation goes, that’s something that Shula as well as Dorsey has been working with me on. Taking what the defense gives me, trusting myself that I would get myself in a good play or put the team in a great position to be successful.”
Newton, of course, has also had to listen to more than a fair share of criticism about his game, something he would have encountered less of if the Panthers had been winning more games the last two years. And, of course, some of it is exacerbated by Newton's confident manner, as illustrated by the trademark Superman reveal he enacts after scoring a touchdown. Newton doesn't let the criticism bother him, but he does agree that a more team-oriented approach has helped with the bottom line.
“To a degree, you just got to treat it like a grain of salt," he said. "No disrespect to any fans or any person with an opinion, because that’s exactly what it is, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. For me, my main focus right now is trying to help my team to become 9-3 and if we do that we’ll be great. A lot of pressure has been taken off so many players with buying in to the ‘we’ rather than the ‘me.’ With that mentality, we’ve been great."
Newton's raw numbers are up in most categories this year, though not by huge margins. It's a steady progression in his game. He currently has a career-best 88.3 passer rating, a career-best 61.7% completion percentage and a career-best 5.0 touchdown percentage. The most significant bump in his numbers has come with the game on the line. After recording just two fourth-quarter comeback wins and two game-winning drives in his first two seasons combined, he has three this season. That has been key to the Panthers' long winning streak, obviously, and it is the best indicator of the progress that Rivera has seen in Newton's third season. Rivera arrived in Carolina in 2011, just like Newton, and he hasn't been surprised that it has taken some time to get the most out of the quarterback's star-caliber talents.
“I think it’s the whole thing about … developing, it’s just over a period of time," said Rivera. "Some people expect it to happen overnight and that’s not true, it’s not going to happen overnight. Everybody is going through a developmental process. Last year everyone was talking about RGIII [Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III]; now everybody’s saying ‘Well look at him now.’ It takes time and I agree with what [Washington’s Head Coach Mike] Shanahan said, young quarterbacks, developing quarterbacks take time.
"Our guy took a little bit of time, now look at him. He’s had an opportunity to be in his third season in our offense, he’s put together some very good runs this year for us, he’s been very consistent, he’s making great decisions and he’s learned. It’s just all about time.”
There has never been much reason to doubt Newton's talents, and he personally doesn't think it's a matter of him 'maturing' over the last year. Again, Newton says it's more a matter of taking his skill and that passion to win that Rivera notes and making it work within a team framework.
“When it comes to maturity I hear it all the time with people wanting to point and pinpoint something that this season has been different about," he said. "The only really thing that’s been different is that we’re winning. Obviously, over time, a player, a person, a human being will change their ways or upgrade to a degree and I think that’s what I’ve done, coming in and having a different approach and it’s been showing come game day. But as far as me changing as a whole player [or] person, nothing’s really changed. I still have the same aggressive mentality, but also take what the defense gives me. It’s kind of been sharpened a little bit with great coaching and a lot of assistance with players, but nothing more than that.”