Elway on Newton: 'Ability to be a great one'

SALISBURY, N.C. -- John Elway admittedly felt uncomfortable addressing a room of reporters as he introduced ESPN.com's Rick Reilly into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame on Monday night at Catawba College.

More often than not you find athletes as Elway was during his Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos avoiding the media, not praising them.

Elway even joked that for the first time in his career of facing reporters, he would take no questions.

But before Elway began waxing eloquence -- and a few wisecracks -- on Reilly, he answered a couple of my questions about a subject he is indeed comfortable discussing.


Specifically, because he was in Cam Newton territory, I asked what he thought about the Carolina Panthers quarterback as he prepared for his fourth season.

"I think he's a tremendous athlete," Elway said. "He just continues to get better and better. And you look at what he did last year and the strides that he's made, he's going to make another big jump this year.

"Just as a quarterback having been there, the things that you see from your first to second to third year are always big jumps, so he's going to continue to get better. He's got all the ability to being a great one."

Elway and Newton have a few things in common, beginning with both were the first pick of their respective drafts -- Elway in 1983 and Newton in 2011.

Both also struggled to win their first season. Elway was 4-6 as a starter. Newton was 6-10.

Both were 0-1 in the playoffs after their first three seasons.

Elway, 53, understands it's natural for quarterbacks to struggle earlier in their careers. He completed only 47.5 percent of his passes and threw 14 interceptions to seven touchdowns as a rookie.

Although the Broncos went 12-2 during his second season, he threw for only 2,598 yards and 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.

It wasn't until his third season that Elway took off statistically, throwing for 3,891 yards and 22 touchdowns. Even then, he threw 23 interceptions, giving him 54 interceptions to 47 touchdowns in his first three seasons.

If you break it down statistically, Newton is far ahead of Elway after three years. He has completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 11,299 yards. Elway completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 8,152 yards.

Newton has 64 touchdown passes and 42 interceptions. As stated above, Elway was at 47 and 54 at the same point.

Newton has been to two Pro Bowls. Elway didn't make the first of his nine until his fourth season.

As with Elway, what happens from the fourth season on will determine where Newton winds up in league history.

Elway went to his first of five Super Bowls in his fourth year, winning his last two in 1997 and 1998. He statistically was the second-most prolific passer in NFL history when he retired in 1999.

So when Elway says Newton has the ability to be a great one, you tend to listen. He believes that Newton, recovering from offseason ankle surgery, is on the cusp of becoming one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

"There's no question," Elway said. "He's a threat. Whenever somebody plays Carolina, you have to worry about Cam Newton. He's got the ability to be that guy."

Elway can say that comfortably.

Turns out he was pretty comfortable praising Reilly as well.