Rivera pinpoints positive change in Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera noticed a change in his franchise quarterback midway through last season. It wasn't a particular play that tipped the Carolina Panthers coach off. It wasn't something he initially noticed on the football field at all.

It happened in a hotel in the Washington, D.C., area when Sgt. First Class Cedric King spoke to the team the Saturday night before a November game against the Redskins.

It happened when Cam Newton bent his towering 6-foot-5 frame over and began talking to King, in a wheelchair after losing both of his legs in Afghanistan. Rivera observed as Newton held King's hand and rubbed his back in such a caring way that, "I thought he was going to well up."

"There was a connection there you saw," Rivera told ESPN.com. "It's like, 'Wow, I'm going through a tough time, but this guy really has had it tough.' It made him kind of put things in perspective. I think that helped him a lot."

The Panthers were 1-6 at the time. Newton was being criticized for sulking on the sideline and letting one bad play lead to another, for not being the kind of leader it takes to win in the NFL.

Since the meeting with King, Rivera said his quarterback has had a different attitude. He says Newton is able to put a bad play behind him as soon as it happens and move forward with a positive demeanor that spills over onto the rest of the team.

"Compared to last year, he's most certainly upbeat," Rivera said. "He's got a lot of energy. He's feeding off his own energy. He creates his own energy. He creates a lot of energy for his teammates. He's focused on what's going to happen. He doesn't dwell on what had happened.

"Those are things that I know were a big part of him last year," Rivera continued. "After we'd lose a game, it was about, 'What else could I have done?' Now it's looking forward."

The 10-9 win over San Francisco two weeks ago is a prime example. Newton threw an interception in the second quarter that the 49ers turned into a field goal for a 9-0 lead.

Newton responded with an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that made it 9-7 at halftime. He completed all three of his pass attempts for 41 yards and ran twice for 5.

"He's learned to put those things behind him," Rivera said of mistakes. "It's all about his growth."

And it began, at least in Rivera's eyes, during that conversation with King.

The Panthers beat Washington the following day with Newton putting together one of his more consistent performances. They lost the following two weeks to Denver and Tampa Bay, but bounced back with five wins in their final six games.

Since the Washington game, they have gone 13-6, including the six-game winning streak they take into Sunday's game at Miami.

I asked Newton about the significance of his meeting with King and he shrugged it off as he shrugs off all attention placed on him these days. He didn't mention how it changed his perspective, choosing to keep the focus on the Dolphins.

"It's funny. He's the one that said it to me," Rivera said of Newton drawing inspiration from King.

But there's little doubt Newton's ability to look forward with blinders has been key to his turnaround and the team's. His ability to keep the focus on the team and not on him has led to unity.

Shortly after Monday night's 24-20 victory over New England, which one day might stand out as his signature game, Newton was asked if he earned more respect for his game-winning drive.

"I hope," he said.

But that's as far as the player who likes to depict himself as "Superman" went in the personal satisfaction department. He spent the rest of the answer talking about great catches made by his wide receivers, great blocks by his linemen and backs.

"It's not a one-man show, by far," Newton said.

When Newton was in college, it was a one-man show. He accounted for 62 percent of the total offense and 83.3 percent of the team's offensive touchdowns while leading Auburn to the 2010 national championship.

It has taken awhile, but Newton has realized he doesn't have to do it all in the NFL. His ability to take what the defense gives him instead of forcing the situation has helped him complete a career-best 63.2 percent of his passes.

During this six-game winning streak, he has a completion rate of 67.4 percent. On throws of fewer than 15 yards, his percentage is 72.8, compared with 62.0 in 2012.

He already has more touchdowns (11) on such throws than a year ago, and his 84.4 quarterback rating on short and intermediate passes is second-highest in the NFL.

Newton also still has the ability to take over, as he showed Monday on one particular run in the third quarter. He avoided six tackles and covered 75.8 yards in order to gain 14 and get the first down.

Twice in the second half, Newton answered with a scoring drive after New England pulled its team even or ahead. The second was a 13-play, 83-yard drive in which Newton completed five of eight passes for 60 yards, including the game-winning 25-yarder to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left.

"He looked comfortable and his eyes were in the right place and looking at the right things," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "Mechanically, he was doing everything right. When you do all of those things and you are talented like he is, you are usually going to be successful."

That raises the confidence of Newton, the confidence of the team in him.

But it's not the things Newton does on the field that stand out so much for Rivera. It's the little things he does in the locker room and at practice.

Rivera pointed specifically to a moment in practice where he blew his whistle after an interception, his way of telling players trying to chase down the defensive back to shut it down "because I don't need anybody going 30 yards and pulling a hamstring."

When the players kept running, Rivera got upset and had a "few choice words."

"And Cam says, 'Oh, Coach, you are most certainly in a tough spot. One moment you want us to be careful. The next moment you want great effort. Pick one and choose,'" Rivera recalled. "So he has a great knack for breaking things up and getting everybody to take a deep breath.

"You see that. You see he has a good feel for us ... us as a team."

This is when I asked Rivera when he first saw that quality in Newton. And this is when Rivera brought up Newton's meeting with King.

"Just watching him, some of the things he did, how he reacted and handled things, I thought was pretty impressive," Rivera said.

Newton has been pretty impressive since.