Let’s start this off with a trivia question: Whatever happened to Cam Newton?
Yeah, I know he's still the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. But why is Newton, the offensive rookie of the year for the 2011 season, no longer even mentioned breathlessly as one of the NFL’s top young quarterbacks?
The latest example comes in ESPN.com’s list of the top 100 offensive players, which kicks off today. For the record, I had a vote and gave Newton high marks. But, apparently, I'm one of the few who thinks highly of Newton.
He came in at No. 100 on the list. He also came in as the No. 16 quarterback. Luck, Kaepernick, Griffin and Wilson all came in well ahead of Newton. So did Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, whose names rhyme with mediocrity, at least in my book.
I’m not saying Newton belongs in the upper echelon (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, the Manning brothers, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan) just yet. But I do think Newton is substantially better than the 100th-best offensive player in the league right now, and I think he could be a top-10 quarterback by the time this season is over.
The guy has thrown for 7,290 yards and 40 touchdowns in his first two seasons. He also has run for 1,447 yards and 22 touchdowns in that same time frame.
So why does it seem as though Newton is in the witness protection program whenever people talk about great players or great quarterbacks?
The answer is simple. Newton hasn’t won, and the way he has handled losing (pouting on the sideline and his body language in postgame interviews) hasn’t earned him fans among the national media.
But I think all that is about to change. I say that after having a one-on-one sit-down with one of the most guarded coaches I’ve ever covered. I say that after talking about Newton with Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
“I feel really good -- and anybody that knows me knows I usually don’t say things like that -- but I do," Shula said on a July morning in Spartanburg, S.C. “When I think about why I feel good, it’s because of the look in [Newton’s] eye. He’s highly motivated. When you get guys that are motivated and are going to listen and do the things you’re asking them to do, you’re way ahead of the game."
Maybe we’ll be able to forget the body language, because Shula knows Newton’s eye language better than just about anyone. Shula spent the past two seasons as Carolina’s quarterbacks coach before being promoted when Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Teammates also are noticing a difference in Newton.
“I think we’re getting ready at the quarterback position, which is the most important position on the field," center Ryan Kalil said. “Experience is a big part of that, and he’s growing. His leadership skills have gotten better, and he’s somebody that guys are looking up to. Those are all good things."
But the main reason I think Newton is in for a big season is because the Panthers finally have figured out how to use his unique skill set. They started off 2-8 last season when they were asking Newton to run the read-option often. They largely scrapped that in favor of a more conventional running game late last season and won five of their last six games. Expect that trend to continue.
“One of the things I’ve talked to him about is don’t let a day go by here in training camp where you don’t think about how you felt the first half of the season last year and then how you felt at the end of the season," Shula said. “And just think about that every day as you’re going through practice and use it as motivation."
Maybe, by the time this season is over, Newton no longer will be a forgotten man.