CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took the snap in the shotgun on second-and-4 from the New Orleans 31 with 11:32 remaining. His two wide receivers and tight end Greg Olsen went deep. Fullback Mike Tolbert flared off to the left.
Newton dumped the ball underneath to his second tight end, Ed Dickson, for a 10-yard gain.
That was the play on Sunday that coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula pointed to as a sign of how their quarterback has improved.
They didn't single out Newton’s 13-yard touchdown run three plays later, a play the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback changed at the line of scrimmage. Nor did they point out Newton’s 52-yard strike to Olsen near the end of the first half.
The second-down play to Dickson was a simple check-down pass that he caught four yards from the line of scrimmage.
Would Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, have made that play three or four years ago?
“I don’t know," Shula said. “Maybe he would have seen it. Maybe he wouldn’t. His percentages are much higher seeing that stuff."
Questionable decision-making was a major criticism of Newton during his first four seasons. In the first two games, he was ranked 29th in the NFL in BDR (bad decision rate), a metric that measures how often a passer makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity.
Newton was not credited with any bad decisions against New Orleans, raising his BDR to 1.9 percent. That’s about 0.5 percent above the league average, according to ESPN Insider analyst KC Joyner.
Newton’s Total Quarterback Rating improved to 60.7 after he completed 20 of 31 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns against New Orleans. He also rushed seven times for 33 yards and a touchdown.
Considering the receivers Newton has around him, Joyner would rate Newton's current play among the top 10 quarterbacks.
“To be fair, Newton is being asked to carry the team without much in the way of receiving threats -- to put it nicely – and there aren’t many quarterbacks capable of posting top-10 numbers with as little pass catching help as he has," Joyner said.
Rivera and Shula pointed to Newton’s improved decision-making during training camp. Sunday’s performance, which put Carolina at 3-0 and atop the NFC South, was proof of that.
“You know it’s there," Rivera said. “With Cam, it’s always been a matter of growth and time. And we’re seeing it."
The Panthers gave Newton a five-year, $103.8 million extension in June because they believed he had this kind of potential. Seeing it come to fruition has been satisfying.
“It is satisfying," Rivera said. “Cam is one of those guys we truly believe in him. We believe he is the face of the franchise. That’s why we made the commitment we did going into training camp with him."
The short pass to Dickson was further evidence they made the right decision.
“That is really the maturity of a quarterback," Rivera said. “A lot of times the guy will take the football and he’ll sit there and hold it and hold it and the next thing you know he’s running for his life and getting hit. And that happened earlier in his career, because he wanted to always make the big splash.
“Now all of a sudden you’ll see him ... [go] through the initial progression, make a quick decision and bam, dumps it off and we get a first down. That’s one of those signs you look for in a maturing player."