Hall of Famer Steve Young says Panthers' Cam Newton has reached 'rare air'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young could resurrect his football career as a current player, it might be as Cam Newton.

"I wish I was 6-5 and [260] and could fly," said Young, describing the height and weight of the Carolina Panthers quarterback. "That would be awesome."

Newton grew up idolizing and mimicking Young, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound dual-threat quarterback who won three Super Bowl rings and two NFL Player of the Year awards while playing for the San Francisco 49ers.

Now an analyst for ESPN's Monday Night Football, Young enjoys watching Newton, a dual-threat quarterback who is the favorite to win the 2015 NFL MVP after leading the Panthers to a league-best 15-1 regular season.

He's excited to see how Newton handles Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks.

"Cam has always been an incredible physical challenge for NFL defenses," Young said. "Now they're in real trouble because he's become an intellectual challenge for defenses."

In five seasons, Newton already has tied Young's record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 43, including 10 this year. He also has tied Young at 31 for most career games with at least one rushing and one passing touchdown. He has seven such games this season.

Young needed 15 seasons (1985-99) to accomplish both records.

The difference is Young ran the West Coast offense, which was centered on passing and running when he needed to. The Panthers run the read-option, which makes Newton a threat to run on any play.

"Oh, I would have loved that," Young said. "When that showed up a couple of years ago, I thought, 'That would have given me some flexibility. That would have been a lot of fun.'"

Newton's stats actually are comparable to Young's after the first 78 starts for both players. Young completed 62.8 percent of his passes to 59.6 percent for Newton. But Newton has more yards passing per game (234.1 to 211.3) and more rushing yards per game (41.1 to 32.8).

He also has more touchdown passes (117 to 108) and more rushing touchdowns (43 to 22).

Their records are almost identical, with Newton going 45-32-1 and Young 44-34.

Much like Newton, Young struggled with accuracy early in his career. His completion percentage was 53.3 in his first four seasons between Tampa Bay and San Francisco.

He jumped to 69.6 percent in his fifth season and finished with a career percentage of 64.3.

Young said learning to balance fundamentals and pocket presence while being a running quarterback was something that took time to master. He believes Newton, in his fifth season, is on a similar path.

"You have to take certain truths," Young said. "One truth is that to have championship success in the NFL you have to learn to deliver the ball from the pocket.

"So the truth is, if there's a lesson to be learned from mobile quarterbacks, it is deliver the ball from the pocket, which demands mastery of the data that is involved working in the pocket, which is, 'I know everything about everything.'"

Young said he embedded that in his mind to the point he could focus on defenses, nuances and body language that allowed him to take his game to another level.

"Now I can move defensive players," he said. "I can move them with my shoulders and my eyes. That's how you make space in the NFL. And that's a challenge in the classroom. It's not a challenge in the field.

"My excitement for Cam this year is he continues to climb the mountain of throwing the ball from the pocket, knowing that mastery. He's obviously put a lot of time in, learned a lot through years and years of playing."

Young pointed to the fourth quarter of Carolina's Oct. 18 win at Seattle in which Newton completed 12 of 15 pass attempts for 162 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner with 32 seconds left.

Tight end Greg Olsen was wide open for the winning 26-yard catch. The safeties admitted they were confused in their coverage.

"I particularly loved the Seattle game where he moved the safeties in big moments to win," Young said. "That's really exciting stuff. ... I would feel like he's now starting to be able to dictate not just with his physicality but with his mind."

Newton didn't get a lot of credit for his football intellect early in his career. He was ranked fifth in an ESPN comparison with Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III.

Young is impressed now with what he calls Newton's football IQ.

"The patience in the pocket," he said. "Moving people with his eyes. The subtleties, which tells you he's slowed his mind down. You're actually picking people out and dictating to defenses, not just playing and reacting.

"Cam, with proper help, can run the table on defenses. Because once you're both physical and intellectual, that's rare air."

To those who say Newton can't continue running at his current pace -- 8.3 carries a game this season -- Young said, "Leave it alone."

"You can get out and move around and continue to put pressure on defenses and not put yourself at tremendous risk," Young said. "Just know when it's over, know when to get down, how to finish.

"Leave it alone," Young continued. "Honestly, just leave it alone. He gets it. Coaches get it. Do not give it up. Truce, and we'll talk to you when he's done playing in 10 years."

Young said Newton is ready to join the elite group of quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

"Now it's a point where championships are key," he said. "This is where the narrative changes. We can talk about all kinds of things, but talk to me in two weeks if he ends it with a Super Bowl [title].

"Those are his next hurdles. He's beaten down all the regular-season hurdles. Now there's the postseason hurdles."