Cam Newton is now an elite quarterback

Cam Newton is now an elite quarterback.

Amazing what a 12-4 regular-season record and trip to the playoffs will do for perception.

Before the 2013 season, an ESPN.com analysis of the NFL's young star quarterbacks with the brightest future ranked the Carolina Panthers' third-year player fifth behind Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III, Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick.

This week, former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo ranked Newton tied for fifth among what he called the league's elite for all NFL quarterbacks.

Using his nine-point scale, Angelo came up with his 2013 upper class in Denver's Peyton Manning (9.0), New England's Tom Brady (8.9), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (8.8), Newton (8.7), New Orleans' Drew Brees (8.7), San Diego's Philip Rivers (8.6) and Indy's Luck (8.5).

Wilson, who led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl XLVIII win against Denver, was in the next group with a rating of 8.4. So was Kaepernick (8.4), whose 49ers defeated Carolina in the NFC playoffs.

Griffin? He ranked 21st in the "still a work in progress category" at 6.9.

I argued before the season that Newton was undervalued in the ESPN.com ranking because he played on losing teams and didn't have a supporting cast as strong as the others.

The addition of a few key pieces, particularly on defense, turned the Panthers into a winning team as Newton's overall statistics actually went down -- except for passing touchdowns, of which he had a career-best 24.

Yet the perception was Newton had drastically changed as a player and a person, when, in reality, the biggest change was the win-loss record.

"Cam didn't change who he is as a person," coach Ron Rivera told me recently. "He just developed. He just grew. He got more experience as a player. That's what you're starting to see. Who he is or what he is doesn't change one bit. Him developing and growing older and wiser as a football player is the biggest thing that's changed.

"But he is the same person. He hates to lose … doesn't want to lose. He is going to work as hard as anybody you've ever seen. We look at him differently, and people look at him differently because we did win."

That was the message Newton preached over and over during media and sponsor-driven stops in New York City the week before the Super Bowl. He insisted he basically was the same person who was part of 6-10 and 7-9 records in his first two seasons.

Did he play smarter? Yes. Did he let the game come to him more instead of forcing issues? Yes. Did he work to overcome the public image that he is aloof? Yes.

Would all of that have gone unnoticed had the Panthers continued to lose? Yes.

"Last year, going to the Super Bowl, you didn't see a lot of commercials or shots with Cam moving around and doing things," Rivera said. "And [this year] he was one of the guys that was always featured.

"Yeah, he probably did get looked at differently by the league, but, let's be honest: It is about winning and being relevant."

Newton certainly caught Angelo's attention. Here's what the long-time NFL executive said about him on TheSidelineView.com: "A special talent with flaws. He took a good team and had them playing consistently well. They didn't back into being divisional champs, they took it and he led the charge. Needs to continue to grow his football IQ. More work in the classroom is the key to is continued development."

No, the key is to continue to win.

Perception is everything.