Newton playing at highest level of career

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At the end of an explanation of why quarterback Cam Newton has been so unbelievably consistent the past two games, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera had this to say: "I really do think he has a better feel for what we're trying to do and just the fact that he has a lot of weapons that he can use."

The weapons portion is intriguing, considering much has been made over Newton's lack of weapons since training camp. So I dug through the statistics. Here's what I discovered:

  • In the season's first two games, Newton completed 62.1 percent of his passes to wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, which were known weapons. He completed only 21 percent to wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr.

  • In the last four games, Newton has completed 45 percent of his passes to Smith and Olsen. LaFell and Ginn have increased their production to 35 percent.

The numbers indicate Newton has become more comfortable with the talent around him. He's taking time to get through his second and third reads because he realizes he has more weapons and now trusts them.

It's a big reason the Panthers (3-3) have won two straight and have a chance Thursday to get their record above .500 for the first time since 2008 at Tampa Bay (0-6).

"He's very comfortable in the system," Olsen said. "I don't think he's just throwing to one particular guy anymore based on the pre-set. He's letting the play kind of unfold the way it's designed and goes bang, bang, bang ... and it takes him to the right guy more times than not.

"That's when you're playing quarterback at a high level."

It shows.

Newton's passer rating the past two games -- 136.3 and 143.4 -- makes him the only quarterback in the NFL this season to go consecutive weeks with a rating of 136 or better.

The first pick of the 2011 draft is doing a better job of taking what the defense gives him than at any point in his brief career, and this from a player who passed for more yards in his first two seasons than any quarterback in NFL history.

His completion rate of 88.2 in Sunday's 30-15 victory over the St. Louis Rams was the best in team history, surpassing Jake Delhomme's 85.2 rate in a 2006 game. And one of Newton's two incompletions was a drop by Smith, his favorite target.

Smith told the NFL Network that Newton has gone from playing "checkers to chess," meaning he's thinking more and trusting his teammates more.

"It's not me," Newton insisted when told of the analogy. "It's the offense. We're playing more confident. We're doing the little things right."

He's right. Running back DeAngelo Williams spends so much time after practice working on catching that he's dubbed himself "Mr. Jugs Machine." Others are spending more time studying film and fine-tuning areas that they've overlooked.

But it all starts with Newton, who also is doing more of the little things in terms of film study and throwing.

Again, it shows.

"He's playing at a higher level," Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. "He's still dangerous, yet he's playing smarter football. He's not turning the ball over, protecting the football, and they're making fewer mistakes than they did last year."

After Week 2, Newton's passer rating was 86.4, good for No. 20 in the NFL. It's now 95.0 and No. 10. He's particularly effective on third down with a rating of 114.3 that ranks second in the NFL to Peyton Manning at 125.7.

Ironically, much of Newton's improvement came after an 0-2 start when Rivera said too much pressure was being placed on his franchise quarterback.

"It's not nothing as far as confidence or the difference of plays," Newton said. "Guys are just stepping up. Whether you want to put the burden on me to say I've been feeding guys more, I would just rather say everybody has been accountable.

"If their number is called, they've been making plays."

No. 1 has made more than his share of plays, and it's a big reason Newton has a chance to be above .500 for the first time in his NFL career.

"Being 1-0 on Thursday will be great," said Newton, maintaining his team approach. "For us it's not about individual success, and I know everyone is trying to make it that. But there's a lot of people that could [not] care less about myself, including myself right now."

That shows as well.