Cam Newton's stock has to be on the rise

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- First Cam Newton wasn't winning games. Then he lacked leadership. Then he lacked consistency.

For a quarterback who passed for more yards in his first two seasons than any in the history of the NFL, the Carolina Panthers' first pick of the 2011 draft wasn't getting much respect.

That the Panthers started this season 1-3 after going 6-10 and 7-9 in Newton's first two seasons didn't help.

The spotlight had gotten so dim on Newton that a panel of 12 coaches, scouts and front-office personnel ranked him fifth among the NFL's hot young quarterbacks for an ESPN.com comparison story.

In the selected categories of intelligence, accuracy, supporting cast, durability and urgency Newton ranked fifth behind Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Washington's Robert Griffin III and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick.

He was fifth in every category but durability, where he was rated fourth ahead of only Griffin who was injured last season.

But the biggest thing those four had over Newton was success in terms of winning games and taking their teams to the playoffs.

The pendulum could be swinging. The Panthers (4-3) have won three straight and four of their last five to go over .500 for the first time in Newton's career.

That's probably not enough to change the ESPN.com panel's mind about Newton's potential. But there is no denying he's on the best three-game run of his career, and among the best three-game stretch of any quarterback in the league this season.

But for fun, let's break it down into seven tangible categories on how the chosen five compare over their last three games:

Newton ranked first or tied for first in each of these categories except passing yards, where he was third. He was by far the leader in passer rating and completion percentage.

I didn't mention rushing stats, but Newton has rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns during that span as well. That ranks third in yards behind Wilson (192) and Griffin (171) and first in touchdowns.

Until Newton gets Carolina to the playoffs the opinions of where he ranks among his peers probably won't change. But Newton has changed, at least in terms of understanding what it takes to play winning football in the NFL.

He's gone from a potential bust to a potential superstar.

"He's a very driven young man who wants to excel,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "He wants to win in a bad way, in the worst way, in the best way. . . . He just wants to succeed. He has grown a lot. There is reason to be excited about him.

"The proof will be in the pudding. Eventually, when all of these young quarterbacks in the next four or five, six years sit down and talk about who has won Super Bowls, then we'll see. Until then, I think it's kind of unfair.''

Rivera can't pinpoint one thing that changed with Newton. He can pinpoint an understanding he and offensive coordinator Mike Shula finally had concerning just how much talent Newton has around him and how Newton can take advantage of that.

As left tackle Jordan Gross said, Newton has learned he doesn't have to do it all as he sometimes did in college to win.

And as Rivera noted, "it's not like he's not had success.''

"That's one of the things I don't get, either,'' he continued. "He's had the best two years of any starting quarterback in the history of football. At one point he had the best rookie year. Then he had the best first two years.

"Now we see the consistency, we see the efficiency. Again, that's been all part of his growth. Now he's at the point where everybody is starting to believe. Hopefully, we continue that.''

Then maybe we can rank them again and see where everyone falls.