Each week, Newton takes on more responsibilities. Over the past two years, more has been asked of him and he has responded. Fundamentally, he's still working on the balance of his running instincts and his throwing mechanics; sometimes those mechanics get out of whack when he runs too often. But it mainly comes down to an overall command of the offense, something the box score doesn't indicate, and offensive coordinator Mike Shula is letting Newton call more shots.
At 8-0, Newton has become one of the league's biggest NFL enigmas in a year when young QBs are growing up all over amidst our skepticism. We're still trying to digest Andy Dalton, 0-4 in the playoffs in his four years in the league, as an MVP candidate. The group of second-year signal-callers, and a pair of rookies, are also on star watch. And while no player can match Tom Brady for MVP consideration in the first half of the season, Newton should definitely be in the conversation.
But again, the case for Cam isn't based on numbers. Newton might be No. 1 for raw success this year in the NFC, but you can't just point to the stat sheet.
His completion percentage after eight games is 53.7 percent, the lowest of his career. He's on pace for his fourth consecutive non-4,000-yard season, something he accomplished first as a rookie. His QBR is 50.7, which says he's average. In fact, that puts him No. 24 in the league for QBR, down with Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.
The numbers don't build a great case, but you have to understand what's asked of him and listen to those who play with him to understand how Newton is emerging as an elite quarterback. By beating the Green Bay Packers, the Panthers have a two-game lead on home-field advantage in the playoffs and a 2.5-game lead over Atlanta in the NFC South. Even though teams in the NFC South are blessed with easy schedules, Newton just came through a four-game stretch in which the Panthers beat Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay while averaging 30 points a game.
Here is what you see on the field and why the Panthers are 8-0 while Newton is playing like one of the best in the NFL.
A year ago, Shula started to escalate Newton's use of the no-huddle. He wanted to do that earlier, but an offseason ankle injury and other ailments delayed the installation of more no-huddle until midseason. I remember going to the 37-37 tie against the Cincinnati Bengals last year, a game in which Shula and head coach Ron Rivera started letting Newton run more. Because he was playing hurt, Newton stayed in the pocket to hand off or throw during the first half of the Bengals game and earlier games.
"Last year, probably when we started our run at New Orleans is when we started increasing his percentage of no-huddle," Shula said. "His comfort level is real high. He's been probably doing no-huddle since high school."
The no-huddle has allowed Newton to grow in so many ways as a quarterback. For one, it allows him to take more control of the offense. In no-huddle, Newton does everything. He gets a couple of plays sent in to his helmet radio by Shula, but it's Newton's responsibility to pick the right play based on the defensive formation. It's his job to get the offense in the right protection, but he's helped by veteran center Ryan Kalil.
Shula now estimates Newton is no-huddle about 40 percent of the time on first and second down, and the numbers are going to increase.
"I just think his ability to be in control of our no-huddle stuff has been a huge development for not just him, but for our whole offense," tight end Gregg Olsen told me. "We thrive, as a group, thrive in that offense. We've gotten it down pretty good. We can run a lot of our offense out of it. We have really good communication, and we can [go] up-tempo and upbeat. It makes it tough on defenses. We can substitute. We can get different guys in and it all falls on Cam's shoulders."
That transition isn't much different from what Todd Haley did with Ben Roethlisberger a couple of years ago. For years, Big Ben wasn't winning the numbers battle, but he was winning games. The no-huddle and different adjustments from that almost earned the QB a 5,000-yard passing season last year.
Sunday's win over the Packers showed the numbers don't jive with the picture. Each time Newton dropped back to pass, he had the edge over the Packers' defense, but, as is the story with Newton, it didn't show in the numbers. For the game, he was 15-for-30 and made a dumb interception that gave the Packers the chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
"You saw today we were about as precise in our passing game as we've been all year," Olsen said. "The first drive he had two scrambles and he made back-breaking runs. His ability on third down, short yardage and goal line is exceptional. He's a big dude running at you. He's got an extra blocker. It's tough. It's a lot on a defense."
"On the field, he's a competitor, he's a leader, he's everything you ask for," wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. "Look at Cam. He's a freak of nature. There is no one in the NFL you can compare him to. What guy is 6-foot-5 who can throw a bomb like he can throw it and pull it down and run like he can do?"
On Sunday, prior to the Panthers' impressive 37-29 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Newton added maintenance to his resume. A Packers fan hung a Packers banner in the Panthers' Bank of America Stadium. Concerned about home-field advantage and proper home-field stadium décor, Newton ripped down the sign.
"It was a Green Bay Packers banner in Bank of America Stadium," Newton said. "It just doesn't match."
Assuming he doesn't get too bogged down in keeping stadium signage uniform, what you see now will only get better over the next year or two. Shula and Rivera continue to work with Newton on the balance of his running and passing. One problem he has is when he runs too much, it messes up his footwork and causes him to throw high on certain passes.
Newton was a master of the long pass Sunday. He completed three-of-five passes for 150 yards and one touchdown on balls that sailed 30-plus yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Newton likes it when he's standing tall in the pocket.
Shula said one improved trait of Newton's is when he's in the pocket, he's willing to stay in the pocket to go through his progressions and find the open receiver.
"He does a nice job in the pocket," Shula said. "He's not going to be a guy who's going to leave the pocket. He's never done that. He may see the lane and go. It's not like he's looking at the first receiver and then going. Sometimes we have to tell him to get out of there quicker."
In the pocket. Deep passing. Control of the offense. The balance of run and pass. Newton is improving as he takes on more and more. The numbers don't always show it, but Newton and the Panthers are No. 1 in the NFC, and Newton is responsible for more than ever, a balance Carolina can live with, even if Cam's critics can't.
Inside the Huddle
• The foot injury that should sideline Ben Roethlisberger for a couple of weeks could put the Steelers on the outside looking in for the wild card. That should help wild-card contenders such as the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and, yes, the Oakland Raiders, the team that lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday, 38-35. The Steelers showed during the four games Roethlisberger was out with the MCL sprain that they could struggle but play .500 during his absence. They might be able to beat Cleveland next week without Ben, but beating Seattle on the road without him? Tough.
• No knock on former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but Rob Chudzinski, given the coordinator job this week, seems to have a more comfortable system of play calls for Andrew Luck. The Colts showed a run commitment that has been lacking for years. Luck was great against the Denver blitz and got away with only one sack. He was great on third downs. The win reduces the pressure on Chuck Pagano for the next couple of weeks.
• I'm sorry, I thought Dan Quinn made a mistake by going for the field goal instead of the fourth-and-1 with three minutes left in the Falcons' 17-16 loss to San Francisco. That gave the 49ers the ability to convert one first down, run out the clock and win, which is what they did. Quinn has Matt Ryan, one of the best fourth-quarter quarterbacks in the game. He has a suspect defense. He has a team that is going to be in a lot of close, one-possession games. If Quinn believes in his defense, he is better served by going for it. If Ryan failed, the Falcons might have gotten better field position if the 49ers couldn't get a first down from the 1.
• Just when everyone was starting to believe in the New Orleans Saints' ability to take advantage of an easy schedule and make a playoff run, they lose 34-28 at home to Tennessee. Saints coach Sean Payton said if the young roster doesn't develop more consistency, the season will slip away. At 4-5, the Saints are getting better, but they've lost their home-field advantage despite a loud crowd and the defense is a mess.
• Rex Ryan did his part in turning around the Bills' slow start with an easy 33-17 victory over Miami. Now, he faces a road game against his former team, the New York Jets, on Thursday. "I can't stand 'em," Ryan said in jest. "No, I'm just kidding. I haven't thought about it for one second." Everyone else will. Ryan versus Todd Bowles, who had a nice 28-23 victory over Jacksonville, will be a great scene. Meanwhile, the Dan Campbell vibe has lost some steam. The Dolphins have lost back-to-back AFC East games and are now 0-4 in the division.
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was right for blasting the Rams for Lamarcus Joyner's hit on a sliding Teddy Bridgewater. Zimmer barely acknowledged Jeff Fisher after the 21-18 win and blasted defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was involved in Bountygate. Bridgewater suffered a concussion and his status is unclear.