It's time to focus on an early, under-the-radar MVP candidate -- because Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has earned the attention. No signal-caller has accomplished more with less than Newton, whose signature Superman celebration seems particularly appropriate these days.
"He's definitely playing at a very, very high level," ESPN analyst Ryan Clark said on the phone. "He's making good decisions, making good throws, running at the right time, picking up first downs, and doing everything you want from a guy to carry a team. Really, you could make a strong case Cam is playing MVP football right now."
Let's review the evidence.
At 3-0, the Panthers are one of only seven undefeated teams. Has their schedule been on the easier side? Sure -- Jacksonville, Houston and New Orleans are 2-7 combined (and Carolina faced the Saints without Drew Brees). But remember: Newton has essentially been a solo artist on offense during the Panthers' impressive start.
At first glance, Cam's statistics don't merit a second look: The two-time Pro Bowler has passed for 685 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, and is second on the team with 144 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. Add it all up, and Newton's Total QBR comes in at 60.7, 13th in the league.
Those are solid -- albeit not spectacular -- numbers. But they don't account for an offensive line that's struggled (Newton has been pressured on 27.7 percent of dropbacks, 22nd overall) and a wide receiver corps that ranks at or near the bottom of the league. "Here's what you have to understand: Cam doesn't have anybody around him," Clark said. "You look at the great quarterbacks in the league, they have at least one, and sometimes several, great receivers. Cam? He doesn't have that."
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was on the fast track to stardom, coaches around the league say, after catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014, but he suffered a knee injury in August and will miss the season. After Benjamin was sidelined, journeyman wideout Ted Ginn, with just 60 catches in his past 35 games, moved to the top of the Panthers' depth chart. That's not where he does his best work.
Although the Panthers don't have a No. 1-caliber wideout, they do have a top tight end: Greg Olsen. With 15 receptions for 215 yards and two touchdowns already this season, Olsen is Newton's favorite target.
Olsen's presence, though, hasn't lessened the load on Newton as much as you would think. "[Olsen] is his go-to guy," Clark said. "He's also Cam's deep-ball guy. He's his safety net [when plays go awry]. His security blanket on third down.
"That's a whole lot your quarterback is trying to get from one guy. When your quarterback doesn't have options, it just puts more on him. And you also have to understand everything Cam is doing from the quarterback position in that offense."
The Panthers have put their own twist on the no-huddle approach that's en vogue throughout the league. They're not interested in the hurry-up component most teams utilize. Instead, Carolina aims to control the clock, which is how coach Ron Rivera prefers to play.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula provides Newton with the pre-snap formation and multiple plays from which to choose. The rest is up to Newton, who has done his job spectacularly, Rivera said.
"We're giving Cam an opportunity to read the defense and put us in the right call; then he has to make a decision on what he sees, and he has been great at it," said Rivera, who has guided the Panthers to consecutive NFC South titles.
"The big thing that we're seeing right now is his improvement as an overall quarterback. His technique, footwork and his ability to make decisions on throwing the ball ... he's better at all of it. He has taken those next steps as a quarterback."
Carolina quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey has helped Newton make strides. But Dorsey is quick to correct anyone who suggests that the QB's success is based entirely on his incredible physical gifts. (At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Cam ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds at the combine.) "He's doing a nice job, obviously, on the field, but also off the field with his preparation," Dorsey said. "He's doing all those things that it takes to put him in position to be where you want him to be: studying, working really hard and developing a good rapport with the guys around him. The whole thing is exciting to see."
While he has improved both inside and outside the pocket, Newton also may be the Panthers' best option in the running game. Starting back Jonathan Stewart, in his eighth season, last played a full 16-game schedule in 2011.
"That aspect of the game isn't respected [as much as passing yardage]," Clark said. "With the way the game is now, a lot of people look at it like that's not important for a quarterback. But if you look at what Aaron Rodgers does, most of it is because of his mobility.
"Many times, Cam rushes for a first down, which extends drives and allows his team to score. You have a lot of people out there who don't acknowledge the effect that has on the game. But everything counts. You have to take a look at everything he does that helps them. You have to add up everything that leads to wins for the Carolina Panthers."
The list seems to grow longer by the day. And if Newton keeps it going, the final tally figures to be difficult for MVP voters to ignore.