Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton may not have had the best Pro Bowl anybody can remember, but it's hard to remember anything else that didn't come up roses for the 2011 first-overall draft pick. With a Panthers team that may have had the worst aerial attack in modern NFL history before he arrived, Newton became the first NFL quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards and rush for over 500 in the same season, and he also eclipsed Peyton Manning's rookie passing record with 4,051 yards through the air. The threat he presented as a running quarterback opened things up for Carolina's running backs, and veteran Steve Smith had a renaissance season catching passes from one of the more impressive young quarterbacks we've seen.
Odd in retrospect that Newton was considered by many to be far from ready for the NFL big-time — many draft analysts picked him apart to the point of forensics, and many of them proposed that while Newton was exceptionally physically gifted, he didn't have a head for the pro playbook.
So much for the experts. When he talked to Yahoo! Sports from Indianapolis on Thursday, Newton first discussed that transition so many didn't think he could make.
Coming from a one-year spread offense tutelage at Auburn after washing out at Florida and setting records at Blinn College, Newton apparently didn't present the profile of a quarterback who would gain expansive knowledge of NFL defenses on a week-to-week basis, but that's exactly what happened. More importantly, Newton was able to act on that knowledge in ways that left many of those same experts gasping for superlatives.
In town to promote his Under Armour Highlight cleat (available next month in a retail version), Newton had a lot to say about a move that leaves a lot of great college quarterbacks trying to find oxygen in rarefied air.
"It wasn't hard at all," Newton said of the move to the pros. "I think the stigma was put on me of not being able to learn a whole new system — especially a pro-style system. One thing I can only look back to is me being the best player I can be. When I want to Auburn, I made a decision that I was going to maximize my performance there, and it just so happened that the philosophy of the coordinator there was of a spread offense. If it was a Wing-T, I would have run the Wing-T the best I could. If it was a pro-style, same thing there. So here I am, trying to maximize my performance level, to be a great [sic]. Going in week in and week out, trying to get an edge up on any opponent I'm faced with."
Of course, he did have help, starting with Smith, who seemed to know that right away, the new kid was going to get him throws that Jimmy Clausen couldn't dream of. That's how it played out, and Smith showed his appreciation by making sure that the rookie knew the ropes.
"Steve helped me so much on and off the field," Newton said. "Coming into this league, I had a big brother in him. He helped me with transforming that mentality of college — what the customs are in college — and now, your teammates are grown men. He pushed me forward to mature faster than anyone else. He took me under his wing and made my whole transition very smooth. Not only him, but guys like Ryan Kalil, Jordan Gross — all those guys on the offensive side of the ball helped me out a lot."
Because of that help, and Newton's own preternatural ability to digest the playbook and spit it out all over every defense, he didn't really experience the option anxiety so common to rookie quarterbacks. Carolina's coaching staff brought him along to a degree, but the extent to which he was able to move through that playbook was, quite simply, incredible.
"I don't know that I was ever faced with that, because every point in the season — even with the last game — I've always felt that I was trying to get better and learn something new — it was always new to me. It was my rookie season, and I was just trying to be the best player I could be.
"I think the game plan has to rise. So many people have been a part of my maturation into this league, and what I did on my rookie season, and they're going to expect me to do better things. And I'm going to expect myself to do better things. I'm going to focus on becoming a better quarterback, protecting the football more, and see where that gets me."
He also had help from a couple of experts — IMG's Chris Weinke (whom we interviewed a few months back — you can read that here and here) and George Whitfield. "Chris was a big part of me working toward success in the NFL. Especially with that lockout. With Chris as a coach, with George Whitfield as a coach, these guys are very credible in their sense of knowing the game. I got so much help from those guys, and a lot of it went unnoticed."
Of course — and we'll put this as delicately as we can — part of the "stigma" surrounding Newton's supposed lack of game intelligence had other roots, and you don't need a weatherman to know which way that particular wind blows. I asked Newton what he'd tell RGIII about that war of perception if he could — where a young man who wants to be a lawyer some day is still questioned about his ability to dissect a zone blitz on the fly.
"Coming into this league, you've got to mix the good with the bad," Newton said. "You're never going to be sold on somebody [some people will not be sold on you], and you're never going to be good enough for a particular critic. One thing I would tell him, and Andrew Luck, and all the other quarterbacks, would be to just stay sane throughout the madness. Some people are going to think that you're the world, and some people are going to think that you're under the world. With [Griffin], with what he did, and with the Heisman Trophy, what he did in college was unbelievable. I'm a big fan of a lot of those guys. But that transition has to upgrade to bigger and better things. Just coming into the league, you have to be compatible and you have to try and learn more. And be more."
For Newton and the Panthers, being more is partially about moving up in the NFC South, perhaps the most competitive division in the NFL. Carolina's moving from the ground up — what does Newton think it will take in his Year 2 to make that move? As he said, the first step is to get the other guy out of your head.
"We just need to focus on us. A lot of the time, we got caught up in what other people were doing, including myself, and it took away from us finishing games. If we get into that mentality that we only worry about us, and how we execute, and how we finish games, we can put ourselves in a better position to win."
Cam Newton's first NFL season was fascinating in many ways. What will he do for an encore? When the 2012 season starts, that will be a story well worth watching.