SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Most of Cam Newton’s teammates had already headed up the hill after practice to their locker room at Wofford College, and then to the cafeteria. But on this muggy morning early in training camp, Newton lingered down below. He coursed the full length of a side practice field, stopping at each yardage line—every five yards—to do a burpee. Stand, squat, jump back to a plank, squat, jump up.
During the final few minutes of practice, Newton had lobbed a hanging throw in the direction of Kelvin Benjamin. Safety Tre Boston undercut the route, snatched the pass in the air and returned it with a free path to the end zone. Newton waved him off in frustration and headed to the sideline. Now, he was punishing himself.
“Pick discipline,” Newton said. “I just do it. Holding yourself accountable. Because in a game you don’t have the luxury to discipline yourself for doing something that hurts the team. That’s all.”
Herein is the competitive fire of Newton that fascinated the nation last year. It propelled the Panthers to a 15-1 season, and it also made the 27-year-old quarterback an object of scrutiny for his terse postgame press conference minutes after losing Super Bowl 50 to the Broncos. Entering the 2016 season, there’s even more curiosity surrounding him. Namely, after the game that was both the greatest height and the greatest disappointment of his NFL career, how will he follow up?
Newton’s approach, so far, has been to put last season in the rearview mirror. Firmly. Case in point: Between Feb. 7 and Aug. 5, when he sat down for an interview, he had not yet watched the film of Super Bowl 50. Of course, the schedule gods have made a date with that footage inevitable: The Panthers open their season on Sept. 8 in Denver.
“I better watch it then,” Newton says. “But I haven’t had a need to watch that film.”
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Ron Rivera, the Panthers’ head coach, has carefully culled his messages to his team this offseason. One underlying theme, derived from his coaching mentor, Hall of Famer John Madden: In order to get to where we want to go, we can’t expect to start from where we finished. We have to start from the bottom and work our way up again.
As hard as it has been for Super Bowl winners to return to the big game, over the past two decades it’s been even harder for Super Bowl losers. Players scatter. Opponents adjust to the schemes that got those teams as far as the final game. Expectations and pressures change. That’s even more true for the reigning league MVP, who threw for 35 touchdowns last season and rushed for 10 more, living up to his promise that he'd play in a way that the world hadn't seen before.
“The next step [for Newton] may be not worrying about the next step,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula says. “Not feeling like, I’ve gotta do better than I did last year; I’ve gotta have more explosive plays. We put up good numbers last year, but our mindset and his mindset needs to be, don’t worry about the numbers—let’s just worry about wins. Teams are going to play us differently, as they do every year. If teams aren’t going to let us have explosive plays, then we have to be patient. Fighting the battle of, ‘Hey, what happened last year? How come we’re not having as many plays?’ If that happens. We just want to go win games.”
Newton is on the same page. He’s thinking small. He credited Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, a receiver for the NFL champion Baltimore Colts in 1959, for turning his attention to better accuracy on the short, gimme throws, not just the deep spirals he launched as well as any quarterback in the league last season. Including the playoffs run, analytics site Pro Football Focus ranked him second in the NFL in accuracy on deep throws, completing 48.8 percent. His overall completion rate, though, was just a tick under 60 percent, the threshold most coaches want their QBs to cross.
“Sometimes when you have a play call, it’s built to get 20 to 30 yards, but if it’s not there, that’s what I mean about outlets,” Newton says. “Reacting to the defense, and taking what they give us. Don’t put stress on the offensive line, don’t put stress on the protection, just get the ball out of my hands, get it to a guy and let him do what he is good at. If the defense is bringing a blitz, and you know the protection is about to give up, just get the ball out of my hands rather than taking a sack or scrambling. When you look at last season, that was one of the main emphases, of getting back to the basics, and knowing how and where my outlets are.”
This makes sense in the context of last season. Pressure affects all quarterbacks, but even before Super Bowl 50 it affected Newton more than others. He was a top-three passer when he had a clean pocket, but his passer rating dropped more than 40 points when under pressure, into the bottom half of the league.
And it certainly makes sense in the context of the Super Bowl, a game in which a pass rusher won the MVP award and Newton was sacked six times and hit on about one-quarter of his dropbacks. Errors on the offensive side of the ball were plenty—drops, missed assignments, too few run plays called. But there were also at least seven throws that Newton just missed, sailing wild high or too wide, on both short and long passes. The Panthers found themselves with 8 yards or more to go on 12 of their 15 third downs, restricting their play options while opening the door for the Broncos pass rush.
But these are dots both Newton and Shula, perhaps as a defense mechanism, take great care to say should not be connected with their points of emphasis for this season.
“Absolutely not,” Newton says. “I don’t want to get to the point where I am preparing from the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl has came and gone. I am looking past that. Just trying to find ways to become a better me. Yeah, we had a great season last year, but that’s last year. There are still things we have to improve at, nor are we going to be able to be at the point we were at last year without starting from scratch. That’s where we are right now.”
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This offseason Newton felt the need to “miss” the game a little bit. He wanted to come back with a fresh mind. He filmed a Nickelodeon show, All In With Cam Newton, in Los Angeles. He was on site for the 7-on-7 tournament series for high school players sponsored by his foundation. He spent time with his son, Chosen, who was born in December between Weeks 15 and 16. He reported to Wofford at the end of July, and embraced the narrow focus inherent to the day-to-day camp grind.
“My main focus is still trying to knock off the cobwebs of becoming a better me, evolving as a team, getting back on the same rhythm as the receivers,” Newton says.
Every player handles moving on from the previous season differently. Until preparation begins for Week 1, Newton has seen no need to rewatch Super Bowl 50, but he flatly rejects the notion that watching it would be hard. “It’s not hard to do something I haven’t done,” he scoffs.
A handful of defensive coaches elsewhere around the league expressed surprise that, by the start of camp, Newton had not yet watched the tape, believing it to be critical to how he should adjust for 2016. One opposing coach referenced the way that Michael Jordan, after perennially running into the bigger and badder Pistons in the late ’80s, resolved to bulk up and become more physical in response. That helped Jordan and the Bulls break through for their first run of three straight titles.
“There’s a lot of guys that probably wouldn’t watch,” Shula says. “I don’t want to speak for him, but obviously the No. 1 reason would be, you put everything on the line each and every week, you get yourself to the potential pinnacle of the season and then you fall short, so it is heartbreaking. But you move past that, and you go on. I wouldn’t look into that too much, and here’s why: We’re going to play them the first week. He knows we are going to watch a bunch of the Broncos and that game as we get ready to open against them.”
“Long story short, I really couldn’t care less about the Super Bowl. My main focus is trying to become a better me.”
The coaches have already gone through that tape, parsing out the good and the bad—the beautifully arched 42-yard pass Newton aired out to Philly Brown four plays before firing too high and too hard on a throw to Ted Ginn that was intercepted inside the red zone. Shula, the play-caller, agonized over ways the Panthers could have been more productive on early downs and avoided those third-and-longs. He’s strategized how he’ll present that film to his players as Week 1 gets closer.
“It’s not just saying, you’ve gotta do it better. Reiterate to them exactly what we have to do,” Shula says. “Show them the good and why it was good. Show them the bad and why it was bad. And show them some other ideas off of some of the looks the Broncos already used against us.”
The Panthers are still a month away from opening their new season in Denver. But that first game on their calendar is something of a litmus test for the question that will define their season: How have they moved on, and improved, from Super Bowl 50? Newton, for his part, would prefer that questions about the future no longer reference the past. Ask him about rebounding from that day in Santa Clara in February, and and six months later, he still bristles.
“It’s a lot of Super Bowl questions, geeze,” he says. “Long story short, I really couldn’t care less about the Super Bowl. There’s nothing I can do about it. I have learned from it, but my main focus now and up until the season starts is trying to become a better me. I can’t change what’s done in the past. It’s already done.”
Newton would rather do another round of pick discipline than answer any more questions about Super Bowl 50. And if you want to know how he’s following up on last season, that is all the answer you need.
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