By Don Banks and cover photograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography
When his spectacular rookie season — with the slew of NFL records, awards, and acclaim that came with it — ended, Cam Newton still couldn't come to grips with one statistic: The Carolina Panthers' 6–10 record in 2011.
While everyone lined up to praise him for breaking Peyton Manning's rookie passing record (4,051 yards), setting a new single-season league mark for quarterback rushing touchdowns (14), and becoming the first passer in league history to throw for 4,000 yards and run for at least 500 more in the same season, Newton didn't feel like a success. He wasn't happy with those 10 losses and a third-place finish in the NFC South. And it's that mentality that drives him as the second season of his NFL career unfolds.
All About Winning
"I'm not satisfied with anything I've done," Newton said at Panthers training camp this summer. "I play this game to win. Statistics are statistics. I don't go to the sideline and look at how many yards I have. I play with the anticipation of winning each and every game.
"Looking at the film from last year, there are some things I feel like I did right, but for the most part, I've still got to get better. I'm coming into this [year] with a whole new state of mind, throwing away what has happened and focusing on how I can make an impact right now."
In reality, Newton's teammates and coaches love that Newton is still the same guy he was as a rookie, with the same ultracompetitive nature always on display. There is no sign that Newton saw last year as anything but the first step in his development. The Panthers improved their win total by four games in 2011, and ended the season on a hopeful 4–2 run after starting 2–8.
"He's an interesting sort, because if we had won more, he might have been impressed with himself," second-year Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "I remember talking to him after he won the [AP Offensive] Rookie of the Year, and he said, 'You know, Coach, it was all good and fun being out there at the NFL Honors show, but this is not what it's all about. We went 6–10.' And he meant it, because he went back to work, and he was phenomenal the whole off-season."
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Newton's game, as advanced as it seemed when he became the first QB to start his career with a pair of 400-yard passing days, has room to improve. He has worked to master more of the complicated play calls in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's system. And he has spent time honing his mechanics, balance and footwork in the pocket, becoming more accurate throwing short and intermediate routes.
Newton aims to reduce both his interceptions (17) and sacks (35) this season, and to become quicker in his decision-making. Recognizing and reading defenses in order to get Carolina into the best play possible is another focus. He's acutely aware opponents have had a year to study him, and he'll have to make adjustments to the moves they've made to defend against him. It's part of the early-career chess game that all NFL quarterbacks play.
"One of the biggest things for any young quarterback is staying ahead of the game," Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula said. "When you have success in year one, you have to know defenses are going to do things differently against you, and that means you have to make smarter decisions. Maybe this year he might not have all those big passing numbers, because defenses will be geared to take away the big plays."
Make no mistake, Newton and the Panthers will still take their shots downfield. And his ability to elude pass pressure will continue to be a big part of how he threatens a defense. But the Panthers are hoping Newton doesn't have to do it all.
If Newton doesn't need to throw for more than 4,000 yards again, or run for more than 500 yards, it might be a case of less is more in Carolina this season. "Obviously you can't take his running away from his game, because that's a big part of how he poses so much trouble for a defense," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "But we've tried to put more weapons around him this year, too. We hope to use our entire offense this year."
Of course, Newton will still be the centerpiece of that offense. But this year, the measurement of success in Carolina will be easier to define. The only number that matters in 2012 is the one in the wins column.
"Cam already understands how this league works, and for him it all goes back to how much he hates to lose," Shula said. "After last year, he doesn't want to ever feel that way again."