Panthers' Newton puts together best three-game stretch

jjones@charlotteobserver.comOctober 26, 2013 

The captain’s ‘C’ patch on Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s jersey was two seasons in the making.

No. 1, a digit no other Panther has ever worn, can be seen on more jerseys in the stands at Bank of America Stadium on Sundays than any other.

But in the Panthers meeting room, all of that status is stripped away, Newton says.

With quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey and offensive coordinator Mike Shula, with wide receivers and running backs, the motto in the meeting room is “rankless and tagless.”

“So you take your name tag, your coaching tag, your player captain tag off, and if something’s not right, you got to say it,” Newton said. “If you don’t feel comfortable, be a man and say it. That’s kind of been our approach – correcting ourselves, correcting each other and holding ourselves to a standard of being accountable.”

The approach has been effective. The Panthers have won three consecutive games before Week 9 for the first time since 2006, and Newton has strung together his career-best three-game stretch.

The numbers are relatively modest for Newton, who torched SEC and NCAA records in his Heisman-winning year at Auburn, then rewrote the NFL record books for rookies in 2011. He tallied more passing yards (7,920) in his first two years than any other quarterback in NFL history in that span.

“It’s not like it’s all of a sudden,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, “but now we see the consistency, we see the efficiency, and I think that’s all been a part of his growth. Everyone’s starting to believe so hopefully we continue that.”

Since the Panthers left Glendale, Ariz., with a 1-3 record after a humiliating 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Newton, in his third NFL season, said he has learned less is more.

Newton is 58-for-75 for 667 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions in the past three games, along with 30 rushes for 106 yards and two scores.

And for the first time in his career, Newton has a winning record. The Panthers are 4-3.

“I think he’s figured out that he doesn’t have to do it all on his own,” veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “He isn’t playing like on fire, he’s just being great at being the quarterback and doing what we asked him to do. He’s throwing the ball well, he’s smart with the ball, which is awesome. When he does run, he’s running the ball well. I feel like he’s playing with less pressure than he had in the past.”

Thursday night, following Carolina’s 31-13 win against Tampa Bay, Newton said it’s not all him, and that it doesn’t have to be.

“If you want to solely say I’m playing great, it also means that a lot of other guys are playing great behind the scenes,” Newton said. “This is not a one-man show. I understand that, and I will not have that type of attitude. We have an offensive line that’s playing light’s out, we are running the ball when we want to and when we have to, and (we have) receivers who are making plays.”

Success by the numbers

Could it be that simple, that everything has coalesced for these Panthers?

After giving up seven sacks at Arizona, Carolina’s offensive line has allowed six total sacks in the past three games. On third downs, Newton is averaging a league-high 10.32 yards per pass attempt with a 122.7 passer rating.

Consider the Panthers’ defense is one of the best in the NFL, allowing touchdowns on 37.5 percent of opponents’ trips to the red zone (third in the league), creating 15 turnovers and giving up 13.7 points per game, second-best in the league.

On special teams, kicker Graham Gano is third in the NFL in touchbacks with 30 in 36 kickoffs on the season, almost guaranteeing the opponent will start from the 20.

The coaching staff gets credit, too. Rivera’s about-face on fourth-down philosophy, previously ultra-conservative, has extended early scoring drives in two of the past three games and has Carolina tied for second in the NFL in fourth-down efficiency.

“We’re 4-3, so it’s not desperate,” receiver Steve Smith said of Rivera. “You take it as a guy who believes in the offense, believes in the team. You have to look at it personally and say, ‘What were some of the things we were doing offensively that he didn’t believe we could do that?’

“Instead of getting upset or defensive, you look in the mirror and go, hey, these are the reasons why. Those are the things we’ve worked on, and obviously there’s a big difference.”

A different situation

This isn’t the first time Newton has played mistake-free football. Last year he went 176 completions without an interception, but that came in the second-third of the season, with the Panthers already out of playoff contention.

Now the games matter. And the normally buttoned-up Newton admitted after Thursday night’s win that not all games are created equal.

“We just have to continue to keep meshing as a team and keep getting momentum in these upcoming weeks because we are about to hit the meat of our schedule and we are going to need every single ounce of energy that we will have,” Newton said.

In November, the Panthers face Atlanta, New England, San Francisco and Miami. Those four are a combined 15-11, a stark contrast to the combined 5-22 record of the four teams Carolina has beaten so far this year.

Newton said he’ll take a quasi-bye this weekend and come back Monday to prepare for Atlanta, the team he grew up cheering for in suburban Atlanta.

And trying to extend the best three-game stretch of his career into four.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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