Cam Newton doesn’t look like Jake Delhomme. Doesn’t play like him. Can’t mimic the Cajun accent.
And yet these days when I hear Newton talk about his teammates, I am reminded of Delhomme’s interviews during his best years with the Panthers.
Delhomme was legendary for deflecting credit and accepting blame. He always claimed his 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith that ended the double overtime playoff game against St. Louis was “all Steve.” Any interception he would automatically blame on himself. His teammates loved him for this.
And Newton does more and more of that these days as he grows into the role he has so long wanted to play – that of an elite quarterback on a winning NFL team. He is starting to become Delhomme, but with a better arm and legs.
I asked Newton how it felt to finally go into December as a quarterback playing games that matter, like the one Sunday night at New Orleans that will be for the NFC South lead. He good-naturedly batted the question aside.
“Your question is great,’ Newton said, “but your question is trying to make it a ‘me’ thing. We all wanted this. As a writer for The Charlotte Observer, writing about a 2-14 team is not going to get a lot of views. You know that and I know that.... Yeah, it’s great to be around this type of atmosphere. But to hell with it if we don’t continue to keep going and keep challenging ourselves.”
Newton has learned to trust his teammates during this 9-3 season. And while he hasn’t stopped the “Superman” touchdown celebration or the first-down point, he is far quicker to credit teammates than he used to be. He doesn’t necessarily believe that, but it’s true.
“I hear it all the time,” Newton acknowledged. “Maybe I just have the blinders on like one of those horses downtown that goes around carrying the couples. I’m just trying to stay focused. Even though we’re having a great season, it could be better.
“I don’t want to take the credit for things that I’m not doing. It’s just not No.1 out there on the field. The plays that were made this past Sunday, I couldn’t have done it without Steve [Smith] making an unbelievable block (on Newton’s 56-yard run), and the time in the pocket. With me realizing that, it makes everything go smoothly.”
Is this the real Newton now, or is he simply being coached in interviews?
“This is not a facade,” he said. “This is not fake. This is not something that somebody’s prepping me to say – to deflect all the credit off yourself. It’s true. If I wasn’t being honest with you guys, I wouldn’t have the integrity to go back in that locker room and look those guys in their eyes.”
‘It’s way better’
Newton’s teammates have noticed the difference in his demeanor. The player once referred to as “Mr. Mopeyhead” by coach Ron Rivera now is much more “up” on the sideline far more often when things are going poorly, as Delhomme always did.
Said wide receiver Brandon LaFell of how Newton carries himself now as opposed to when he was a rookie: “It’s way better.... Back then, if we turned the ball over, he got down on himself pretty bad.”
LaFell said he noticed the change in Newton starting when the Panthers went 5-1 to close out the 2012 season.
“It started at the end of last year,” LaFell said. “When you’ve got the type of talent that Cam has got, you can really take over a game at any second. You can’t blame him for having that type of talent – God gave him that. But at the end of last year, I think he started trusting us more as receivers. He let us go make plays. He got the ball out of his hand quicker and let us run after the catch more.”
Said Rivera: “When we were scouting Cam going way back when.... several of the coaches from the SEC that I talked to said the same thing, that without him, that was a 7-7 Auburn team.”
With Newton, of course, Auburn went 14-0 and won the national title. And so Newton tried to carry that same burden in the NFL for awhile.
“You kind of got that sense that he was trying to put a lot on his shoulders and handle it all by himself,” Rivera said. “I think Brandon’s right. Cam has learned to trust his teammates.”
That’s what Delhomme did. And, at the same time, Newton has simply become a smarter player in his third year.
It’s not like Newton’s career in the NFL started slowly, of course. He passed for 400-plus yards in his first two games. But that was more on a wing and a prayer.
Said Rivera: “The one thing a lot of people forget is he only played one year of major college football.... Even though he burst onto the scene, he burst onto the scene because he was making plays because of his abilities – more so than knowing what he was really, truly doing. Now he knows it. He feels it. And he’s got confidence in himself and his teammates.”
Specifically, Newton’s involvement with game-planning and his success rate on audibles has increased. We have all seen Peyton Manning conduct a graduate-level course in how to read a defense at the line of scrimmage. Newton isn’t to that level, of course, but he is progressing.
Rivera said the first touchdown pass Newton threw Sunday against Tampa Bay was an alteration in a route that Newton had suggested to offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterback coach Ken Dorsey Saturday night only a few hours before the game.
Recounted Rivera: “Cam said, ‘You know, I like what we do here, but what if we do this instead.’ Mike called it the first time they got in the red zone and Cam threw the touchdown to Brandon LaFell. And in the second half coming out against Miami, Cam called a quarterback keep on a touchdown play. Mike had sent something else in, and he audibled out of it. That’s all part of the growth.”
Newton was great at times during his first two seasons, too. But the Panthers went a combined 13-19. Now they are 9-3, and so of course everything smells better. He knows that.
Said Newton: “If we were losing right now there would probably be some things in The Charlotte Observer about ‘Oh, Cam is not the leader we expected him to be, he’s not the franchise quarterback.’ I understand that... I respect that. That’s the name of this game. Coach Rivera always says we have one job and one job only, and that’s to win.”
The gum superstition
And then, like Delhomme, Newton ended his group interview Wednesday on a tangent. Delhomme was an expert on doing that – he’d usually start talking about horses.
For Newton, it was about gum. He chews gum constantly in games because his mouth gets too dry without it and he has a hard time calling the plays. But there turns out to be a system to when he changes sticks.
“I just depend on Wrigley’s Winterfresh chewing gum to get me through the adverse times in the game,” he said. “.... And in a given game, the superstition comes. You made a big play? Even if the gum is rock solid, you can’t take it out. You got to keep fighting through it. You may put another piece of gum in, but that’s that playmaking gum. But if you’re sucking, of course, you’ve got to toss that gum.”