Like Saints' Drew Brees, Panthers' Cam Newton struggled early

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 19, 2013 

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees became the fifth, and fastest, quarterback to throw for 50,000 career yards during the first half of the Saints’ 31-13 win against the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago.

It was yet another milestone in a career that will surely be topped with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But his early career trajectory was anything but worthy of Canton, Ohio.

After his third season in San Diego – during which he was benched and had career lows in yards, touchdowns and completion percentage – the Chargers selected a quarterback in the first round of the 2004 draft.

Cam Newton, Brees’ opposing quarterback on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, has had ups and downs in the league, too. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he has never thought about benching Newton, and Newton has done much more through his first three years than Brees accomplished before going on to set records later in his career, which is in its 13th season.

“So much of being a young quarterback in this league is just kind of trial by fire, you learn along the way,” Brees said. “You have your good performances and then your tough performances and maybe even tough stretches. It’s very much a learning process.

“I know obviously Cam is only in his third year there, but I just think there’s a level of consistency that’s around him. It’s a credit to that team, to that coaching staff and what they’ve been able to build there. Certainly his progression as a quarterback has been impressive to see. He’s a big-time player.”

A second-round pick by the Chargers in 2001, Brees played in one game in his rookie year behind Doug Flutie. He beat out Flutie for the starting job the next year, passing for 3,284 yards and 17 touchdowns with 16 interceptions as the Chargers went 8-8.

Brees followed that up with a disastrous 2003 season. He threw four more interceptions than touchdowns in a 2-9 start, passing for 2,108 yards in 11 games before being benched.

“The one thing I noticed about Drew Brees, they started out 2-9 so they tried to run him out of the city when I first got there,” said Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence, who was a rookie in San Diego in 2003. “He didn’t let any of that stuff affect him. He came in and had his routine. He was always one of the first guys there, last guys to leave.”

Florence pointed to a young group of offensive players around Brees, such as third-year running back LaDainian Tomlinson and rookie tight end Antonio Gates. But by the time those players matured, San Diego had already gone to get the future of the franchise with their famous draft-day trade in 2004 for N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers (after drafting Eli Manning No. 1 overall).

Brees won the starting job that season, though, and was so dramatically better on the field that he won the NFL’s comeback player of the year award – an honor usually reserved for players coming back from a serious injury. But a season-ending shoulder injury at the end of his rookie contract was the “writing on the wall” in San Diego, Florence said.

Last year, the Panthers started 2-8 with Newton in his second year as the starter. Rivera decided not to bench Newton – selected first overall in 2011 – for performance reasons, like Brees had been, or to rest him and protect him from injury, like what is happening in Washington with Robert Griffin III.

“As far as I was concerned and as far as our franchise is concerned, the commitment was made that he was going to be our guy,” Rivera said. “In comparison no way to what’s going on up there (in Washington), it’s all about what I’ve decided for us going forward.

“I’ve most certainly hitched my wagon to Cam, and that’s just the way it is for us. For this football team, it’s all about Cam and it’s about the other 52 players for us. That’s who we’re making a commitment to, and that’s who we’re staying with.”

When Brees signed with the Saints in 2006, first-year head coach Sean Payton offered an offense tailor-made to his style.

In eight seasons with New Orleans, Brees hasn’t passed for fewer than 4,000 yards or 25 touchdowns in a season. He has gone to six Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl.

When coordinator Doug Marrone left for Syracuse after running the offense for Brees for three seasons, Payton promoted quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael to coordinator, a position he has held since 2009.

That continuity was a key for Brees.

“Oh yeah, it’s definitely important, especially when you’re talking about the scheme that you’re running,” Brees said. “You get a couple of years in the same system and you really start to kind of master it and make it your own.”

Seeking the same kind of continuity, Rivera promoted quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator after Rob Chudzinski left for Cleveland in January.

Each week, Newton and Shula meet and discuss what plays he’s comfortable with, and Newton calls those meetings an “open forum.”

“And Coach Shula knows me, the types of plays that I like, the player who I am, with him being my quarterbacks coach before having an opportunity to be the coordinator,” Newton said. “With him putting a game plan together, we always have discussions, talks about the things that I like, the things I don’t like. And even if he guesses wrong, he still comes to me to talk about it.”

Brees and Newton will meet for the sixth and most important time Sunday, a proven veteran against a former No. 1 pick, and both players know what it’s like to have early struggles.

Brees’ career has taken off since those early years. The Panthers hope for the same with Newton.

“I think now he’s on track,” Rivera said. “He’s where we hoped he would be, and he’s got a long way to go still because I do think he’s got potential for growth as far as he’s concerned.

“And because of that, I think the potential for growth on this football team is huge.”

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

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