Scout's Eye: Newton's star shines brightly

Posted Dec. 26, 2011 @ 8:49 p.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

There are 53 personalities on a team, and they are all going to be different, and all leave room for criticism.

Brett Favre hated training camp. Peyton Manning could be described as a loner in his preparation habits. Tom Brady now spends more time in the offseason with his supermodel wife than he does with teammates. Philip Rivers juggles the responsibility of being a father to six young children. Ben Roethlisberger has been scarred by motorcycles, alcohol and women.

When it comes to quarterbacking talent, there is one stabilizing force — winning.

If Cam Newton finds a way to win consistently in Carolina — and his record-breaking performance as a rookie showed why his talent was every bit deserving of the first overall pick — he will make it easy for teammates, coaches and fans to forget about any shortcomings.

In his rookie season, Newton brought a big-play flair to the Panthers' offense that was unprecedented in the history of the National Football League. He not only made throws that few NFL quarterbacks could make — he ran over and around defenses, like he did on the 49-yard run through the heart of the Buccaneers' "D" in the third quarter in Week 16. The perfectly placed deep ball he lasered 35 yards from the endzone to Brandon LaFell, directly over the head of an undercutting A.J. Biggers, resulted in a 91-yard TD and provided the big-play capability the Panthers have sought to establish as the signature of their offense.

I was among many NFL evaluators who were skeptical about Newton's pro prospects. Even his harshest critics — myself included — in the NFL evaluation community, including a number who had removed his name from their draft boards, privately have admitted that he has exceeded their expectations as a rookie, acknowledging that they underestimated his competitiveness and fluid release. Detractors and supporters alike point to the job that Panthers GM Marty Hurney has done to support Newton and how well offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and QB coach Mike Shula have tailored the offense to his strengths.

"The most underrated trade in the NFL," one executive said, "was for (TE) Greg Olsen. They already had (Jeremy) Shockey. The O-line was good, even after they lost three starters. What you have to remember — Cam did not have much talent at Auburn. Marty put a heckuva cast around the kid, and he blossomed."

"Do you remember what 'Chud' did with Derek Anderson?" another evaluator said, remaining skeptical of what the coming years will bring. "He was awful — still is — and 'Chud' put him in the Pro Bowl that year in Cleveland. Don't forget it — he can make average quarterbacks look great."

By pairing Olsen with the veteran Shockey and going to great lengths to keep DeAngelo Williams from taking a better offer in free agency, Hurney complemented Newton with the best backfield in football, and Chudzinski helped build Newton's confidence, with a shortened offseason, by installing the offense judiciously.

The majority of Newton's throws against Tampa Bay were short, simple laterals, swing passes and screens that allowed his supporting cast to create in space. After Newton hit LaFell for a big gain, he came back the following drive looking for big strikes twice, missing Steve Smith wildly coming across the middle and then nearly throwing an interception directly into the hands of an outstretched Geno Hayes. At the start of the next drive early in the third quarter, Newton could be seen apologizing to Ryan Kalil after the center was flagged for a false-start penalty, and it rattled him the next two plays, when he threw a dirtball into double coverage and held on to it too long and took a sack.

When Newton has been pressured this season and opponents disguised coverages — as the Titans did extremely well in Week 10 — Newton has struggled, and admittedly this season said it looked like there were extra defenders on the field. For a rookie, however, his progress has been highly encouraging.

"(John) Elway was bad for a long time when he came into the league," a veteran evaluator said. "(The coaches) were worried about him initially. He was no brainiac. He had a cannon, but he also had tunnel vision and couldn't make reads. Remember how Brett Favre started — he was a dweeb when he came into the league."

"The coaching staff has done a good job of not putting a lot on the shoulders of a rookie. Their offense is a mixture of a college dive-option and NFL pro-style read. I thought they would have been more successful running it a lot more than they did, but when you get defenders loading up the box, you have to change it up."

Regardless of what direction the Panthers' offense heads in Year Two, the Panthers can feel confident they have a unique playmaker under center. If the defense can get healthy and show improvement in Ron Rivera's second season, the Panthers could stand a chance of unseating the Saints and Falcons in the highly competitive NFC South division.

• Coming within 10 seconds of being shut out by the Eagles and losing their quarterback with a throwing hand injury is not the way the Cowboys had to envision rolling into what amounts to be an NFC East championship game. When the stakes are at their greatest, there are few coaches who can outprepare, outstrategize and outwork Tom Coughlin.

Eli Manning, likewise, has been at his best this season when the pressure has been greatest, and he has been forced to work his magic in the fourth quarter. He might not be on pace to shatter records like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady, but when it comes to the fourth quarter, Manning has earned the distinction as "Captain Comeback," overcoming late deficits in five games this season, including the Week 14 game against the Cowboys.

The Cowboys, contrarily, have found ways to fold in the fourth quarter despite holding leads entering the final quarter in five of their seven losses. Although he showed some moxie early in the season against the 49ers, no quarterback in the league is more defined by bone-headed blunders in critical situations than Tony Romo. If Jason Garrett can find a way to preserve control of the division on the road in the cold on prime-time television, it would be a shocker. The mental toughness of the iron-willed leadership in New York is vastly superior to that of the Cowboys and stacks among the best in the league, a big reason why the rest of the league likely will be pulling for the Cowboys in the NFL's regular-season finale.

• Few teams have been as decimated by injury as the Rams, and despite being without Sam Bradford again this week, getting blanked by a four-TD margin against a backup quarterback of the Steelers will not make it any easier for owner Stan Kroenke to justify keeping his head coach. Steve Spagnuolo was criticized when he began to make wholesale changes to the organization and pushed out longtime employees on the training and equipment staffs, but if anything, Spagnuolo might not have cleared out enough, with league veterans pointing to the most dysfunctional front office in football as a prime reason for the team's struggles. If Spagnuolo was so bad, the question beckons — why was his last offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, plucked for a head-coaching job? And despite the Rams' offensive woes this season, why might Josh McDaniels, be in demand for the Chiefs' head-coaching job, potentially even more so if he is not fired? There's a strong likelihood, with a 10-37 career record, that Spagnuolo will be shown the door. But NFL executives remain convinced that if Spagnuolo was given the chance to hire his own personnel chief, problems could be cured more quickly than with a wholesale coaching change led by the current front office.

• With Adrian Peterson lost to a torn ACL on the first series and Christian Ponder being knocked out of the game by a hit from Adam Carriker, the Vikings were forced to put the ball in the hands of Joe Webb and he showed why Leslie Frazier was right to demote Donovan McNabb earlier in the season. The Redskins struggled to contain Cam Newton and Michael Vick earlier in the season, and Webb's added mobility gave the Redskins' defense trouble. Even if Ponder were ready in Week 17, the Vikings could benefit from giving Webb a start and seeing exactly what they have at the QB position. He has shown a lot of promise and with sub-4.4 speed, could be in line for a greater opportunity, in Minnesota or elsewhere.

• The Browns are 0-5 in their division, with Pittsburgh coming to town next week. The problems in Cleveland go well beyond the quarterback position, but the quickest way to close the gap in the NFL's most competitive division — and the only to possibly feature three playoff teams — is to upgrade at quarterback. The Browns are loaded with ammunition from last year's trade down with the Falcons and very well could wind up in the same No. 6 slot that they held a year ago. Mike Holmgren has close ties to the Stanford program and has been enamored with Andrew Luck for years. Look for the Browns to be involved in another blockbuster trade this draft season, except that they are likely to be the aggressors to move up.

• When Chargers QB Philip Rivers is in the pocket with time, he can dissect defenses as well as any quarterback in the league. As soon as he is forced to move his feet and throw on the run, he loses all the mustard on what becomes one of the NFL's weakest fastballs. The way to beat the Chargers is to dial up the pressure and flush Rivers out of his comfort zone, and the Lions did it well with four-man rushes.

• At the University of Texas, Cedric Benson had a tendency to put the ball on the carpet, and it carried into the NFL, where he frequently fumbled with the Bears. Highly respected RB coach Jim Anderson corrected the problem in Cincinnati, as Benson did a much better job of carrying the ball high and tight and securing it in traffic. In the fourth quarter against the Cardinals, he lost two fumbles deep in the Bengals' own territory that could have cost his team an otherwise outstanding performance. Had Early Doucet not tripped over his own feet while transitioning wide open in the endzone, the Cardinals easily could have tied the game late in the fourth quarter after trailing 23-0 entering the final period.

• The 49ers had gone the entire season without giving up a 100-yard rushing game or a rushing TD up until late in Week 16. With the help of a blocked punt that positioned the ball at the four-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Marshawn Lynch was able to punch it in and later cross the 100-yard rushing mark behind a makeshift offensive line, no less. While it might have zapped some luster from a record-setting defense without Patrick Willis for the third consecutive week, the Niners squeezed out another victory using their small-ball approach that allowed PK Dave Akers to set an NFL record with his 42nd field goal this season. Larry Grant, filling in for Willis, finished the game very strong, tomahawk-stripping the ball from Tarvaris Jackson as he fled the pocket to secure the narrow victory.

• Where the Niners have not received enough credit is for their confidence in drafting talent with medical concerns that alarmed other teams around the league. RB Frank Gore is one shining example, but RB Kendall Hunter, who has been excellent in a support role, fell in the same category, sliding to the middle rounds in large part because of an injury-plagued career at Oklahoma State. DT Ray McDonald was a first-round talent at Florida who slid to the third round because of knee concerns. WR Michael Crabtree had a stress fracture in his foot that knocked him down many draft boards, where the Niners happily awaited. Many evaluators wrote off CB Tarell Brown when he was at Texas playing through a leg injury, but the Niners took a chance and it paid off. Understanding where risk meets reward has paid off handsomely for one of the most physically imposing rosters in football.