As 2015 marches on towards Thanksgiving, even the most optimistic fans of the Carolina Panthers couldn't have predicted being undefeated after playing at home against Green Bay. Perennially-ignored Carolina has had long been relegated to an NFL afterthought following their playoff loss in February at Seattle (since avenged), then defeating the OTHER team in last year's NFC Championship game in back-to-back weeks.
Some things change but others stay the same.
AR-12 would glide the Pack into another NFC Championship Game against Seattle or possibly Arizona. Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning would do the same to the AFC title if they could solve New England's constant rule-stretching (to put it mildly). New Orleans and Atlanta would fight things out in the NFC South while the Dallas Cowboys and their Great Offensive Line would dominate the NFC East with or without the services of DeMarco Murray.
The reality is 2015 has brought none of the above thus far and the two undefeated teams, in and of itself unheard of this deep into a season, sees 90% of the buzz about the Deflatriots while the other 10% seems to be reasons why Arizona is better than the Panthers.
What people can't get through their THICK HEADS is that Cam Newton is a great player.
Great players redefine the game.
Cam Newton MVP?
The short answer is likely not. At least, not as long as Tom Brady remains healthy. He'll put up the nice, pretty stats in the box in the bow for Yuletide voting. Pushing 6,000 yards passing with 50 TDs and single-digit picks or thereabout. Numbers like that are hard to argue with, even taking into account today's passing rules. While Brady's arm may generate a lot of his team's yardage, the fact is they simply don't bother to try to run the ball in some games so he gets a lot of attempts. In others, the running game simply helps make his job easier. I'm not trying to minimize Brady's projected numbers, but he's a Montanesque figure in a Walshian offense. He has little to work with outside of Gronk now that Edelman is injured, but he will find people to get the ball to.
Newton likely won't ever see the type of passing numbers that the typical suspects put up in a given year. It's not his game.
All he has done is whatever he has been asked to do - and without fail. The man has put the team on his shoulders and run - and passed - his team to an NFL 3rd-best 28.4 ppg while the philosophy is one that I saw coming into focus several years ago, and that was one of a power-running offense while using play-action passing to keep things honest.
The Panthers are on the longest current winning streak in the NFL going back to last season when you look at the regular season to include all 32 teams instead of just the Super Bowl winner. Newton's cleaner than a testing room in Area 51 over the past fifteen games. Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula is finally getting things together and has a system that features multiple talents.
Newton is executing that scheme flawlessly and has been ever since (supposedly) silencing the critics with victories at Seattle and then at home against Green Bay. People try to make excuses for both, but the one for the Packers is the one that kills me.
Injuries at Wide Receiver! *Commish plays an air violin over that one*
Now, some are pointing the finger at the offensive line but the Panthers are in the midst of their fair share of injuries there, too. Right tackle and left guard are battling them especially. So far, Jonathan Stewart has played in each game so there's some stability at that position, at least.
Much of what Cam does is unable to properly quantify in his understanding of his role in the game and what he is asked to do. He has thrown a lot of passes through a lot of tight windows for completions, but detractors point to his seemingly-low 56% completion rate, but neglect to mention Pro Football Focus recently showed the Panthers wide receiver corps dropped more passes than any other.
It has largely gotten better since, although there was The Incident that I felt finally allowed me to publicly call Ted Ginn my private nickname for him of Teddy Ten Thumbs. I actually conducted a Twitter poll at the time which asked followers if they thought his problem that night were Agoraphobia or if the was in dire need of a Heimlich Maneuver being performed upon him. The team knew of his limitations despite his great speed and drafted a bookend wide receiver for the Kelvinator in the form of second-round pick Devin Funchess.
Without further getting into the nuts and bolts of the Panthers and their particulars, they entered the 2015 season with a clear young #1 WR in Kelvin Benjamin, an All-Pro TE in Greg Olsen, and doubled-down on their blueprint from last year: Get Cam Newton some tall toys!
Why tall? When he's inaccurate, he tends to miss high, it's that simple. When he's on, which so far has been all season long, he routinely hits those tight windows that the "elite" QBs seem to do at will. They also have designed throws to isolate a taller WR/TE on a relatively vertically challenged defensive back. Not only does the DB have to time his jump perfectly to have a fighting chance, but he has to turn and locate the ball in the process.
General Manager David Gettleman was aware of this when he traded up to get the young 6-5" former Michigan Wolverine. In fact, comparisons of Ginn's hands to those of Funchess' early-season play seemed unkind to Ginn even after his Sir Dropsalot performance a couple of weeks ago. BTW, the poll had him needing a Heimlich by a margin akin to that of a Presidential race in the spread, it was so close. Not sure if anyone from Florida voted, for that matter.
Despite all of these issues, the fact remains that Newton has the offense routinely spitting out the 20+ points that nearly assures victory each week with the defensive unit that they have. I'm not sure of the exact number of games that he has had a passing TD and a running TD in are this year, but it's at least half of them. I think it's either five or six now, but the point is to illustrate what I listed above: that Cam Newton has changed the game.
Team Success is Newton's Ticket to Ride
Success in his mind isn't in having to throw for 300 yards and multiple scores each game, although he has done that when necessary. He doesn't statistically soar in the passing game because the team calls fewer passing plays than running ones, which is another unique NFL stat for this offense to keep in mind. Cam runs as many option runs as anyone and adds his yet-again unique style of power running to the table in short yardage and goal line sets.
I have been joking with the other writers here this past month about taking bets on "Who is Cam gonna dunk on this week?" He has done that in the past few weeks in a row for sure. He has such long arms, big hands, and uncanny....well, cat-like balance that he can and does use to stay upright and reach the ball out to cross the plane of the goal line when things get crowded. He can actually grip the ball quite hard for control in the process while apparently not having to resort to shall we say less than regulation pressure, unlike his MVP rival in New England.
He also takes more hits than any other QB in the NFL does.
While it's not a designed part of the scheme, it's an unfortunate result of it. Newton takes all the punishment of a passer while being mobile, taking tackles/sacks off of plays where he might have thrown it away instead by virtue of being out of the pocket, I can see what he's thinking. He's wanting to get away enough to launch it, all right, but he's looking for a downfield throw or Olsen.
The point is that the offense has such a unique and against-the-grain design that traditional measures - like passing yards or TD/INT ratio - don't really apply so much to a young man with his unique talents and abilities. Not to mention the fact that the game plan spreads things around such that it doesn't depend on anyone other than Olsen to have a great game. It simply wants everyone to do their jobs.
Shula has found the "sweet spot" as it were for using all of Newton's talents to befuddle opponents and matriculate the ball down the field. He'll hand off to tailback Stewart. He'll throw him flares or screens. Fullback Mike Tolbert has the shape of a bowling ball but the hands of a Hollywood starlet and gets a few touches via both the run and the screen or a checkdown.
Newton then pulls a play fake to hit Olsen for a first down over the middle. The man cannot break a tackle, but he can get open and catch the oblate spheroid shaped membrane of indeterminate internal psi.
Along comes a Philly Brown with a big deep CATCH, yes catch. Elder statesman Jerricho Cotchery flashes the team's best hands or schools a young DB on route running for another first down. Even backup TE Ed Dickson has shown a knack for making a key catch....or whatever.
The defense then says "oh...yeah...." when you ask about Newton. He can run, pass, heck can even catch but isn't (yet) worked into any kind of trickeration there. I suspect if it's to be, it'll be in the playoffs tab of the playbook.
The guy is just elusive, runs with power, runs with balance, throws with a cannon arm, shows extended streaks of small-window accuracy, has led the team on multiple 4th-quarter comebacks, and beaten some of the league's best teams (and defenses) in the process.
Shula's offensive style places an emphasis on variety of concepts rather than refining that West Coast short passing game to the umpteenth degree. Both succeed because they have precisely the right people executing it. Cam even has one thing Brady never will.
Tom Brady can't dunk!
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye