The Carolina Panthers have dominated NFL awards lately. First, Ron Rivera won NFL Coach of the Year in 2013. Next, Thomas Davis was the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year last year, where he gave a memorable and moving speech with a positive message. Last night, Coach Rivera made it a "best two out of three" when winning best coach again, while Cam Newton tied the coach in league awards by taking home not one but two - the anticipated Most Valuable Player award as well as the Offensive Player of the Year one.
Some may joke about Newton winning the latter, saying "Yes, he IS the most offensive player this year" - like the Tennessee mom who apparently thinks cheerleaders are more wholesome to watch than Cam's 5-second celebrations. Okay, whatever.
Cam is changing the game in ways completely unrelated to awards and dances. He's changing the ways both offenses and defenses approach things...as well as how management views the dual-threat "black quarterback." More on that later.
Cam's Success Begets Copycats on Offense
We've all heard that the NFL is a "copycat league," and for good reason. Teams see something working and want in on the action.
Take the Wildcat for instance. Not all that many years ago, Miami Dolphins' then-Head Coach, Tony Sparano, installed it as a surprise against the New England Patriots and they scored five touchdowns from the formation. RB Ronnie Brown had a career fantasy day with at least 4 of those TDs.
As a result, they kept the formation and it spread to other teams. However, after a few years, it died out because it's only ONE formation and there's only so much you can do with a non-QB taking the snap. These days, it's a mere "wrinkle" again.
Every play and formation the Carolina Panthers run has a connection to the Wildcat in the sense that what the scheme does is inherently deceptive and things happen very fast. Carolina isn't limited to the single-wing formation (AKA Wildcat). Cam takes the snap, often hands off or fakes one -- it's probably about 2 fakes every 3 plays, it's that seemingly often-- and they run an offense that is the most different from any other offense in the NFL.
Certainly, other teams have since installed the read-option, such as Seattle and San Francisco, who have athletic and fast quarterbacks. As of now, it's still expanding. Unlike the Wildcat, this movement has legs (no pun intended) because as more and more athletic QBs rise through the college ranks and enter the NFL, these plays can be immediately installed, allowing young QBs to have something productive to use for several reasons.
First, young and athletic QBs often come from spread/running attacks in college. There just aren't many "pro-style systems" left in college, and that's partly a result of these more athletic QBs multiplying throughout high school and college. While such plays aren't the bread-and-butter runs of any teams in the NFL, they've become more and more of a "chunk" of the running game among teams with mobile QBs.
Indeed, Newton is the trailblazer, and for reasons going beyond his "dual-threat" ability. Cam's a very large, strong, and supremely athletically gifted young man, even among his peers. He can run with speed for a man 250+ lbs. (he runs a 4.55-40) and as he has shown on numerous occasions, he's THE premier power-running QB in NFL history. Yep, I said it. He's shown it, too, since he has more rushing TDs in his first five seasons than any other QB in NFL history, and not all of them are the "1-2 yard runs" that some haters like to claim. Such people need to watch that Atlanta game when Cam trucked the entire Falcons' defense for 8 yards and a first down, as his massive paw even then was reaching out with the football to set the "forward progress" spot beyond the down marker.
He shed eight different tackles on that one run. That's not something the 2006 Atlanta Falcons had in mind when they tried to install the read-option with Michael Vick, which failed miserably, and nobody copied it.
Cam's Abilities Force Defenses to Change Too
Of course, when any team does things a little differently and shows some success, these things have to be taken into account. With Cam's true dual-threat ability, it forces most defenses to "spy" - or "shadow/mirror" the QB in any given play. What this does in passing plays is it takes a defender out of both coverage AND the pass rush, which evens the odds on passing downs.
If Cam throws it, it's 10-on-10 football (instead of the normal 10-on-11 with traditional pocket-passers) with Cam being the passer and not running or blocking, it leaves the other 10 offensive players to do their thing. Spying Cam does the same to the defense. Since (usually) a fast linebacker is doing the spying, he would be wrong to go out into coverage since his job on the play is to be the "safety" of sorts in case Cam decides to pull it down and take off. Then, the spy's job is to Go Get Cam. If Cam indeed does throw it, the spy isn't a factor in the pass unless an RB or TE runs about a 4 yard hitch in the middle of the field and just stands there next to the spy and it's easy to design a play with a hot-route that goes elsewhere.
The spy can't rush the passer either, or he'd not be spying anymore, he'd be a pass rusher.
Cam's rushing ability makes defenses play tighter, often with eight or sometimes nine men in the box. This is where Cam's play-action passing game comes into play and he looks for usually either Ted Ginn, Jr. on a deep pass since it means single-coverage, or if the rush is heavy, he'll hit All-Pro TE Greg Olsen over the middle for at least a first down and then some, usually.
The beauty of all this is Mike Shula has masterfully interwoven the running game in general with fake handoffs as a matter of misdirection, even on running plays, where Cam pulls it down and runs a designed QB run. Sometimes Cam indeed hands it off to the RB or maybe a WR on a jet sweep; sometimes he fakes that. We've even seen half the O-line pull one way, the other half the other way, while skill players run in BOTH directions. That was the Ted Ginn 22-yard TD run recently where he actually ran more like 80, using his speed and return instincts to cross the field and score easily...with Cam on that side just in case a defender chased him closely enough, Cam wouldn't have hesitated to block the snot out of 'em, but he didn't have to.
Sometimes, he fakes it and drops back to pass...the play-action pass. The thing is, all three look identical pre-snap, so defenders are aware just because they see "X" doesn't mean that "Y" must follow. They often have to think instead of react, which slows the defense, and gives Carolina's offense that much more time to develop the play.
It's these sort of things, in my opinion, that have allowed Carolina to break out to a lot of big leads early - defenses see it on film study and attempt to replicate Cam in practices, but there's one problem: Cam Newton is unique.
Nobody HAS an athlete of Cam's size and speed...at least if they do, they certainly don't have one with his cannon arm or someone who can mimic his arm and newly-found accuracy despite his continued awful footwork.
So, what happens? Defenses get out there to take the field and can't process the speed and trickery built into the Panthers' offensive scheme. They more or less get into the flow of it and settle down by halftime, but by then, they're often multiple scores behind and have to change their offensive game plan to compensate for the hole they're in.
Cam's Personality - and Skin Color - Drives the Change
Okay, I'm gonna tackle race here because Cam has destroyed previous racial stereotypes in many ways. For example, take recent draft history in consideration:
In the last ten years before Cam's draft, two black quarterbacks were drafted in the top-five. Remember, this was prior to the rookie salary cap that followed the 2010-2011 lockout/CBA. Texas Longhorn QB Vince Young was fresh off a 400+ yard total offensive performance in an upset win over the USC Trojan dynasty of the early-mid part of the "aughts" (00's). His spectacular game helped him get chosen with the #3 overall pick by the Tennessee Titans. After some measure of modest success early, the pressure got to him and he basically ran away from it and folded. He just didn't have the mental toughness required of the position.
We all recall the JaMarcus Russell fiasco by the Oakland Raiders. Russell had "arm talent" probably equal to or better than anyone who has ever played the game, but evaluators got so fascinated with his physical traits that they let the obvious get past them. Even before the draft, Russell's stomach had noticeably expanded and rumors of partying bubbled up. Still, the Raiders took him and Russell proved those (few) critics 100% correct. He got paid tens of millions of dollars without so much as taking the first snap in a real NFL game and therefore was set for life, apparently.
Russell didn't have the drive nor personality to improve and learn and become a leader of men. Instead, he frequented parties and favored some sort of drink heavily spiked with pain medicine. He didn't play much because he was so awful, and was bounced out of the league within a few years. Hilariously enough, he spoke of "making a comeback" before last season as he looked more like a guard than a quarterback. Needless to say, that went nowhere.
Then, along came Cam. By now, many NFL clubs were understandably gun-shy about taking a "black quarterback" with a high pick, despite the greatly decreased financial commitment due to that very rookie wage scale I mentioned, but draft picks remain gold for other reasons. A miss on a #1 overall pick can set a franchise back multiple years because in missing with that pick, you're also not getting a top player that picks 2 through 10 (and often beyond) ostensibly find.
Similar character questions surrounded Cam as he was put under the microscope. We heard about his father, Cecil Newton, "shopping" his son to the highest bidder and the MSU Bulldog connection. The NCAA investigated, found no violations, and that supposedly was that.
Cam did have some "youthful indiscretions" that were well-documented, however. The stolen laptop and the academic dishonesty stuff his freshman year at Florida, causing him to leave (instead of be put through a humiliating hearing and possibly kicked out of school) for Blinn Junior College. He won a national championship there.
Then, at Auburn, he won another in his lone season on the Loveliest Village on the Plains. Clearly, the kid was a winner on the field. If only he could be trusted off of it, a team might have something.
Teams even hired private investigators, according to ESPN, who went to Auburn to talk with people that knew him. According to them, Newton was a teetotaler and the worst thing that came up was sometimes he rode a scooter without a helmet. If nothing else, this up-close-and-personal sifting through his more recent past showed green lights. Still, however, questions remained because of the small sample size of kids preceding him and their ultimate failures as high picks.
Teams knew they'd be getting a raw physical talent, and that his college offense offered no help or head start to baseline his learning from in a complex NFL offensive scheme. ANY NFL team offense is going to be vastly more complex than a "one read and run" game plan that was Gus Malzahn's spread running attack at Auburn as offensive coordinator there during Newton's Heisman, and only, season at the major college level.
Then, there was the lockout that year. Cam really didn't have anything close to a full NFL training camp, but fans and coaches alike knew they had something special when Cam burst onto the NFL scene with not one but two consecutive 400-yard passing games in his first two starts.
Cam has shown progress in each season as well. Despite what many call his "sophomore slump" season, which I do NOT, Cam set a franchise record for pass attempts without an interception. Since Cam was, is, and always will be a downfield passer, that's a pretty impressive statistic for a second-year QB coming from basically a high school offense (albeit a tricky one) to the NFL.
His third year showed more improvement, but still demonstrated he had yet to arrive. His fourth season was likely his worst statistically, but he wasn't healthy during the season. That was the season he was still slow to recover from off-season ankle surgery (something that would obviously affect a running QB) and by the time that had healed, he was in a major motor vehicle accident. Cam wasn't at fault, but the injuries still came: two spinal processes were broken, meaning Cam had broken his back.
Two weeks later, he was starting a football game for the Carolina Panthers.
So, yes, his stats were down last year. No, other QBs wouldn't have even been on the field, which showed as much as anything that Cam is not only tough, but a fierce competitor.
Now that he has come full-circle and won both the Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, he has now "blazed a trail" for those younger black, dual-threat QBs. He has laid out a nice blueprint for success for them to follow and given the ice bucket challenge on people who continued to cling to the belief that blacks just aren't the best QBs as team leaders or are lazy and lie down when they get paid. The scary thing? Cam's huge #1 target, WR Kelvin Benjamin, never played a snap during the regular season and Newton's success came in making everyone around him better players.
Cam "got paid" last year. Instead of "lying down," he rewarded that financial commitment with a league MVP award while leading the team to a 17-1 record and a Super Bowl berth. When he wins tonight, the critics will have absolutely no leg to stand on.
If the "stat-head haters" of Cam try to tear him down if he throws a couple of picks but still wins, here's a "stat" to push back at them that will be true if this happens: "The Carolina Panthers are 9-0 in games where Cam Newton throws an interception." Such a response should show in a sarcastic way how stupid cherry-picked statistics are to the stat-heads.
Peyton Manning may be the one many fans want to see win because it would be a happy ending to a storied career. I understand that. What many do NOT understand is that a Carolina win would mean Cam has shown all detractors that "Yes, it can be done. I just proved it."
Cam is already changing the game on both sides of the ball as I explained, but his longer-lasting legacy could well be cemented tonight, while flinging the door wide-open for teams to draft a talented black kid as a QB with a high pick without so many reservations about outdated stereotypes. In fact, his rookie success undoubtedly influenced Dan Snyder (owner of the Washington Redskins) in his decision to trade away future drafts to move up to #2 to take Robert Griffin, III a year later...after the Colts took an Andrew Luck who stayed in college for his final year to AVOID being taken by the Panthers. I wonder how Neckbeard feels now, but that's his problem. Speaking of which, Luck is showing a propensity for injuries that Cam doesn't have, so the Panthers likely came out on top in getting Newton over the "traditional" QB in pedigreed Andrew Luck, whose father Oliver was an NFL QB for a time.
Cam's legacy has already been set up in several ways. He isn't just changing the way offensive coordinators approach the game with designed QB runs being more and more popular or defensive coordinators needing to account for multiple forms of attack from the QB position. His biggest legacy could well be that of breaking the "racial ceiling" that (previously) existed before "a #1 black QB pick wildly succeeded."
Should Cam and the Panthers win the game tonight, teams will be quite a bit more open to the idea of being much more color-blind when it comes to picking their future franchise QB. They'll see Cam's transformation from the raw physical talent, with little to no experience in running an NFL-style offense, to a young man who has nearly mastered it, and with an average-at-best group of targets too, so people can't point to "the help" and try to say they're the reason for his success.
A new generation of QBs has arrived to stay, and Cam, as he loves to do, is leading the way.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye