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September 26, 2011
Still questioning whether Cam Newton has what it takes to make it as an NFL quarterback? The No. 1 pick is off to a record-setting start with the Panthers. Now he could use a few wins
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September 26, 2011

The Real Thing

Still questioning whether Cam Newton has what it takes to make it as an NFL quarterback? The No. 1 pick is off to a record-setting start with the Panthers. Now he could use a few wins

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Newton's IMG stay included not only daily physical training (throwing, lifting, drills) but also long classroom sessions during which Weinke taught Newton the Carolina offense and then schooled him in videotape study. On one of their first days together Weinke challenged Newton. Like most football fans, he had viewed the ESPN session in which former NFL coach Jon Gruden tells Newton that NFL play-calling language can be overwhelming and says to him, "Call something at Auburn that's a little verbal... . Give me something. What's an Auburn play sound like?"

Newton stammered that Gruden was putting him on the spot and could come up with nothing more complex than "Thirty-six." So after Newton had studied the Carolina playbook for a few days, Weinke sent him to a whiteboard and asked him to repeat, and draw up, the following play: Deuce right (formation), Nasty fly (motion), Scat right (protection), Spray 834 (the route tree, in the Coryell "digit" system), Y pivot (tagging the Y receiver with an additional move), H swing M (also tagging the H-back).

According to Weinke, Newton repeated the play flawlessly and drew it cleanly on the board. "I wanted to see what he was capable of learning," says Weinke. "And there was no question that he had studied that playbook. It was unbelievable. I had seen the Gruden thing, so I was shocked at what he could actually do—pleasantly so." Before training camp started, Weinke, Whitfield and Dorsey had Newton on the practice field, throwing every route; they were even shouting out defensive situations that forced Newton to check off certain receivers, albeit without actual defenders.

Newton showed another dimension. One afternoon Weinke was working with Ponder, the No. 12 pick from Florida State, and Webb, a second-year pro. Newton had been given the day off but showed up and volunteered to play receiver for the other two quarterbacks. "That alone was impressive," says Weinke, "but then he started running patterns. What an unbelievable athlete he is. Ponder threw one go pattern down the left sideline, and Cam just ran it down and snatched it out of the air with his left hand."


There was little reason to expect that Newton's first game would be historic. He completed only 42% of his passes in the preseason and, says sixth-year center Ryan Kalil, "struggled early on, figuring everything out." Rivera and Chudzinski gambled by not allowing Newton to wear a wristband with the plays inscribed on it because they wanted him to hear the entire play called into his helmet receiver, which would get him more familiar with the language of the offense. (When, for instance, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers use a wristband, coordinators can shorten the play calls to a single two- or three-digit number, which the quarterback then matches to the play on his forearm.)

But it was as if the urgency of the regular season made Newton better. He completed 24 of 37 attempts against the Cardinals in the opener, and more important, handled the intellectual demands as if he were a veteran. "There were at least two times where I made a protection call and he changed it," says Kalil. "Basically he said, 'No, they're coming from over here.' And both times he was right. Hey, I saw the Gruden thing too. I wondered what he could handle. But we got both of those blitzes blocked in Arizona."

Rivera was likewise encouraged the next day when he watched end zone tape of the game. A linebacker as a player and a careerlong defensive coach, Rivera was particularly impressed by Newton's 26-yard, second-quarter touchdown pass to Smith on a corner pattern. "He used his eyes to move the safety all the way out of the play," Rivera said two days before the Green Bay game. "Then he came back to Steve. And he kept it all on rhythm."

Still, Newton hadn't lost a game since fall 2009, when he was the quarterback at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, and he took the defeat at Arizona hard. "He was hurting on Monday," said Rivera. "My message was, Get over it and move ahead. And before he left the building that afternoon, he watched the Arizona tape and then took Green Bay tape home with him. He came back on Tuesday and studied more Green Bay, and by the time everybody else came back on Wednesday, he was himself again."


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