SAN JOSE, Calif. — Cam Newton didn’t just stumble into becoming the NFL’s best player.
Sure, he has all the physical attributes any quarterback could ask for — he’s 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds of muscle with a strong arm and wide receiver speed. He even has a million-dollar smile and the confidence of a player who has always been a winner.
But those in the Panthers organization say what people don’t see is what Newton has done behind the scenes to improve as a pro quarterback.
“People see him smiling, giving footballs away and dancing, but what they don’t see is that throughout the workweek the guy is just a machine,” center Ryan Kalil said. “He’s incredible with the time he puts in.”
That’s right, Newton is a film room junkie.
Hard to believe, isn’t it?
People don’t talk much about his work ethic because it doesn’t fit the narrative about Newton. They’d rather talk about his Versace pants, his touchdown celebrations or his ability to leap over defenders at the line of scrimmage.
Fullback Mike Tolbert recently called Newton the hardest-working football player off the field he’s ever been around.
Teammates marvel at the time he spends studying the opposition’s tendencies on defense and working on his skills.
“He has gotten to where he knows what defenses are trying to do,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “And that’s tough to stop when you combine that with his skillset.”
You don’t have to tell Gene Chizik.
Chizik coached Newton at Auburn, where the Tigers won a national championship and Newton took home the Heisman. He said Newton’s quarterback’s athletic skill and physical talent often overshadow the time he puts in trying to get better.
“He loves to have a good time and people can like that or not like it, he really doesn’t care. But the number one most important thing to him is when it comes to his job and his profession is to be the best at his trade,” Chizik said. “And he will work tirelessly to do that, and that’s why he’s in the position he’s in right now.”
Added Kalil: “People have this misconception that you are only a serious quarterback if you have this semi-bland lunch pal sort of look to you. Cam is destroying that notion.”
The Panthers (17-1) have been the NFL’s best team all season, sprinting out to a 14-0 start in large part because of Newton’s emergence as the game’s most dangerous quarterback.
More comfortable in the pocket, Newton threw for 3,837 yards and a career-high 35 touchdowns in his fifth season. He also ran for 636 yards and 10 more TDs.
He’s playing the best football of his career. The only question left is: Can Newton finish and deliver in the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos and league’s best defense?
“He’s not motivated by anything else other than trying to be the best,” Panthers defensive end Jared Allen said.
Teammates say Newton is ready for the moment.
He tends to play his best when the lights are the brightest.
He won two national titles in college — one in junior college and the other at Auburn. He’s been brilliant so far this postseason.
He led eight scoring drives against Arizona and Seattle in the first half alone against the league’s second- and third-ranked defenses.
“I’m not sure how much better you could be at that position that he’s been not only this year, but the last handful of years,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “And then off of the field, since he’s gotten here, he’s been everything that you would hope. He’s a good teammate. He’s a good person. He’s good to be around. He brings a lot of energy. Everyone sees it on Sunday, but we see that in every walk-thru, every meeting.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula agreed: “He has a fast mind. He sees things extremely well on game day. He does a great job utilizing the personnel that we have around him.”
If Newton is nervous about playing in his first Super Bowl, he hasn’t shown it.
“Having been in the national championship game, it’s kind of helped him in terms of preparation for the onslaught of the attention we have gotten as a football team and he’s gotten as an individual,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I think that’s important because he could fall back on that experience.”