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THERE’S A DEFINITE Monday-morning vibe going on inside coach Ron Rivera’s training camp office. The mustard-colored walls are completely blank. His desk is devoid of any personal items, save for one small packet of Skittles. The only books on the long shelves behind his desk are the 2017 Panthers training camp guide and the playbook. And the one small window in the corner of the room is blotted by dark clouds and thick raindrops. Held captive by the storm, Rivera, dressed in a worn, gray T-shirt that reads “Control Your APE (Attitude-Prep-Effort),” has agreed to share his thoughts and insights on a little plan he’s cooking up that will save his job, transform Carolina’s roster, and protect Cam Newton’s body, brain and legacy.
The plan has already cost Rivera plenty. This offseason the team shelled out $55 million for free agent left tackle Matt Kalil (to protect Newton’s blind side); used first-round picks on playmakers (the eighth pick for Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, the 40th for Ohio State speedster Curtis Samuel); and fired general manager Dave Gettleman in July, in part because of his failure to secure a contract extension for Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, one of Newton’s favorite targets. But it’ll all be worth it if Rivera can get the 2015 NFL MVP to evolve into more of a pocket passer willing to distribute the ball to a few playmakers other than himself.
The fact is this: No primarily running quarterback has ever won the Super Bowl. The average completion rate of the past 15 quarterbacks who won the Super Bowl is 63.5 percent. Since he was taken No. 1 in 2011, though, Newton has led all QBs with 3,566 rushing yards while getting hit or sacked an astounding 922 times — roughly 10 times per game. By comparison, Tom Brady was sacked only 15 times last season.The punishment peaked in 2016 when, after a series of wicked shots began to take its toll, a battered Newton confessed “I don’t feel safe” as his completion rate bottomed out to league-low 52.9 percent.
So the stakes could not be any higher for Rivera’s plan. A once-in-a-generation talent and an entire franchise hang in the balance.
There’s just one tiny flaw.
Newton seems to hate the idea.
At his first news conference since undergoing rotator cuff surgery on his throwing shoulder in March, Newton was quick to shoot back as soon as someone inquired about, perhaps, running less and evolving into more of a pocket passer: “That’s my edge. You going to expect a lion not to roar?”
Now, trapped inside his office by a biblical-style downpour, it’s Rivera’s turn to roar back.
RIVERA: I know, as Cam likes to put it, you can’t ask a lion not to roar, but we’re going to do things judiciously and do things that put us in good positions to win games. I don’t think it will be that tough. Look at Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger. They were a vertical attack team. We were a vertical attack team. Then they drafted Antonio Brown and used his skill set to get vertical and stretch defenses. They got a runner who is dynamic with the potential to go the distance at any time, but they can also use a power running game as well. And they have backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield. That’s the same thing we’re doing.
ESPN: So Cam still gets to roar, just not on every play. If nothing else, fewer called runs and fewer read-options mean fewer hits.
RIVERA: He has taken some shots. But it’s not like that’s why he had the issues he did last year. He hurt his shoulder chasing down an interception. He didn’t hurt his shoulder taking a shot. People have to understand, those hits he took were not when he was running the football, those were when he was a dropback passer. Don’t confuse the shots he’s taken with him being a running quarterback. What’s the one thing you notice about a lot of his throws? He held on to the ball and stood tall in the pocket and delivered the ball. We want to get the ball out of his hands.
ESPN: I covered Mike Vick his entire career, and I can’t tell you how many training camp talks I had with him where he and his coaches swore up and down they were going to do the exact same thing you guys are planning.
RIVERA: Pocket passer, pocket passer, make Vick into a pocket passer, right? But we’ve never said that. We’re not making Cam into a pocket passer. He already is a pocket passer.
Rivera puts on his silver rectangular glasses, clicks and moves his mouse around his desk and harrumphs a few times while locating game film on his laptop. It’s a 17-13 win against the Saints from 2013, when Cam stood tall in the pocket against a relentless pass rush, kept his eyes downfield and his footwork clean and delivered lasers to his third and fourth reads.
ESPN: I don’t think people are saying Cam can’t throw from the pocket …
RIVERA: That’s the perception, but that’s not who he is. Even before the draft. We looked at all his runs in college. He didn’t scramble, he didn’t tuck the ball to run; he scrambled to buy time to throw the ball downfield, and that was a big difference between him and some of the other quarterbacks who were coming out at the time.
In my opinion, what people are missing is what he’s capable of and what he’s already done and shown he can do. He can stand tall, deliver the deep ball. He can run a two-minute drill, run a hurry-up offense, run a spread offense.
Rivera’s evolution plan isn’t without doubters. Persuading an elite athlete at the height of his or her career to change his or her routine is not easy. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner calls it an interesting experiment. “I’m not going to say he can’t do it,” Warner told SI.com about changing Newton’s process,”but it doesn’t seem to be what his strength is.”
ESPN: Tweaking his game even a little, getting him to throw the ball instead of running the ball even a few times a game — that seems like a huge change.
RIVERA: What we’ve done this year in the draft and free agency is added some speed and some playmakers to the offense. We brought in Christian McCaffrey, who has a tremendous array of ability and flexibility. He can play the H-back, play tailback, play the slot; we can even send him in motion out wide. So we’re giving Cam another look, another weapon that he hasn’t had. Then we went out and got Curtis Samuel, a receiver who also has the ability to run the ball. He has tremendous speed. He can go vertical and stretch the field for us and open things up underneath for backs and tight ends.
So when we say the word “evolve,” these are some conscious things we had to do to change; these are things that we have to do better to give ourselves a chance to be successful.
Newton has tasted that success but only up to a point. It might not be possible to play the dual-threat quarterback role any better than Newton did while winning the 2015 NFL MVP. Yet, when he reached the Super Bowl that season, the Broncos’ defense dismantled and destroyed the Panthers’ attack with frightening ease. Newton won a Heisman and a national championship at Auburn. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft, rookie of the year and the NFL MVP. A Lombardi trophy once seemed inevitable. Not anymore. At his training camp news conference, the always fashion-forward Newton sported a straw bowler hat with green velvet trim featuring three species of bird feathers as well as several colorful Lokai bracelets. If he wants a Super Bowl ring to go with all those bangles on his wrists, Newton and the Panthers’ offense must evolve, or perish.
ESPN: You must be irked about how all this talk of evolving has focused only on Cam, not your entire offense.
RIVERA: Not irked. I’m the one who said it. Quite honestly, that’s what we’re trying to do, trying to create that situation and that opportunity for growth. He does things trying to make plays happen. A defense still has to spy this guy. Guess what. That means he’s no longer in coverage. So now they’ve got four rushing and one spy, and that means there’s a hole in the coverage somewhere. We just have to find that hole and he can deliver a big ball.
Instead of having him involved in the called runs and play-action runs, now let’s hand the ball off to another playmaker, let’s deliver it through the air to another playmaker, let’s get the ball out of your hands and get it out quick.
“We looked at all his runs in college. He didn’t scramble, he didn’t tuck the ball to run; he scrambled to buy time to throw the ball downfield, and that was a big difference between him and some of the other quarterbacks that were coming out at the time.”
Rivera on Newton
ESPN: What you’re describing might end up being Cam making just three to four different decisions in every game. But that’s still …
RIVERA: That’s still huge! From the Super Bowl last year, three to four decisions in the fourth quarter and that might have been a different outcome for the Falcons. It’s significant. Over the course of the season, that’s a lot. Four plays a game, that’s 64 less times that Cam takes a hit.
And here is where Rivera’s evolutionary leap comes into focus: If Newton averages 120 or so carries a season and four times a game he gets the ball out of his hands, he has cut his run exposure in half. And if he completes 35 or 40 of those extra 64 passes, all of a sudden Newton is out of harm’s way and pushing his completion rate closer to the magical 63.5 percent of the modern-day Super Bowl QB club.
RIVERA: That’s what this is all about — a little bit about the playcalling, a little bit about the decision-making, a little bit about Cam. Because at the end of the day, we do still put a lot on him. We do still give him the opportunity to make some decisions out on the field.
Cam’s in his seventh year. He’s not a young man. He’s not like he was when he was 25 or 26. There’s a little more to it. It’s a little different as you get older. Take a look at Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck. Those are two guys who have similar styles to our guy, and that’s what’s interesting. People don’t talk about that with those two, but their styles are similar to his, and especially with Andrew, they’re trying to get Andrew to stop running. Cam sticks out because, really, how many QBs are 6-5, 245 pounds, and can run like a running back and throw like a strong-armed quarterback?
ESPN: I guess the big question is not whether he can do it but whether he will do it. And it takes reps to make this mental change, to retrain your muscle memory. Even if it’s just four decisions a game, you need hundreds of reps to ingrain that.
After resting Newton’s surgically repaired shoulder nearly all of training camp, the Panthers’ hope is that Newton will play on Thursday night in Jacksonville. “I took last year extremely personal, and I knew something had to change, starting with myself — I didn’t want to speak it, I wanted to action it,” says Newton, who came into camp at 245 pounds, the lightest he’s been since his rookie season. But in the next breath Newton, a notoriously poor loser, seemed to tie Rivera’s grand plan directly to the end result. “As far as designed and called runs? I couldn’t care less,” Newton says. “I just want to win, I want to win in the worst way, straight up.” With little prep time, though, and a schedule that includes five likely playoff teams in the first 10 weeks, things in Charlotte could devolve in a hurry.
RIVERA: It’s an evolution, a metamorphosis. And it is a style change. Yep. He’s anxious now, though, too. We haven’t had him on the field as much as we’d like to. But they’re doing a lot of things with him now. They’re coaching him up. All the things we can do with him now, we’re doing. Cam wants to do the things we want him to do. He wants to have success. He wants to show people that he can do those things. And I will still promise you this: When it comes down to gut-check time, he wants the ball in his hands.
Rivera turns his attention back to his laptop, cues up a few clips of Newton’s running touchdowns, including a score against the Dolphins in 2013 after Newton audibled at the goal line.
ESPN: OK, but he got hit pretty hard there two times by the Dolphins’ defense. I’m confused. What do you want him to do in that situation this season?
RIVERA: We want him to score. If he can get in the end zone without taking a shot, that would be ideal. But at the end of the day, you still do what you can to score. That hasn’t changed. That’s what this is all about. Winning games. You do squirm and go, “Um, ah, wait,” and then you see what he does and you go, “OK, all right, cool, cool. That was the right call.” Those are the kinds of things he is going to do when he sees that. He has that kind of authority. He may do something we didn’t plan for. And kudos to him.
The sun is out now, and the din in Rivera’s office seems to have abated. Wanting to end this session on a high note, Rivera begins combing through recent practice footage for proof of the newly evolved Cam Newton. The search takes several minutes, though, and as he clicks through the film archive, Rivera mumbles to himself the question on everyone’s mind heading into the 2017 NFL season:
“Where you at, Cam?”