For the first time in NFL history, five teams own sparkly 6-0 records. Through Week 7, the Packers, Patriots, Broncos, Bengals, and Panthers remain unbeaten. All but Carolina have been here before. The Panthers are exceeding even the most generous of early-season expectations. When they lost top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in training camp, predictions were dialed back even more. Sure, Carolina is the defending NFC South champ, the only team ever to win the division in back to back seasons. But the 2014 Panthers ran the table in December just to finish 7-8-1. They captured their first playoff win in nearly a decade, but they benefited from a matchup with Arizona who had Ryan Lindley under center, a negligible run game, and enough injured players to fill an infirmary.
No one harbored championship aspirations for Carolina last season, and not much had changed when they kicked off the 2015 campaign. Yet they sit atop the South, flexing their muscles on both sides of the ball, looking a lot more like the 2013 version that won a dozen games. Time to take the Panthers seriously. Their mantra is “Keep Pounding,” and they do. The defense features punishing linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and budding superstar Josh Norman at cornerback. The offense can bowl over opponents, too, with feature back Jonathan Stewart, tough-as-nails fullback Mike Tolbert, and veteran tight end Greg Olsen. And in the center of it all? Superman.
Quarterback Cam Newton is far from perfect. His completion percentage is still a work in progress, barely 55%, and he’s running with the ball more often than his coaches would prefer. But there’s no denying the growth of the fifth-year starter, both on the field and in the locker room. He remains the biggest reason for the Panthers’ steady ascension through the first couple months of the season. He’s more patient in the pocket, more aware of his surroundings, more poised when all hell is breaking loose. He’s taking fewer unnecessary risks. He slides at the end of runs, and he throws the ball away instead of taking a sack or absorbing a nasty hit. His head coach points to smarter decisions and a new comfort level with the offensive schemes. Cam is confident enough in the system that he can and will utilize all the options available. As Ron Rivera puts it, “He’s doing things now that he wouldn’t do before.”
Newton’s development is never more evident than late in games. He joins Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton, and Tom Brady as the only starters without an interception in the fourth quarter this season. His passer rating in the final quarter averages triple digits. At Seattle two weeks ago, Cam engineered a pair of fourth quarter 80-yard drives to rally the Panthers from 13 down in the second half. The fatal blow was a bullet to Olsen with 32 seconds left. Newton consistently finds another gear and rises to the occasion when the stakes are higher. His teammates and coaches now use the words “clutch” and “closer” to describe him.
The evolution of Cam is also complicated and convoluted. Before he was a Heisman Trophy winner, BCS national champion, and overall number one draft pick, he was Tim Tebow’s backup at Florida. He was arrested and suspended by the Gators for stealing another student’s laptop. After leaving Gainesville and winning a junior college national title at Blinn College, he signed with the Auburn Tigers. On his way to the SEC Championship and BCS crown, he was briefly declared ineligible amid pay-for-play allegations. The NCAA never found evidence that Cam or his family took money from Auburn or that he demanded payment from other schools that recruited him, but the investigation stretched more than a year.
At 6’5″ and 250 pounds, Cam always relied on his athleticism, power, and explosiveness to dominate. He more than lived up to the hype in his NFL debut, setting a record with 422 passing yards. A week later, it was 432 yards. He shattered rookie marks with more than 4,000 yards passing AND 700 yards rushing. His 14 rushing touchdowns in 2011 are the most ever for a quarterback. But even while he racked up the stats, he was plagued by questions about his leadership and his attitude. Cameras caught him pouting and stewing on the sidelines during games early in his career. And last season, he navigated multiple injuries–from ankle surgery to fractured ribs to broken bones in his back suffered in a car accident.
Cam wasn’t all that concerned with his health when he picked a fight with Josh Norman in training camp. But the older, wiser QB took full responsibility soon after and apologized to the team. The more mature Cam values accountability and wants to make everyone around him better instead of pointing fingers when things go wrong.
Carolina’s new $100 million dollar man will never be confused with Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. But leadership forged through adversity and character strengthened in the fire are priceless. Cam Newton now has both to complement his dazzling skill set. 2015 may finally be the year Superman takes the Panthers soaring to new heights.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.