The analogy is almost too perfect.
Cam Newton, tongue hanging out, tugs at his apparently invisible silk (because you know it’s silk) white button-down shirt with both hands, peeling it open from the middle to reveal a Carolina-blue-and-black “S” stitched into a modified black triangle. He is Superman, you see, and he has just scored a touchdown, one of 11 he’s thrown or rushed for this season. The fans hiss and boo and Newton preens, taking it all in as the undefeated Carolina Panthers march to another win on the back of their MVP quarterback.
Now, Newton might not be the first name that comes to mind when discussing MVP candidates, but then again, the notion of a “most valuable player” varies from person to person. Some think of it in the most literal sense, as the player most crucial to his or her team’s success. Others view it, in the NFL at least, as the quarterback with the best offensive statistics.
Through five games, it’s hard to argue that anyone, be it Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Julio Jones or Rob Gronkowski has been more valuable to the success of his team than Newton. Behind an average offensive line, with his best receiver lost for the season in August and running back Jonathan Stewart once again failing to live up to preseason hype, Newton is the Panthers’ offense. Forget the “engine that makes the car run” metaphor. Newton is the fuel, the engine, the transmission, the frame and the paint job.
His numbers won’t jump out to you – a 55.4 completion percentage, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8:4, and a QBR of 52.7 – but what Newton has done so well doesn’t show up in stat sheets. Under consistent pressure, Newton is standing tall in the pocket, reading defenses and going through progressions. Instead of taking off once he feels the blitz, Newton’s slides and movement within the pocket are markedly better. Newton is still a runner – it’s a dynamic part of his game that helps turn broken plays into first downs – but he’s more patient than he’s ever been and the result has been a more balanced, consistent passing attack.
Newton is also being asked to do more before the snap. In the second half against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the Panthers moved to a no-huddle offense. It’s something they’ve used before this season, not to increase the pace, but to control the tempo and allow Newton to read the defense before calling a play. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula gives Newton the protections and alignments along with multiple plays to call. After coming to the line, Newton adjusts based on what he sees. Against the Seahawks, with the Panthers down 20-7 late in the third quarter, Newton checked at the line of scrimmage, moving tight end Greg Olsen from the left side of the formation to the right side. The move got Olsen away from safety Earl Thomas and into a one-on-one matchup with linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis. Newton’s new play called for play-action to his right, the same side as Olsen and Pierre-Louis, who bit on the fake. Olsen ran a wheel route up the right sideline, leaving Pierre-Louis slipping behind him, and Newton threw a perfect ball to Olsen, who went out of bounds at the one-yard line. Two plays later, the Panthers scored on a Stewart run to cut Seattle’s lead to 20-14.
That touchdown was part of a 21-point rally led almost entirely by Newton, with passes to Olsen, rookie Devin Funchess (after he’d already dropped three on the day), Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Ed Dickson and Stewart. Brady and Rodgers are heaped with credit for their ability to turn no-names into stars, but there isn’t a single player in Newton’s target list with the gifts of Gronkowski, Julian Edelman or Randall Cobb. Newton deserves credit for simply running a functional offense with that group, let alone one that can score three touchdowns in five drives while trailing on the road against one of the league’s premier defenses.
Brady and Rodgers have better numbers, are better fantasy options and are better pure quarterbacks, but the MVP the award isn’t, or shouldn’t be, decided by the most touchdowns, sacks or wins. It’s about the player without whom his team simply could not succeed at a meaningful level. If you replaced Brady and Rodgers with league-average quarterback play, say Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Patriots and Packers would likely still be playoff contenders. If the Panthers were forced to replace Newton with a replacement-level talent, they’d be preparing to pick in the top five of next April’s draft.
Maybe the fairy dust will wear off. Last season, Newton looked like a significantly improved passer in the first month of the season before regressing to the mean while dealing with multiple injuries. But if Newton continues to play at this level and make throws like he did to Olsen on the game-winning touchdown on Sunday, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the conversation.
Besides, who better for MVP than Superman himself?