CHARLOTTE — Ron Rivera looked over his Carolina Panthers team at halftime of the NFC Championship Game, and he did not want to say a thing. Silence, he has learned in his rise as a football coach, is a hidden secret, one younger coaches struggle to understand, one he did not grasp a younger coach. A good coach will say the right thing at the right time. But a great coach, he has found, often doesn’t say anything at all.
And so Ron Rivera waited. His Panthers were up on Arizona by 17. They had dominated the game from the beginning. Well, they dominated so many games this year. What a team. What a season. The only thing this team has struggled with all year is the raw instinct to put games like this away with no drama, no muss, no fuss.
He waited. And then, just like he hoped, it happened.
“How many of you have wanted to do something special?” quarterback Cam Newton shouted to his teammates. Hands shot up.
“We have 30 minutes to do something special,” Newton shouted louder.
Yes, that was it, that was all that needed to be said. Rivera did not say another word.
* * *
Cam Newton is unlike any quarterback who has ever played in the NFL. He’s 6-foot-6, pushes 250 pounds, can run the Lombardi sweep but also completes more of his passes than Bart Starr. He can throw deep as well as anybody in the NFL, and he’s unstoppable at the goal line. Two quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown for 3,500 yards, completed 20 touchdown passes and rushed for ten touchdowns in the same season. Cam Newton is both of them. He has played just five years in the league and already he’s only one rushing touchdown away from the quarterback record held by Otto Graham. He just finished with a higher passer rating than John Unitas, John Elway or Dan Fouts ever had in a season.
He is one of those rare athletes who redefines the sport. Magic Johnson did that as a 6-foot-9 point guard. Bobby Orr did that as an attacking defenseman. Cal Ripken did that as a tall and powerful shortstop.
Teams had taken chances on huge and overwhelming athletes like Newton at quarterback before. Oakland drafted JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 pick. San Diego drafted Ryan Leaf with the No. 2 pick. Teams tried to win with Vince Young and Josh Freeman. None of that worked out very well.
Daunte Culpepper was a big guy and a bit of a running threat and a top-level player for a while. Ben Roethlisberger is a big guy and, while not a running threat, he is difficult to sack and extremely dangerous when the play breaks down. John Elway then, and Andrew Luck now, were unusual athletes who blended size and speed.
There have been huge guys who were pure passers (Joe Flacco, Kerry Collins, Drew Bledsoe) and some lighter guys who were fantastic hybrid runners and passers (Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham, Steve Young, Russell Wilson).
But Newton, well, who else in the history of the NFL could do all the things he did on Sunday? On a third-and-10, he ran right, plowing over and through defenders for the first down like he was Jim Brown, and then on the next play he ran right and scampered through for a 12-yard touchdown run, looking like Gale Sayers in the process.
A few minutes later, he threw a speeding bullet of a pass over the middle to tight end Greg Olsen, a 54-yard rocket of a play that was ripped right out of the pages of Dan Marino or Brett Favre. Then he smashed for a 14-yard run up the middle reverting to his own Beast Mode. And then he beat the blitz and threw a quick-strike, five-yard touchdown pass the way Tom Brady or Peyton Manning would.
“You know, with Cam,” receiver Ted Ginn Jr. would say, “if he’s running the ball, you’re happy. If he’s in the pocket, you’re happy. If he’s scrambling … whatever he will do, he makes it exciting.”
Newton talks often about being doubted, which seems an unusual thing for a Heisman Trophy winner and college national champion who became the first pick in the NFL Draft and started his first game in the NFL (becoming the first man to throw for 400 yards in his debut). But it is true that Newton has spent much of his career being questioned. He isn’t accurate enough. His game won’t translate to the NFL. He celebrates too much. When he came out of college, Sports Illustrated ran a cover of Newton with two other quarterbacks, Blaine Gabbert, and Jake Locker, and said tauntingly, “You choose. … Toughest call in football.”
Just to repeat, the other two quarterbacks were Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker.
In November, The Charlotte Observer ran a letter from a mom in Tennessee who had brought her nine-year-old daughter to the game.
“Because of where we sat, we had a close-up view of or your conduct in the fourth quarter,” she wrote. “The chest puffs. The pelvic thrusts. The arrogant struts and the ‘in your face’ taunting of both the Titans’ players and fans. We saw it all.”
After Newton left practice early to attend the birth of his son, the Observer ran another few letters under the headline, “Does Cam Newton’s unwed fatherhood set a bad example?”
Some players, current and former, have griped at what they see as excessive emotion on the field. “It’s disrespect,” said Hall of Famer Richard Dent, who was Ron Rivera’s former teammate. The legendary Dick Butkus grumbles about Newton’s tendency to signal first down.
People deal with such things differently. Some athletes ignore criticism and doubts. Some take them to heart. And some feed off them. Tom Brady has made a Hall of Fame career out of proving wrong all those people who didn’t draft him. Albert Pujols did the same.
And Newton seems to have some of that in him, as well. He is so driven. Every year, save perhaps last season, when he battled injury, Newton has gotten demonstrably better. He is more accurate. He takes fewer sacks. He reads defenses better. His friends and teammates talk about how hard he works on every aspect of his game, including his leadership. Nobody is sure that a younger Cam Newton would have just taken over the moment after the first half the way he did.
“With Cam,” linebacker Luke Kuechly says, “it’s all about his drive. He is never satisfied.”
“I’ve seen him do a lot of things off the field,” Ginn says, “you know, just preparing for being a leader and stepping up when he’s supposed to step up and saying thing things he supposed to say.”
One of the stock questions being thrown around after the Panthers’ destruction of Arizona on Sunday was this: “Does Cam Newton do things that surprise you?” This is a silly but fun sportswriter question, one we have often asked about Mike Trout and Sidney Crosby and Steph Curry because they still do stuff that blows our minds.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians was in no mood for the question.
“Nothing,” he said. “He did everything he did on tape.”
Some players nodded yes — they are still surprised by his brilliance. Some players shook their heads no — “I’m kind of getting to the point where I think, ‘Ah, that’s just him,’” Ginn said.
But the best answer of all came from, well, no surprise, Newton himself.
“Not really,” he said when asked if he surprises himself. “Because some of what I do is, I don’t want to say predetermined, but I’ve thought of the moment way before the moment. … When you’re put in a situation in a big game like this, you’ve played it out so many times in your mind. When you run for a touchdown, when you throw for a touchdown, when you flip in the end zone, it’s kind of like that dream is becoming a reality.
“And, yeah, it may be a surprise to so many people, but that’s how I envisioned it in the dream.”