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Newton, Panthers ready for primetime meeting with Saints

The Panthers have won eight straight and face the South-leading Saints. How did they turn things around?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Following a late DeAngelo Williams fumble inside the 10 in a season-opening 16-12 loss, Steve Smith stood in front of his locker and emphatically stated that the Panthers would "see that team again come January".

That team was the now 11-1 Seattle Seahawks. When pressed by a fellow reporter if that meant he was convinced the Panthers fresh off a 7-9 season a year prior were a playoff team, he replied: "Did I stutter?"

It was typical Smith -- the type of refreshing, unfiltered honesty reporters rarely get from athletes these days. So when he was asked about that proclamation this week, his response was classic Smith. 

"[Comments] a lot of people joked off? Yeah. This old dude may know some things, huh?' he said, always taking note of a perceived slight. 

A lot of people scoffed, but Smith said he saw the way they played and knew the kind of team the Seahawks were. It was the type of comment that his coach loved. After all this was a show of confidence coming from a 13-year vet, not an overconfident rookie with his head in the sand.

Now, eight straight wins later and with a looming Sunday night date for the division lead against the Saints, he looks brilliant.

"I've been on some sorry teams and I didn't believe we were a sorry team. Just because we lost I wasn't going to listen to people tell us how bad we were and we were the same old Panthers because I've been on some same ole Panthers teams in years past and that wasn't it," Smith said. "So, no, I didn't waiver, especially with watching these guys work as hard as they do."
 
But how did it all turn around? The narrative explaining that has been written and it seems here to stay: The Panthers turned into a NFC contender because Cam Newton's been a dramatically improved and quarterback in year three. 

But is that really the case and to what extent? And is the improvement in Newton even quantifiable? 

His numbers show a slight improvement. His yardage (2,616) is on pace to dip from a season prior (3,869), but his completion percentage is up to 61.7 percent from 57.7 a season ago. His touchdowns (19) are set to go up from the 19 he had a season ago, but so are his interceptions (11) after throwing 12 a year ago.

Rivera says that he sees improvement in his understanding of the offense and is quick to remind that Newton only had one year of major college football starting experience before his arrival in Charlotte. Multiple SEC coaches told Rivera during his pre-draft scouting that Auburn would have been a 7-7 team without Newton the year they won the national championship, and Rivera believes that mindset that he had to do it all carried over his first two years.

"You got that sense that he was trying to do a lot and put a lot on his shoulders and try to handle it all by himself," Rivera said. "I think he has learned to trust his teammates and not feel pressed to do everything and I think that's a big reason why he's having the success and he's improved and I think that's why we've gotten better is as the quarterback grows and gets better, playmakers get better, players around him get better, and we get better as a team."

That growing trust has made him spread the ball around more. What used to be the Smith and Newton show has morphed into a receiving corps where the Panthers top four pass catches are all within 140 yards of each other on the year. Part of that is Smith's age and diminishing abilities but more of it is Newton going through multiple progressions quicker and more frequently to find the best option. 

"It's distributed a lot. No league leaders here," Smith said.

"If the team goals are greater than the individual goals then that's the whole point. I look at our old offensive coordinator [Rod Chudzinski], Josh Gordon has my whole stats in two games, caught 200 some yards last week and how many points did they score? Three?" Smith asked. "Lot of years I had great stats sitting at home in January, watching those people play."

Brandon LaFell points to the end of last season when the Panthers won five of six to end the season as when Newton started to trust his receivers more. Stats had already showed Newton was the franchise quarterback when the win loss record couldn't but they don't tell the tale of his growth this year, players say. They can't tell the tale of two game-winning drives late in the fourth quarter. They can't quantify changes in his leadership -- an area where he used to point fingers or look baffled for an answer has transformed into a constant deflection of credit.

"He's leading by example more, getting us in the right play, making the right plays," LaFell said. "Back then when we turn the ball over he would get down on himself pretty bad and get down on the rest of the guys, but now when we turn the ball over he's on the sidelines and everyone's looking at the paper, everybody getting the plays right and everybody fixing it on the sidelines rather than waiting for it to happen again and fix it on Monday. We just fix it on the sidelines now."

That's why Newton's excelling in the only stat that matters: 9-3. That's why the narrative's changed in Carolina. This has always been your franchise quarterback. He's just never had the league's top ranked scoring defense to pick him up when he makes a mistake until this year. And he remains aware of how fleeting success is in the NFL. You only have to look four hours south to Atlanta to see that.

"Winning brings about a conversation that lets a lot of things go unnoticed," Newton said. 
 
"If we were losing right now, there'd be some things in the Charlotte Observer of 'Oh, Cam's not the leader we expect him to be, he's not the franchise quarterback.' I understand that's the name in this league and I respect that. Coach Rivera always says we have one job and one job only and that's to win football games and I think this year has been a credit to a lot of guys coming together to win football games."

What No. 1 does out on the field, though, Sunday night will largely determine whether he gets on the plane in New Orleans as the leader of a 10-3 football team and the new leaders of the division. With Drew Brees on the opposite end, it's not logical to expect the Panthers defense to be able to hold the high powered Saints offense to a number around their yearly average of points allowed (13.1). So Newton and a Panthers offense ranked 14th in scoring at 23.8 points per game will have to keep pace.

"I think if there's one thing that you're going to need from Cam it's to continue to be consistent," Rivera said. "He's gotta make good decisions, gotta be accurate with his throws, and he's gotta make good decisions when its time to run the football. I think more than anything else he has to play the way he has in this stretch that we've had."

That stretch has led to the biggest game in the NFL this weekend with a pissed-off Saints team fresh off a whooping in Seattle looking for redemption against a team hotter than anyone in the NFL. This is what Newton wanted all along and why he looked so downtrodden and demoralized after losses in the past. 

"Yeah, its great to be a part of it, and yeah, it's great to be around this type of atmosphere but to hell with it if we don't continue to keep going and keep challenging ourselves to strive for higher heights," Newton said.