SAN JOSE, Calif. – This is where quarterbacks pen their legacies. Think of any all-time great and a singular highlight instantly comes to mind.
Joe Montana slicing a 10-yard touchdown to John Taylor, capping a game-winning, 92-yard drive. Terry Bradshaw’s rainbow to a diving Lynn Swann. Ben Roethlisberger finding Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left. Eli Manning escaping, then hurling a prayer to the helmet of David Tyree. Brett Favre going deep to Andre Rison, then hoisting his helmet in elation.
It’s always a quarterback relying on his arm to stun the defense.
So, what will Cam Newton’s defining moment be in Sunday’s Super Bowl? Let’s see.
He might rifle a throw deep. He could bowl over a linebacker with a nasty right shoulder. Maybe he sprints past a defensive back in a footrace. No, Newton’s not afraid of tight windows – he’ll thread the needle. And near the goal line, buckle up. He’ll go airborne.
Nobody ever knows what to expect. And that’s the allure of Cam Newton – he’s changing the quarterback position before our eyes.
Wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown makes an attempt at describing his quarterback.
“He’s a pocket passer but he can run – you don’t see that every day,” Brown said. “He’s a quarterback the size of a D-lineman with the athleticism of a wideout or a DB. You don’t see that every day. That’s something you go in a lab and put some stuff together – give me Michael Vick’s legs with Tom Brady ... That’s something you’d create on Madden.
“He’s that person. He’s someone nobody has seen.”
True, Newton has been that player with the 99 ratings across the board you created on Madden as a kid. Through Carolina’s 17-1 season – surely an MVP season – Newton has thrown for 4,333 yards, rushed for 686 yards and scored 40 total touchdowns with only 11 interceptions. And he’s doing it with guys named Ginn and Philly and Cotchery and Funchess at wide receiver.
He hasn’t victimized defenses with one part of his game, no, Newton scrolls through his options and attacks.
Teammates shake their heads. Injured receiver Kelvin Benjamin insists Newton is some Madden concoction, too. Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips?
“You’re giving me nightmares now, right? Yeah, I’ve never seen one like him and nobody else has.”
The Panthers list Newton at 6 foot 5, 245 pounds, numbers fullback Mike Tolbert then inflates to 6-6, 255. He calls Newton “a genetic freak” with “4 percent body fat.”
“He’s an animal,” Tolbert said, “and I’m glad he’s on my side.”
No, the running quarterback is not a novel concept. Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl in Seattle … but he’s 5-11, 206. Steve Young could run … but he’s 6-2, 215.
When Newton is in the open field, he rarely ever taps out. He runs you over. He’s thicker than all defensive backs and many linebackers. This “passion,” this “fire” Newton brings on such plays, Tolbert adds, has ignited the Panthers all season long.
“We feed off of that as an offense,” Tolbert said. “When it’s third and 10 and he’s scrambling and he’s got nine, run the cat over. He knows when it’s time to get down and he knows when it’s time to make a play.”
No surprise that this element of Newton’s game is what alarms the Broncos most.
Denver has stifled elite quarterbacks all season. This suffocating unit completely flustered Aaron Rodgers (69.7 passer rating), Philip Rivers (57.1) and Tom Brady (56.4), hitting the three elite quarterbacks a combined 32 times. They were batted around in the pocket, bullied.
Sunday’s foe can hit back. And not only that. Newton has 4.5 speed, too.
“He can run the ball unlike any quarterback in the NFL right now,” Broncos end Derek Wolfe said.
As Wolfe explained, Newton is sharp at waiting until the last second in the zone read to pull the ball out and run. Even then, he’s confident, saying “it’s nothing that we’re not ready to handle.” Wolfe believes Denver can still rush Newton, still fly upfield without worrying about the running threat.
His coach is confident, too. Phillips plans on using a spy on Newton, if needed.
And if Denver does overcompensate to stop Newton as a runner, he’ll use his mind. His arm. His accuracy. Whereas the electric Michael Vick never quite developed as a passer, Newton has.
Five years, 83 starts and 2,562 pass attempts into his career, this former No. 1 overall pick has a deep understanding of coverages. As a result, he’s been beating teams with his brain more often.
“He has a great feel for the game,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He has a fast mind. He sees things extremely well.”
Greg Olsen is a Top 5 tight end, but Newton doesn’t have the luxury of a 6-foot-5 wide receiver with an insane catching radius – he can’t take those gambles into crowds. So he’s usually the first one in the building and last to leave. Brown said Newton “never sees the light.”
“He comes in, in the morning when it’s dark out and he leaves when it’s dark out,” Brown said. “He watches countless hours of film.”
Hence, the 10 interceptions this season. He’s decoding defense.
This season, Newton has been changing his signals to receivers every day. He mixes up his snap count, too – leading to more free plays, free yards. And Carolina’s volume of audibles has reached an all-time high under Newton.
Said Brown, “I can’t wait to see what we have for the Super Bowl.”
Through it all, teammates sense a rare competitiveness running through Newton’s veins. Remember that training camp fight with cornerback Josh Norman? Tolbert loved it. Sticking up for the offense in a hypercompetitive setting, Newton actually earned some leadership points in-house.
“I know Cam and that’s his mentality,” Tolbert said. “He’s a fighter, he’s a feisty guy. So, I loved the fact that he was willing to put his body on the line for us.”
Which is why you then see Newton stiff-arm and run through Arizona’s Chris Clemons on third and 10, spiking the ball, pumping his fists and sending his team to San Francisco.
On Tuesday, Tolbert became irritated when the topic of Newton’s perception was brought up. To him, outsiders do not understand Newton. He’s the first person to text, to call, to ask about anything other than football — “95 percent” of players’ conversations with Newton have nothing to do with the game, he said.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why people vilify him so much,” Tolbert said. “But somebody has to be the bad guy, right?”
Maybe not for long.