Ron Rivera's evolution to 'Riverboat Ron'. Greg Hardy's progression from overachieving sixth round pick to All-Pro. The change in team-building from Marty Hurney to Dave Gettleman. All fairly well publicized changes which have had great effects on the Panthers organization. Perhaps the most monumental change not treated as such has been to Carolina's franchise quarterback Cam Newton.
Professional soldiers are predictable, but the world is full of dangerous amateurs.
-Murphy's laws of war
The Heisman Trophy winner who took the league by storm, and captured the hearts of the fanbase has developed into a pragmatic signal caller majoring in risk management.
My favorite play from the 2011 season came Week 5 in Newton's first matchup against the Saints.
But Newton doesn't make this play in Year 3. Technically speaking, the rookie's throw is a nightmare. Cam does well to step up in the pocket versus the blitz, but it goes downhill from there. Pause at 0:05 and you'll see Newton is actually airborne when he makes the throw. The pass is delivered high and behind target Steve Smith, essentially a jump ball.
Receiver that he is, Smith makes the tough catch and scores. Plays like this, while exciting, are the exception to the rule.
Many are upset that the Panthers have been unable to recreate the offensive successes of 2011. Blame is spread to Newton's protection, his weapons, and most usually, his coaches; not the quarterback himself. It's not as if the Auburn product has regressed from his first year. On the the contrary, Newton has matured.
Not the same player he was in 2011, the third-year pro has developed into a task-manager role. As the game has slowed down for him, it's rare to find Newton taking undue risks. He's not winging it. Live to fight another play/series, yada yada.
Not all bad, we've seen Newton minimize his turnovers, and become more efficient in his decision making. The Panthers QB finished 2011 with a second half passer rating of 73.5, with 7 TDs and 11 INTs coming in the third and fourth quarters. Last year was a far different story: Newton had a second half passer rating of 99.6; 13 TDs and just 3 INTs.
There's a similar trend to be found in Newton's fourth quarter passer rating with the score within 7 points.
With the game on the line, 2011 Newton had a poor passer rating of 68.6, coupled with, and caused by his two touchdowns and two interceptions. 2013 saw Newton toss three touchdowns and one interception. Maybe a shallow improvement, but it comes in the most crucial of areas.
Here's an on-field example coming from Carolina's 2013 Week 8 matchup with Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers blitz seven. Newton diagnoses the pressure, and surveys the coverage.
Rather than waiting for the protection to crumble, Newton rolls left.
The Tampa coverage has held up fairly well.
Rather than holding out in the pocket, or throwing a 50/50 ball, Newton takes off, picking up 16-yards on his own.
It's not exactly clear cut as to if this change is a good thing. Gone are some of the brilliant throws into tight coverage. Because while they could result in the touchdowns we saw in 2011, these throws, against skilled DB's, could also lead to game changing turnovers. On the other hand, this style of attack comes with more checkdowns, or sacks taken instead of trying to stretch a play further. No more left-handed, falling, underhand interceptions.
Newton has matured. He's no longer trying to do too much. That's a nice sound bite, but it cuts both ways. Less boneheaded turnovers; less jaw-dropping explosive plays.