Carolina Panthers  

 

Newton will learn the game more than the game learns him

The scouting reports already are being formulated for Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton: Keep him in the pocket, force him to read evolving coverages and see how he responds with at least five defenders coming after him. That's what he's going to get until he proves he can deal with it, according to one defensive coordinator.

That game plan is about as original as the earth rotating on its axis.

Newton, who officially was named the starter Thursday night, is not an original. He has special gifts -- a big arm, great size, great speed, history of winning -- but few think he's so unique that he'll change the way defenses play or how offenses call plays.


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Wednesday:
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Thursday:
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Friday:
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» Newton's special but he has a whole lot to learn
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Physically, he's QB Prototype 5.0. Football-wise, he's just another special talent who will have to learn the NFL game more than the game learns him.

"They have to get him out on the edge at this point of his career and try to let him use his skills, be creative and make plays based on his skill set," an assistant coach from another team said.

It's the same thing that's being said about the Titans' Jake Locker and 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, fellow rookie QBs who can be just as dangerous improvising with their legs as they can with their arms. It's the looped track that's run when discussing Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, his backup Vince Young, Denver Broncos backup Tim Tebow, and the Vikings' Donovan McNabb, among many others.

Newton is just next in line.

Vick was a player who forced defenses to change. Teams kept backside defenders from flow pursuit to provide at least a speed bump on bootleg runs. He prompted coaches like former Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to design a spy to track his every move. Opposing teams, such as the Panthers, drafted hybrid safety-linebackers like Thomas Davis with stopping Vick in mind.

Vick also had offensive coaches play to his strengths and design things to give him run-pass options.

Everyone else caught on.

Mobile quarterbacks have been around long enough that coaches know how to coach them and coach against them. Newton isn't going to revolutionize the position, one coach said, especially as a rookie. He is special, though. So special that when things go wrong, he's got the ability to make something good happen.

One opposing assistant coach said his team would prefer to face second-year Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen because, when things break down, at least Clausen will throw the ball out of bounds, take a play for negative yards or be forced into a possible turnover situations.

Newton might forget a play, misread a coverage or simply see daylight, but he can tuck the ball away and run. Once he's in the open field, it's a 50-50 proposition of whether something good or bad happens, the opposing assistant coach said. Those are worse odds for opposing defenses than if he simply played to punt -- which isn't always the worst option.

Like all rookies at any position, Newton's handicapped by not having an offseason to refine his fundamentals, accuracy and to learn the system. The Panthers are going to have to manage him for sure.

While some critics will say that he needs that hand-holding because he's coming from a basic offensive system at Auburn, keep in mind that Atlanta's Matt Ryan is finally getting deep into the playbook in his fourth season. New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said he plans to finally loosen the reins on Mark Sanchez.

Every rookie quarterback is managed to some degree. Like Sanchez and Ryan and St. Louis's Sam Bradford and Baltimore's Joe Flacco, a solid running game is going to be Newton's best ally.

"He's going to struggle if they don't run the ball and move the pocket some," one opposing defensive coordinator said.

The Panthers' defense also is going to have to prevent teams from staking double-digit leads and forcing an abundance of catch-up passing scenarios. Newton will get blitzed and attacked like any quarterback put in those less-than-ideal circumstances. Again, nothing about this is new. This is how football is played.

If Carolina does re-establish its once-dominant running game and wide receiver Steve Smith gets some help from other receivers, including tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, Newton could develop in his own, positive way. He can showcase himself within the system and even add his own wrinkles.

Though most coaches want their quarterbacks to play in the traditional sense of being patient in the pocket and reading through what the defense exposes, they also want their quarterbacks to have their own identities.

So Newton won't be told to never play on the move, but he will be coached to read through his progressions if he has to buy time by scrambling. Vick and McNabb learned to do that, as has Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. When all else fails, running is an option. Newton has to learn that can't be his first option. Not only will defenses tee off, but his teammates who could be wide open or who are holding off pass rushers for him to make plays with his arm will grow weary.

The Panthers knew what they were getting when they drafted Newton. A special talent for sure, but not a unique one.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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