Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, coming off a promising rookie season, was lost for the year with a torn ACL in August, leaving an already questionable receiver depth chart looking very shaky. Sure, Carolina had two-time Pro Bowler Cam Newton at quarterback, but aside from tight end Greg Olsen, who was he going to throw to? Untested rookie Devin Funchess? Ted Ginn, who averaged 26 catches and 349 yards over eight previous seasons? Second-year pro Philly Brown, who'd failed to crack the 300-yard mark in 2014? Twelfth-year pro Jerricho Cotchery, who's topped 1,000 yards just once -- in 2007? Former practice-squad player Brenton Bersin? Former Seahawk Kevin Norwood, who'd managed just nine catches for 102 yards as a rookie in 2014?
Yes, the defense -- which ranks seventh overall -- has played a large role in the team's success. But the fact is, Newton has basically been responsible for all of the Panthers' offense, generating 76 percent of their offensive yards -- 792 of 1,044 -- and seven (five passing, two rushing) of their eight total touchdowns. Despite the lackluster receiving corps, they rank a respectable 16th in total offense. And I think the Panthers' 100 Million Dollar Man has proven himself to be the most valuable player in the NFL -- at least, in terms of value to his team -- through Week 3.
How's he doing it? I've listed five reasons below.
1) He seems to have stepped up as a leader.
When I visited Panthers training camp, I noticed during practices that Newton was taking a much more pronounced role as a team leader than I'd ever seen him take before. He went out of his way to compliment players and point out things guys could do better. When he was a younger guy, it seemed to me that he didn't prioritize that aspect of the quarterback position; it seemed like he felt he could do everything by himself. Ironically, now that he's practically being asked to do it all by the Panthers, Newton seems to see the benefit of trying to bring the team together.
I think we can see this paying off in the way Ted Ginn has performed. When I watched practice, I noticed Newton nurturing a good relationship with Ginn. The receiver doesn't have the best hands in the world, but rather than demonstrating frustration or disappointment when Ginn would drop a pass in practice, Newton would attempt to pump the receiver up, offering support instead of tearing him down. In three games, Ginn has racked up 188 yards -- the second-most receiving yards on the team -- and chipped in a score. A player who is now on his fourth NFL team -- and second stop in Carolina -- is on pace for his first career 1,000-yard season.
2) His work habits are translating to on-field success.
Newton has always had good work habits, but this year, I noticed him staying late after practice to spend time on his footwork with coordinator Mike Shula, in an effort to improve his accuracy. And I think we're seeing it on the field. Yes, his completion rate is 56.6 percent, which would be a career low if it held for the season, but we can't forget about the cast of receivers he's throwing to. Unlike the earlier portion of his career, there's no Steve Smith out there to lean on.
Consider that, according to STATS LLC, Panthers receivers have dropped seven catchable passes, or 11.1 percent of catchable passes -- the fifth-worst percentage in the NFL. If those seven drops had been caught instead, Newton's completion rate would be a much more robust 63.6 percent on the season -- a career high. Plus, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats, the Panthers haven't had a wide receiver finish in the top 25 in terms of distance covered as a ball carrier in a single week this season, though Olsen did rank third in Week 2 and first in Week 3 in that category. Olsen aside, the Panthers' receivers are not running much after the catch -- meaning most of their yardage comes through the air, via Newton's proficiency as a passer, rather than via the catch-and-run plays you'd see in an offense featuring a less capable quarterback.
3) He's better at running the offense.
After a relatively slow season opener -- though he still did enough to help beat the Jaguars -- Newton has ramped up his game. In fact, Sunday's win over the Saints, in which he completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 315 yards and two passing touchdowns against zero interceptions for a rating of 119.7, ranks as one of his better career outings. In general, he seems more confident in his knowledge of both the offense and opposing defenses than he has in the past. He's more than a product of the system. Rather, he seems to understand the system and how to thrive within it. He no longer seems to drop back with no plan, and he's no longer as quick to take off as he once was. He also seems to know how to work around the limitations of his offensive line; he's getting the ball out of his hand more quickly, which has led to him cutting down on his sack rate (his sack percentage of 4.8 this season is much lower than his career mark of 7.2 percent). That's a key factor, as sacks can really devastate an offensive game plan.
The bottom line is, Newton's game seems more refined. Things have slowed down for him. Rather than relying on his athletic ability alone, he's combining those natural skills with his improved knowledge of the game to become a greater threat than he's been before.
4) He's throwing the ball with more touch.
Newton used to be a guy who'd just rear back and throw it hard. But when you're a quarterback like that, sometimes your guys are going to catch the ball, sometimes they aren't. That was OK when Smith was lining up for Carolina, but it won't cut it with most of the receivers on the Panthers' roster today. Newton has started throwing with much more discretion, showing he can dial the velocity up or down as needed.
Consider three plays from Sunday's win over the Saints. On one play, Newton needed to drop the ball in the bucket on a pass to Olsen, and he was able to do just that, connecting with the tight end for a 27-yard pickup in the second quarter. Later on, Newton showed good zip on both of his11-yard scoring strikes to Olsen. Knowing how -- and when -- to switch from the fastball to the changeup and back again is a crucial skill, one that Newton seems to have honed.
5) He's a smarter, more dangerous runner.
Newton complements his passing prowess with serious rushing abilities. Consider that he's notched two-plus touchdown passes and at least one rushing touchdown in 14 career games, third-most in the NFL since 1960, behind only Steve Young (17) and Fran Tarkenton (16). Of course, he's always been a standout ball carrier, as we saw in his rookie season, when he ran for 14 scores -- still a quarterback record -- and 706 yards. Now, though, he's taking care to run at opportune times, when the defense gives him something. This seems to be a function of his improved command of the offense. His touchdown run on Sunday is a great example of this -- he knew to check out of the play and take off around left end for pay dirt.
The Panthers' sixth-ranked rushing game has leaned heavily on him this season. Newton currently has 144 rushing yards on 31 carries, more yards than any other quarterback in the NFL -- and nearly as many as Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart (170), whom Newton is outpacing in both yards per attempt (Newton has 4.6; Stewart has 3.5) and touchdowns (Newton has two; Stewart has zero). Newton is on pace to finish with 768 rushing yards, which would be a career high. His increased acumen for the game -- along with his improved accuracy, which will compel defenses to be wary of his arm -- makes him a more dangerous runner than he has been at any point in his career.
This is a one-horse team. Stewart is a decent runner and Olsen is a good pass-catching tight end, but beyond that, the Panthers haven't given Newton much to work with. Carolina's defense is definitely an advantage, as illustrated by Josh Norman's penchant for making clutchinterceptions, but the defense can't play quarterback. If it weren't for Newton, this team would struggle to put up 100 yards per game, and there's certainly little chance the Panthers would be undefeated. Tom Brady -- who has put up unreal numbers -- might give Newton a run for his money in terms of being the NFL's MVP through three weeks. But in my mind, Newton has been the more valuable player, especially when you take into account the high level of performance and the extreme dearth of supporting weapons.
Is Newton as good a passer as, say, Aaron Rodgers? No. But I think he's as good a runner as any quarterback in the NFL. When you combine that skill with Newton's improvements as a passer, he's going to be tough to stop. I think the Panthers are going to make the playoffs, and if Newton plays well throughout the season, I could see him building a legitimate case to be the NFL MVP. After all, that award should go to the guy who did the most to lift his team up -- and no one's being asked to do as much lifting as Newton.