SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Indianapolis Colts were completing their college draft evaluations in 2011, they encountered a problem. How to grade the very successful Auburn quarterback who came packaged with the hulking body and skill set of a single-wing tailback?
Cam Newton was much harder to categorize then than he is now -- NFL Most Valuable Player is an easy slot for him. Beyond saying that Newton was non-traditional and in need of more development, it was difficult for the Colts to know what to call him. So they settled on something inarguable: special player.
It didn't matter much what the Colts thought of Newton then, anyway. It was early 2011, and Indianapolis was still very much Peyton Manning country. It was long before the seriousness of his neck injury would be known, months prior to the surgeries and the desperate attempts to find backup quarterbacks and then the swift cratering to a 2-14 season that led to Manning's wrenching departure from the Colts and his arrival in Denver. In that spring, the Colts were not looking for a quarterback, and besides, they and almost everybody else thought they knew what a franchise quarterback was supposed to look like. He would be tall and in the pocket. He would be like Manning.
Five years later, it turns out Newton may be even more special than any of those evaluations could have projected. This season, he led the league with 45 total touchdowns -- 35 passing, 10 rushing -- becoming the first player in league history to rush for at least 10 touchdowns while throwing at least 30.
The showdown between Newton's Panthers and Manning's Broncos in Super Bowl 50, then, would seem to be the start of the revolution, or maybe we are already well into it. This is the fourth consecutive Super Bowl in which a mobile quarterback will participate, although Newton has taken that moniker to a level Colin Kaepernick (Super Bowl XLVII) and Russell Wilson (Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX) have not, combining the arm of Aaron Rodgers, the legs of Jim Brown and the body of ... a linebacker? There is no more stark comparison between the styles of Newton and Manning than this: Newton had just 31 fewer rushing yards this season (636) than Manning has in his entire 18-year tenure.
It has not escaped notice during Super Bowl week that even as Manning prepares to play what might be the final game of his extraordinary career, this has very much been Newton's coming out party.
The torch, it seems, is about to be passed. Not just to a new generation of quarterbacks, but to a new iteration of quarterbacks, too.
"He's opened the door for guys -- teams will take a shot," said Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys personnel executive who analyzes the draft for NFL.com and who was an early supporter of Newton at Auburn. "At one point, the superior athlete was a running back, a tailback or a wide receiver. The superior athlete now is your quarterback -- you're taking a guy with all this ability and putting him at quarterback."
Rob Chudzinski was the Panthers' offensive coordinator when Newton was drafted, and he recalls the doubts about whether an offense that included so many runs for a quarterback could be successful.
"That was the big risk in drafting him when I was there," Chudzinski said. "They thought outside the box enough to do that. There was not an example prior of that of doing that on offense."
One of the plain realities of the NFL is that there are simply not enough good quarterbacks of any kind. Finding Newton-style players, though, remains a unique challenge, even as 7-on-7 youth leagues proliferate, giving the youngest gifted athletes the chance to throw and throw often, and even as the college game has veered toward putting athletic quarterbacks on the move.
Still, Newton, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds with speed and a strong arm, is such a physical outlier, creating an obvious problem for a copycat league. Finding another one of Newton to duplicate what the Panthers do is unlikely, a factor that, perhaps, will stop a trend in its tracks. The Panthers can use designed runs for Newton without significant fear of injury because he is so big. But the NFL is littered with other mobile quarterbacks, from Michael Vick to Robert Griffin III, who stressed defenses but whose bodies could not withstand the contact. The risk is the same as it has always been: that teams hoping to emulate Carolina's offense will put a player who cannot withstand the beating into it.
Even the person who oversaw the Colts' scouting of Newton -- Bill Polian, who was then the team's president -- questions whether the faceoff between Newton and Manning represents a transformative moment for the NFL or merely a spotlight moment for one singular talent that is being underscored by the likely exit of another.
Polian, of course, also drafted Manning. When he watches him now, he sees a player whose timing with receivers is off because he is no longer able to refine it with a dozen extra passes after practice every day. But with Manning returning to relatively good health, Polian otherwise believes Manning looks largely the same as he has in recent years. That includes the designed bootleg Manning ran in the AFC Championship Game -- "It was as ugly as ever," Polian said, laughing. "He had no speed to lose."
Joking aside, though, Polian believes the future of quarterbacking will still hew more toward the Manning model than to Newton.
"I don't think it's a referendum on anything," Polian said. "Cam is unique, he's one of the kind, just his physical strength is so arresting. To take the kind of hits he takes and survive is hard to fathom. I just came from the Senior Bowl -- you look at guys that look like they're going to be guys that you will think highly of in the NFL, they are much more traditional-type quarterbacks. There are more of them. God only makes so many Cams. In fact, He only made one."
Polian compares Newton's body type to only one other quarterback -- John Elway, who is 6-3 and played at 215 pounds. He was a dangerous and fearless runner for the Broncos -- see: the helicopter play -- as was the 49ers' Steve Young. Still, their desire to run should be kept in context. Elway finished his career with 3,407 rushing yards; Young had 4,239. In just five seasons, Newton already has 3,207 rushing yards.
"We're getting more athletic quarterbacks coming out, but I still think we're not going through a transition," Elway said. "You look at Cam, people say he can't throw from within the pocket. But he can. That's the improvement he's made. It's unique. They rely on him more. You look at Steve and myself, we were scramblers. He does more things in the running game where he can be classified as a runner. We had maybe a quarterback draw, but we didn't have zone reads that he has."
The Broncos' defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, saw up close two of the most devastating running quarterbacks in the history of football: Randall Cunningham in Philadelphia and Michael Vick in Atlanta. Phillips, who is now charged with stopping Newton in Super Bowl 50, sees all of them as flashes that burned brightly for a little while but did not create the sea change that might have been imagined.
"When we had Randall Cunningham, people said the same thing," Phillips said. "Brett] Favre was different than Manning, who is different than Newton -- all the great ones have been different. I don't know if it's a new wave. They said [RGIII would be that guy. Michael Vick was faster than everybody, then RGIII could throw and run. Not all of them pan out. Some of them are really good for just a while."
That would seem to be the case with Griffin, who was a phenom as a pass-run rookie in Washington in 2012 before the injuries that every franchise fears for its starting quarterback set in. As a rookie, Griffin threw for 3,200 yards and ran for 815. Then came the knee injury and subsequent surgery. And then Griffin's desire to be a dropback passer. The end result was Griffin, who was never again as dynamic and confident as he was as a rookie, losing his starting job to Kirk Cousins before the 2015 season.
Griffin's tale would seem to be a cautionary one for teams that may be tempted to go all-in on the running quarterback phenomenon. His former coach, Mike Shanahan -- who also coached Elway in Denver and Young in San Francisco -- is struck by the difference in Newton's mindset.
"The interesting part is he embraces it -- he knows he has the ability to do different things, and he's not afraid to do it," Shanahan said. "A lot of quarterbacks want to be known as dropback quarterbacks. Cam embraces whatever it takes to win. He's a tough guy. He's probably taking more contact than coaches want, especially in the red zone. He knows when to slide and when to throw the ball away, but he gets very competitive in the red zone. He knows he can take the punishment.
"I think he'll learn as he gets older that he is too valuable to the team to take a chance of getting hurt. One thing John and Steve were very aware of, when they saw certain coverages, they knew if they could get past the defensive line, they were good for 15 to 20 yards running. The problem that happens is when guys have ability to run, they look to run too quickly. They don't have patience. Steve Young would tell you it took him a little while to stay in the pocket and not use his God-given skills to make plays with the run. There is a fine line. Cam is doing a much better job of staying in the pocket."
That may be the overlooked part of this comparison. Newton himself has moved more this year toward the Manning model, having developed a strong game throwing from the pocket to augment his dynamic running skills, the final piece to making him a devastating dual threat.
Phil Simms said this week that Manning, heralded even now for his ability to decipher defenses and change play calls at the line of scrimmage, may have changed the style of football played in the NFL more than any player in history. Even if Sunday represents Manning's final act, that impact is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
"A lot of things that Peyton has done, is doing, that I wish I could mimic, but I can't do it like Peyton can, because only he can do it," Newton said this week. "I try to translate other things I learned from him or have seen him do or other quarterbacks do in this league and I try to apply it to my own."
Perhaps, then, Sunday -- no matter the outcome of the game -- is not about an entirely new style of quarterback. Maybe, instead, the NFL is about to get the best of all worlds.
"Extension is much more what you'll see in the future -- Big Ben, people like that," Polian said. "Quarterback power run is unique only to Cam. Read option is another story. Offensive coaches will tell you if the quarterback can get 5 yards and get down, it forces the defense to honor it and pro defenses still don't account for the quarterback. I can see people doing that. But you better get them down fast."