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Panthers coach Ron Rivera: Cam Newton simply misunderstood

In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 15
» Why the Baltimore Ravens had to fire Cam Cameron
Which team will win the NFC East
» And much more, beginning with a look at what everyone gets wrong about Cam Newton ...

Ron Rivera had some of his college buddies from Cal-Berkeley come into town last weekend to watch his Carolina Panthers take down the Atlanta Falcons, and he gave them the run of the place.

They got to hang out at the Panthers' facility. They went to the walkthrough Saturday. They saw the game Sunday. And to a man, Rivera said, they each walked away thinking the same thing.

That Cam Newton is nothing like we expected him to be.

Rivera relayed the story to drive home the point. If Rivera's buddies, who played college ball with him and had some insight on Newton coming in, had gotten it so wrong, then imagine how far off everyone else probably is.

Twenty months into his NFL career, Newton still hasn't quite shaken the perception problem that's dogged him since his days at Auburn. And when Rivera is asked what everyone's gotten wrong about his quarterback, the answer is crystal clear.

"On who he is," Rivera responded Monday afternoon. "If you've never been in those shoes, it's hard to understand what he goes through. RG3 is different. Andrew Luck is different. Someone like Andy Dalton is different. They each handle this stuff differently. And it'll be interesting to see Luck and Griffin in those tough times. Cam's had tough times here. Hopefully, we've turned things around."

Signs on the field indicate that that's happening.

Over the past three weeks, Newton has completed 56 of 90 passes (62.2 percent) for 825 yards, seven touchdowns, no picks and a 121.8 quarterback rating. He's posted triple-digit ratings in four of his past six games. He's now on pace to finish with a better rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio than he did as a rookie. And with the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints left on the Panthers' schedule, winning two of three and matching last year's 6-10 record is an attainable goal.

Yet, the narrative on Newton this year has been about that perception Rivera's buddies had coming to Charlotte last week: That all of Newton's success, all the fame that had been foisted on him after winning the Heisman Trophy in 2010 and the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2011, had gotten to him. That he was spoiled and entitled and even a little whiny.

The truth, according to Rivera, is that Newton did have some growing up to do, but not for those reasons. Newton was 25-1 as a starter in college. All three of the teams Newton played for at that level won national championships while he was with them: the Auburn Tigers in 2010, the Blinn Buccaneers in 2009 and the Florida Gators in 2008. Even last season, winning six games was considered a major leap forward for Carolina.

This season, Newton failed to live up to expectations, and he didn't deal well with that. Because, really, he'd never been through it before.

"I sat down with him, and we visited, and I tried to get him to understand, 'Don't put this all on yourself, it's all part of your growth,' " Rivera explained. "Thing is, he just wants to win. And he gets mad about it. And then people misinterpret his reaction, his demeanor, without talking to him. He doesn't open up to a lot of people, he's just a private guy, and that gets taken as him snubbing people, when he's not. But he does listen."

And, in Rivera's opinion, Newton was listening to too much of it.

Some of the criticism was well-deserved. During Carolina's 1-6 start, Newton threw five touchdown passes and eight picks, posted a QB rating under 75 four times, and led an offense that scored 14 points or less four times.

In the summer, the Panthers had been talking Super Bowl. By Week 8, they'd gotten general manager Marty Hurney fired.

"Expectations for us were tremendous, coming off a six-win season," Rivera said. "People expected a jump from us, and they in particular expected that from him. There was pressure on him; he put pressure on himself. He had to handle not having success, and deal and cope with a tough situation. And hey, we put a lot of pressure on him, when people already expect so much. I think he learned not to accept, but deal with losing. And he's enjoying playing now."

Rivera and his staff, for their part, adjusted as well. The second-year coach is willing to concede that Hurney's dismissal put everyone on notice -- "That kinda put it out there how it was gonna be, and now people here look at it and say, 'If things go wrong, if it can happen to Marty, it can happen to anyone,' " he said -- and helped ratchet up the urgency.

The coaches spent much of the summer trying to diversify their option package, in an effort to stay a step ahead. However, after that rough start, they decided to revert to what they'd done well in 2011 in those looks, which helped Newton play faster. By taking some things off of Newton's plate, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula could focus on quickening Newton's decision-making and refining his footwork.

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Then there were the players around Newton. Last year, with both Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen at tight end, the team's offensive personnel groupings were fairly static. This year, without Shockey, the Panthers have had to vary things more, and in that sense, it took awhile to stabilize the skill positions. It also took some time to make things right in front of Newton, after center Ryan Kalil went down.

At this point, it's far too late for Newton and the Panthers to make up for all that was lost in the first two months of the season. But the way Rivera sees it, the growth forced by all that tumult will make for a better young group of players in general, and a more mature guy to lead them, in particular.

"The big thing is he's not wearing it all on his sleeve like he had previously," Rivera said. "A lot of people thought that wasn't the right way to handle it, and he understands that now. He can deal with it in a different way, a better way. I think he's just gotten more comfortable the last four weeks. Really, he's a different personality. He and I have talked about a vibe you give off. He carries himself with a different vibe now."

And that vibe might be a little different, as Rivera's buddies can attest, from what anyone would expect.

Four things I'll be looking for on Sunday

1) Tom Brady's pursuit of perfection. There was a moment in the second half of Monday's matchup between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans when, with the Patriots up by three scores, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gathered his players and positively lit into them for, in essence, not keeping their feet on the gas. Brady then entered the fray and turned the heat up a notch with some colorful language. Two possessions later, the Pats were leading, 42-7. When I heard about that sequence, I immediately thought back to what Brady told me after his offense reeled off 37 points against the Buffalo Bills in November. "There's a reason why we ended up with 37 points instead of 52," he said at the time. "That's the frustrating part for us as players, knowing we're capable of doing better." That relentless attitude -- expressed after wins, no less -- is part of what makes Brady who he is, and it explains how he raises the bar for everyone around him. That's part of why, in my opinion, he's the current favorite to win his third league MVP award. And that's the great thing about this week's contest: Brady and Co. will face a San Francisco 49ers defense that brings a similar mentality to the table.

2) The Houston Texans' resilience. Last week, Texans safety Danieal Manning told me, "You look at the team that's identical, that mirrors New England, it's Green Bay." Unfortunately for Houston, the result it got was near identical to its game against the Packers: a blowout loss in prime time. After their October loss to Green Bay, the Texans bounced back to administer a beatdown of the Baltimore Ravens. That's one reason the players seem confident there won't be a residual effect. After the game, Johnathan Joseph said, "You should be pissed about it, but at the same time, learn something from it, take something positive from it, and remember that feeling, watching the guys celebrating on the field." That feeling? Joseph continued: "That we're a lot better team than that; that we hold ourselves to a higher standard." Two things that should hearten Houston: First, in 2010, the New York Jets were blown out in Foxborough in similar fashion on a Monday night in December, then came back to Gillette Stadium and won in the playoffs. Second, the Texans can still get the AFC's top seed if they win out. That said, Monday night showed that the injuries on defense may have reached a critical mass for the Texans.

3) The Washington Redskins' focus. It hasn't been tough for Washington to muster up motivation over the past two weeks, not when they faced division rivals in the New York Giants on Monday night in Week 13 and their neighbors to the north (the Baltimore Ravens) last Sunday. The veterans in the Redskins' locker room think that part of what's gone right for them over the past month is that, for better or worse, Washington's young guys really don't know enough to realize what they're accomplishing. And the older guys don't plan on telling them, either. As DeAngelo Hall put it: "The guys fight, that's all you can ask for. You don't want to burden them too much, put too much on their plate." This week, the challenge is a little different. The Redskins have won four straight, they're the toast of D.C., and the quarterback situation is going to be covered by us in the media like Watergate from Wednesday through kickoff. Washington's opponent, the Cleveland Browns, are easy to overlook but sneaky tough, having won five of their last eight, and Northeast Ohio can be a tough place to go in December. So on Sunday, we'll see a little bit about the growth of these Redskins.

4) The Dallas Cowboys' depth. In the middle of the last decade, Bill Parcells built a solid core of foundational players in Dallas, and the Cowboys have, more or less, maintained it. They still have Tony Romo, Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten from those years, and that group has been augmented with guys like Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant and Morris Claiborne. The trouble has been that, more recently, the back half of the roster has decayed, leaving the team vulnerable when the injury bug hits. Losing Lee, for example, was a crushing blow to the defense; even losing Barry Church at safety really, really hurt. As a result, the offense has needed to carry Dallas in spots. And now with Bryant, who was playing as well as any receiver in the NFL, having fractured a finger, we should get a test of the offense's ability to do what the defense has struggled to do: withstand injuries. The Pittsburgh Steelers, smarting from a blowout loss at home to San Diego, are waiting.

Three conclusions

1) John Harbaugh must've been left with no choice. The Baltimore Ravens coach referenced one of his well-worn sayings -- "WIN: What's important now," -- in discussing former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's dismissal on Monday. Know this: The decision had to be a tough one for Harbaugh personally. Cameron was a position coach for Harbaugh's brother, Jim (you might know of him) at Michigan, and worked with his dad in Ann Arbor. John and Cameron were also staff-mates at Indiana. So how did this situation reach the point of no return? My sense is that Cameron lost the players, which is generally the one thing that precipitates a move like this. Last week, Ravens running back Ray Rice told me he didn't think he got enough touches (13) against the Pittsburgh Steelers, saying that his "magic number" was 20-25. Two days later, at the end of regulation against the Redskins, Rice was visibly despondent when Baltimore chose to kneel rather than get aggressive. And quarterback Joe Flacco was sold on the idea that the Ravens would have more of an up-tempo, no-huddle look this year, to help get him and the offense in better rhythm, but that never really got off the ground, even with Jim Caldwell imported to push the concept along. Those are just a couple of examples; it seems lots of guys had gripes. This will give them one less place to point a finger and, the hope has to be, re-energize the group.

2) We haven't heard the last of the New York Jets. I've maintained this for a while, and I'll repeat it: As much as has gone wrong in Florham Park, as much of a circus as it has appeared to be at times, the team down there won't quit on Rex Ryan. Yes, they looked like the Keystone Kops against the New England Patriots. Yes, they were outclassed by the Seattle Seahawks. And no, their schedule hasn't been a murderer's row over the past month. But the Jets have won three of four and -- give them this -- they haven't run and hidden at the first signs of trouble. They got the touchdown they needed against the Arizona Cardinals. They overcame a horrible start against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have the Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills left. The Steelers' and Bengals' schedules -- they each play each other; the Steelers get the Cowboys this week; the Bengals get the Ravens in Week 17 -- aren't cakewalks. Hard as it is to fathom, the Jets could be playing in January. And that'd be quite a testament to how the players have stood behind Ryan.

3) The final call hasn't been made on the San Diego Chargers' future, but it has been mulled. No, coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith haven't been fired yet, and likely won't be until at least Dec. 31. And yes, I'm told the only way they can save their jobs is to avoid missing the playoffs for a third straight season, which is why the microscopic chance they could survive is being kept alive. But let's be real about the situation in San Diego. Chargers boss Dean Spanos came very close to pulling the trigger on an organizational overhaul last winter, but he hesitated because the team had finished the 2011 season on fire and was just two years removed from winning the AFC West. It's different this time around; it seems that the best-case scenario this season would be a similar hot-finish-gone-for-naught, which won't save Turner and Smith again. If they're gone, director of player personnel Jimmy Raye would be the favorite to get the keys to the Chargers' football operation. That has complicated things in the building a bit, since it's not a secret, but give Turner and his staff credit. They know they're on the way out, but guys there have told me they're proud of the effort the team has given and the focus that's been maintained, which is good for the young players who'll stay through the changes.

Two college players to watch on Saturday

1) Utah State CB Will Davis (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, vs. Toledo, ESPN, 4:30 p.m. ET): The Aggies produced a couple of gems last year in Seattle draft picks Robert Turbin and Bobby Wagner, and Davis could well be this year's sleeper from the alma mater of Chris Cooley and Donald Penn. "He's got good size, speed, competitiveness, and he's a pretty good press corner -- he's physical at the line," said one AFC college scouting director. "And against Louisiana Tech, we got to see him against a receiver (Quinton Patton) that had a lot of production... He needs to get more instinctive, but he's a good athlete." An NFC personnel exec added: "He needs to play with more discipline." So Davis is a work-in-progress, but likely worth a late-round flier.

2) Nevada S Duke Williams (Gildan New Mexico Bowl, vs. Arizona, ESPN, 1 p.m. ET): A three-year starter in Reno who's been very productive in college, Williams fits the Wolfpack mold: undersized and cat quick. The NFC personnel exec I spoke to felt he's athletic enough "to play slot corner on our level," while the college scouting director was a little more skeptical about Williams' chances to be drafted. Another player to watch for Nevada would be LB Jeremiah Green. Green is also undersized and fast; as the college director put it, he's "an 'air' 'backer. Not real physical, but can chase and tackle in pursuit." And yes, it was a little tough to find prospects this early in bowl season.

One prediction

The New York Giants will run the table and win the NFC East. It won't be easy for them, not with the Atlanta Falcons this week and the Baltimore Ravens next week. But what's struck me about the Giants is the same thing that's hit me about the Patriots: The problems they've had are nearly identical to the issues they worked through last season.

Both New York and New England were able to diagnose, address and fix or hide their problems on the fly, to the point that they reached Indianapolis in February.

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not necessarily saying history will repeat itself with a Super Bowl rematch. I am saying that, based on history, the Giants are well-equipped to mitigate their problems on the offensive line and in the back seven of defense, and that'll carry them to another NFC East crown.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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