Don't overlook Cam Newton

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Since the NFL is notoriously known for being a quarterback-driven league, this upcoming divisional playoff round is one everybody should be eager to see. You've got future Hall of Famers in Denver's Peyton Manning, New England's Tom Brady and New Orleans' Drew Brees. You've also got three young guns -- Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson -- and a revitalized star in San Diego's Philip Rivers. Then there's the one guy most people aren't talking enough about: Carolina's Cam Newton.

As much as we evaluate quarterbacks by how they do in this part of the season, Newton doesn't need a playoff win over San Francisco on Sunday to prove anything about himself at the moment. He's already shown plenty in rebounding from all the adversity and scrutiny that has surrounded him since a disappointing 2012 season. Newton heard his general manager demand more wins, and the quarterback provided them. Newton realized there were questions about his maturity and leadership, and then he helped lead his team to the NFC South title. More than anything, he reminded us, once again, why people were so high on him when he entered the league as the top pick in the 2011 draft.

It would be difficult to understand how much Newton has grown if you haven't been following the Panthers on a weekly basis. If you merely glanced at his numbers, you'd see a player who has fewer passing and rushing yards than at any point in his three-year career. It's almost as if Newton has learned to do more for his team by doing less with his skills. He's reached an important stage in his career -- the point where he understands that leading a team involves far more than just producing weekly highlight clips.

That was always the major knock on Newton -- the notion that his megawatt smile and jaw-dropping athleticism hid a me-first attitude that would cripple whichever team drafted him coming out of Auburn. His critics saw that selfishness in his moodiness, his despondence after losses and the label that he was more style than substance. Newton managed to overcome some of those issues early in his career, primarily by winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Then those same skeptics returned in full force a year later, when Newton couldn't keep the Panthers from succumbing to a second consecutive losing season.

The 2012 campaign wasn't merely about Newton failing to live up to expectations, even though his overall statistics weren't far from what he produced as a first-year player. Instead, it was about competition. The emergence of Luck, Wilson, Kaepernick and Washington's Robert Griffin III last season meant that critics had even more ammunition to use against Newton. As ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer said earlier this year, "Cam's personality doesn't fit in with the old-school paradigm [of what a quarterback should be], so people don't want to like him as much as the other young guys. But really, what has Colin Kaepernick done on the field that Cam hasn't? I love Russell Wilson, but what can he do that Cam can't? Cam has had 70-yard runs and great throws, too. That tends to get overlooked."

An ESPN.com story that ran in September revealed exactly that. In discussing which young quarterbacks were likeliest to have the most productive careers, most of the experts interviewed repeatedly insisted that Newton wasn't on the same level as those other talented quarterbacks. They pointed to his brooding, the emptiness of his statistics and the way Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman called out his quarterback in training camp, telling the Charlotte Observer that "what [Newton has] done has completely been lost in the sauce because of the elephant in the room ... [his] 13-19 record." In other words, 2013 was the season that would either haunt or define Newton.

Now that Newton has responded with his first division title, there should be more love flowing his way. He's done a better job of playing within himself, connecting with teammates and embracing the notion that a team built around defense instead of primarily his playmaking skills can do just fine. If Newton really were all about himself, he probably would've whined more about the play calling or the offensive approach. Instead, he backed up what he's always claimed about himself -- that winning is the one thing that matters most.

What Newton also has done this season is prove his value at crunch time. For those who don't know, he's led four fourth-quarter comebacks this year. Three of those rallies came against teams that are still in the postseason (San Francisco, New England and New Orleans), and Newton also enjoyed a critical three-game stretch of brilliance -- completing 77.3 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and no interceptions -- right after Carolina opened the season at 1-3. The Panthers won all three of those games, along with five more before their next loss.

Newton proved something invaluable during that eight-game winning streak: that quarterbacks should be measured more by big moments than big numbers in today's NFL. He's also smart enough to embrace his role as a playmaking game manager for as long as necessary. The Panthers have a young defense that is going to be great for a long time. They have an old-school formula for football success that is working in places like Seattle and San Francisco. Those assets will mean even more as the Panthers continue to grow, especially because they compete in a conference loaded with topflight quarterbacks.

The good thing for Carolina is that Newton realizes he doesn't have to be Superman to make positive things happen for this franchise. He can settle into a nice comfort zone, one that will allow him to mature at his own pace and with a clear understanding of the realistic expectations that should be set upon him. It's also a safe bet that the Panthers have seen enough to start talking about a long-term extension this offseason. The odds of Newton taking a step back after his recent success don't seem so high when considering how far he's come.

In fact, it's fair to wonder how Newton looks at somebody like Griffin, who's going through his own ups and downs in Washington after amazing people with his skills during his first season. Some think Griffin's knee injury never allowed him to take the next step in his development, but there are just as many who now see him as arrogant and high-maintenance. Newton could've let his own career veer into a realm where a tarnished image and constant controversy interfered with his development. Instead, he's elevated his game to another level -- one that deserves its own distinct recognition as he takes his place alongside all the other talented quarterbacks playing this weekend.

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