Do you want to know what the best player in the NFL looks like? It looks like whatever Cam Newton wants to do at any particular moment. He leans on his back foot and flicks passes that travel as if they blazed out of a tank’s turret. He streaks down the field to flying-shoulder-bump receivers in the end zone. He bangs his body into and through packs of defenders. He starts smiling in the middle of plays, probably because he can’t help it. Newton ran the option Sunday afternoon. In an NFL game. For a touchdown. Let’s see Tom Brady or Carson Palmer or any of his pocket-bound, would-be competition for the NFL MVP try that.
The raging physicality of Newton’s game makes him the best player in the NFL. Newton probably sealed the MVP award Sunday evening, as Brady’s Patriots crumbled in New England and his Carolina Panthers bowed their backs in New Orleans and beat the Saints, 41-38, despite a 14-0 deficit. That loopy delight in the Superdome allowed Newton to showcase the breadth of his talent. He rifled five touchdown passes, but the sheer numbers cannot do justice to how he threw them. He rocketed them. He launched them. Whether his feet are set or he’s backpedaling, the velocity and accuracy of his passes is unmatched in the NFL.
Three times in the second half, Newton walked on the field with the Panthers trailing. In all three instances, Newton led the Panthers on a touchdown drive, all of them finished with him gunning a touchdown pass. In those possessions, Newton completed 9 of 12 passes for 162 yards – 13.5 yards per attempt – and tacked on 10 rushing yards. There are a lot of reasons the Panthers are still undefeated. One of them is that Newton will not let them lose.
Newton is playing a more sophisticated version of the game he played at Auburn, when he submitted one of the finest seasons in college football history. It became clear during that season that he needed to play in a higher league. There have been times this season when it still looks that way, except there is no higher league.
It cannot be that easy, and if you saw Newton’s reaction to the Panthers’ final, clinching defensive stop, you know it’s not. On the sideline, Newton had dropped to a knee. When the Saints’ last play ended, Newton tucked his chin to his chest and stared at the turf. The beating he took had exhausted him. The Saints sacked him once, hit in him inside the pocket three other times and tackled him on 10 rushing attempts. Newton jogged into the locker room in the third quarter so trainers could check him for a concussion after linebacker Michael Mauti drilled him in front of the right pylon.
Two plays after that hit, he buzzed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn. He pleaded with the referee to give him the ball, so he could customarily hand it to a Panthers fan in the first row behind the end zone. When that didn’t work, Newton yanked a ball out of the ball boy’s grasp and took it to the fan. He got what he wanted.
There is not a strong statistical case for naming Newton the MVP. Palmer and Brady have thrown for more touchdowns and about 1,000 more yards this season. He completes less than 60 percent of his passes in a climate where that’s pedestrian. The passing numbers sell him short. They don’t account for his receivers – as great as Greg Olsen is at tight end, even Brady wouldn’t take Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Jericho Cotchery over the flotsam and jetsam the New England quarterback is throwing to. The threat of Newton’s running, and the velocity with which he throws, makes those nominal wide receivers something better. Switch Newton and Brady, and the Patriots would not be any worse off. It took 13 weeks to realize it, but it’s true. There’s nobody playing better football than Cam Newton.