CHARLOTTE — Troy Aikman heard a familiar refrain coming from a familiar, raspy voice when he attended the Carolina Panthers’ offseason workouts in May.
“Check down! Check down!”
“Get the ball out!”
“Don’t feel like you’ve got to throw everything downfield!”
It was Norv Turner, the Panthers’ recently hired offensive coordinator, shouting to quarterback Cam Newton.
“I guarantee, Cam probably hears that 10 times a day,” Aikman said with a chuckle during a recent telephone interview, recounting memories of his own time with Turner when the Dallas Cowboys’ young offensive coordinator tailored a system for a trio of future Hall of Famers — Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin and running back Emmitt Smith — that produced back-to-back Super Bowl championships in 1992-93.
Fast forward to 2018, and Turner’s goal is nothing less with the Panthers offense and his latest signal-caller.
At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Newton has a striking combination of athleticism and ability. He is as likely to take off running or lower his shoulder as a blocker, like he did to great effect in last week’s victory over the New York Giants, as he is to stand and throw from the pocket. He has amassed virtually every coveted individual honor in football before his 30th birthday — 2010 Heisman Trophy, 2011 NFL offensive rookie of the year, 2015 NFL MVP and three Pro Bowls — while leading Auburn to the BCS championship after the 2010 season and the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance.
But his accuracy backslid over the past two seasons while he dealt with injuries, and some outside observers have questioned his long-term ability to withstand the many hits that his style of play invites.
That’s largely why Panthers Coach Ron Rivera brought in Turner, a 66-year-old NFL lifer, to shepherd Newton’s midcareer development.
“Knowing the success he had with quarterbacks, I was hoping for a different set of eyes looking at it, somebody from a difference perspective,” Rivera explained during the Panthers’ bye week last week. “And I believe we’re getting it right now. I think our quarterback has grown some more; he has learned to look at the game a little different way.”
The early returns have been positive. The Panthers (3-1) boast the NFL’s top rushing offense at 154 yards per game, and while Christian McCaffrey accounts for the bulk of carries, Newton leads the team with three rushing touchdowns. He has also thrown for seven touchdowns and just three interceptions, while boosting his completion percentage to a career-high 65.4 (up from 59.1 last season). His 93.2 passer rating reflects a double-digit leap (up from 80.7).
Turner made clear at the outset that his goal isn’t to reinvent Newton as a pocket passer in the mold of former pupils Aikman or Philip Rivers, but to blend in a few elements to augment what Newton does best. And he has done so in a collaborative manner, encouraging Newton to name the variations on plays he has installed.
If it seems like an odd pairing — this subdued veteran coach and garrulous young quarterback — the relationship appears promising. It helps that Newton has been in a version of Turner’s offense since the Panthers drafted him first overall in 2011, which eased the transition. And Turner has taken to calling his quarterback “Baby,” which Newton clearly enjoys, delivering a spot-on Turner impersonation during his news conference following Carolina’s season-opening victory over Dallas.
“Hey Baby, I’m gonn let you be you now, Baby,” Newton mimicked. “All right now! Just let it go out there today, Baby!”
In an interview last week, Turner said he’s pleased that Newton has “bought into” the plan for his progression.
“He has worked on his technique, he’s working on his decision-making and his command in the huddle and doing all those things that help everyone else play better,” Turner said. “It’s a work in progress, but I think we’ve grown in each of the weeks we’ve played.”
Sunday’s game represents a homecoming for Turner. He was hired as the Redskins’ head coach in 1994 by the late Jack Kent Cooke, who once said he hoped to keep Turner on staff for life, only to be fired by new owner Daniel Snyder with three games remaining in the 2000 season and a 49-59-1 overall record.
Turner’s greatest success as a head coach came in San Diego, leading the Chargers to three consecutive AFC West titles. But he was faulted for not getting a talent-laden roster that included Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson to the Super Bowl and ultimately fired with one year remaining on his contract. As has proven the case throughout his career, Turner’s most heartfelt testimonials came from players; the Chargers’ locker room gave him a standing ovation as he departed.
With a thin voice and cerebral approach, Turner lacks Vince Lombardi’s motivational bravado as an NFL head coach. But his tactical expertise has allowed him to shine in offensive coordinator roles, which he held in Miami, San Francisco, Cleveland and Minnesota, and he’s at his best as a quarterback whisperer.
Newton, who describes Turner “super-relatable,” has proven an eager student.
“I’m always looking for ways and reasons of why and how I can get better,” Newton said last week. “Norv has been a person who has held everybody to a high standard. Those expectations kind of are contagious.”
In the gospel of Norv Turner’s offense, the key verses are: 1.) Receivers come off the ball at full speed, which helps the quarterback trust the timing of the play and get the ball out quickly. 2.) Short-to-intermediate throws are invaluable because they take pressure off the quarterback, which in Newton’s case often results in overthrown balls, and allow them to avoid unnecessary hits and sacks.
From these principles, Turner tailors his script to his personnel. During the Fox broadcast of the Rams-Vikings game earlier this season, Aikman likened his development under Turner as a struggling young quarterback in Dallas to what he saw in the pairing of Rams Coach Sean McVay and Jared Goff, saying: “It changed my life. It changed my career.”
Aikman later elaborated in an interview: “He put all of us in position to do what we did well . . . Norv came in and, first of all, implemented an offense I was comfortable with, with some of the same concepts I had run at UCLA. ‘What throws do I like best? What routes does Michael like best? What runs does Emmitt like best?’ ”
Then, Aikman said, Turner leveraged players’ strengths to exploit defenses much like a chess master plotting multiple moves ahead. “He has a brilliant mind when it comes to offensive football,” Aikman said, “and he uses his personnel to make it work.”
Former quarterback Brad Johnson tells a similar story. He was 31, a six-year NFL veteran with a solid handle on the game and his mechanics when he was traded to the Redskins in 1999.
In his first season under Turner, who served as head coach and offensive coordinator, Johnson threw for a career-high 4,005 yards and 24 touchdowns, earning Pro Bowl honors while leading the 10-6 Redskins to an NFC East championship.
“It all really improved under Norv — him speeding up my drops, letting the ball go and trusting the route and trusting the play,” said Johnson, 50, who led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory in the 2002 season. “And he was a very passionate guy. Very smart. Very funny in his own way.”
Even though he is an eight-year NFL veteran, Newton hasn’t shaken his reputation for occasional immaturity, particularly after losses, and he can be his own worst enemy in news conferences. But by all accounts, he commands respect in the locker room for his drive to improve.
“Cam has always been somebody who is very open, and he wants to absorb as much knowledge and information as he can,” said Ryan Kalil, his longtime center for the Panthers.
With the Redskins up next, Turner is bullish about what’s in store for his quarterback.
“I’ve joined in with guys at this point in their career, and you see them make great improvement,” Turner said. “Cam works so hard at it. He’s such a physical talent, he loves to run the ball; he loves the physical part of the game. That’s obviously there for us, and we have a lot of people around him that can make plays. So we’re trying to bring all these things together.”