Cam Newton's improvements have Panthers surging

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Carolina is coming of back-to-back impressive wins, and improved play from Cam Newton is a big reason why.

During Carolina's 1-3 start to the season, the Panthers averaged 18.5 points per game. That number spiked to 32.5 PPG in their back-to-back wins, and a big reason for the jump has been improved play from Cam Newton.

Newton is not only coming off his two best games of the season, his performances in Week 6 and Week 7 were two of the best of his career. He's completing more passes, throwing for more yards per attempt and making fewer mistakes. Combined with a dominant defense, Newton's recent play has transformed the Panthers into a legitimate playoff contender.

Just how much better has he been the last two weeks? Take a look for yourself.

Yards per attempt Completion percentage Touchdown percentage Interception percentage Passer rating
First four games 6.96 57.5 4.7 3.9 78.4
Last two games 10.37 81.4 9.3 0.0 140.9

Newton hasn't gone against a top defense in either of the last two weeks, but outside of Seattle in the season opener, the Panthers haven't exactly faced a murderers' row of defenses. Besides, averaging 10.4 yards per attempt and completing more than 80 percent of your passes is impressive against any defense.

So what has been the impetus behind the improvement? According to Panthers coaches and players, Newton is doing a better job of playing within the offense and making the right decisions.

"He's got a better feel for what we're trying to do," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, via the team's website. "He's going through his progressions, and he's got a great feel for that. He's really worked very hard on that, and you're starting to see the fruits of that labor."

Newton's favorite target, wide receiver Steve Smith, also said the third-year quarterback has improved.

"He's gone from playing checkers to playing chess," Smith said, via Rich Hollenberg.

Bucky Brooks of NFL.com wrote that part of Newton's recent success is related to his decision to throw to check down options when other receivers are covered. The data backs up Brooks' claim. During the first four games, Newton targeted a tight end or wide receiver on 88.1 percent of his attempts, with running backs targeted on the other 11.9 percent. In the last two games, Newton has thrown to a running back on 20.9 percent of his attempts.

Newton has also gotten more players involved in the offense and isn't focused in on Smith and tight end Greg Olsen as much. He targeted Smith and Olsen 54 percent of the time in the first four games, with that number dropping slightly to 49 percent in the last two weeks.

Instead of forcing the ball deep or to Smith or Olsen, Newton has done a better job of going through his progressions and taking what the defense is giving him. The change makes Newton more difficult to defend, and that's without mentioning his ability as a runner.

Following a standout rookie season, Newton was widely considered to be the top young quarterback in the NFL. With his slight decline during his second season, and the arrival of Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, many analysts quickly dropped Newton down that list. Newton was no longer the standout young quarterback, but one of a very good group, and some even had him fifth on that list.

Two games won't cause Newton to suddenly be the top young quarterback again, but you could make a very strong case that he's the most physically talented of that group. If Newton has finally combined his physical skills with a better understanding of the offense, he may not only be ranked among the best young quarterbacks in the league, he may play himself into the discussion of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, period.

After all, Newton, and not Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, is the only quarterback in the NFL to have back-to-back games with a passer rating higher than 136 this season.

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