Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers entered Thursday night's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as one of the NFL's most consistently inconsistent teams. Three weeks removed from an embarrassing loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Panthers find themselves above .500 for the first time since 2008 and poised to make a playoff push in the second half of the season.
The evolution of Newton as a passer has changed the face of the team. It's a modified case of addition by subtraction, with the offense simultaneously asking less of the third-year quarterback while also allowing him to make more choices on the field. It's a phenomenon known in Carolina as "Letting Cam be Cam," and this combination has made Newton to trust his teammates organically, rather than having his hand forced.
In past seasons a needlessly complicated offensive scheme resulted in a noticeably uncomfortable quarterback. Newton clung onto the one raft that was always there, wide receiver Steve Smith. An over-reliance on the veteran made Newton a one-trick passer. Opposing defenses learned to bracket Smith, which turned the Carolina offense into feast or famine -- there were times they would turn out highlight reel plays, but equally as many where drives stalled due to Newton's inability to find other receivers in short yardage situations.
Newton has stunningly morphed into an accurate intermediate passer. In the last three weeks he is effectively running Mike Shula's run-based offense to the tune of 32 points per game, completing 77 percent of his passes. Most importantly, Newton has thrown six touchdowns without a turnover. The coaching staff put their faith in their quarterback, and he has lived up to the responsibility.
Gambling didn't come easily to head coach Ron Rivera, but his decision to shout down the inner voice preaching conservatism allowed for his team's offense to flourish. Initially this manifested itself as attempting to convert in fourth-down situations, but this was simply most visible symptom of a coach it took two years to understand how to win in the NFL. Newton is more vocal on the field, a result of offensive coordinator Mike Shula allowing his quarterback to make decisions himself.
Three wins later the Panthers have positioned themselves as one of the most underrated teams in the NFC. Their record might be just 4-3 -- and it's easy to write off wins against Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay -- but the rise of the Panthers extends beyond wins and losses. For all the bravado and promises of Super Bowl wins, this is a team that has lacked confidence, in themselves and in a coaching staff that too often squandered close games with a series of bad late-game decision making.
There are nine games remaining for Carolina in 2013, but everything comes down to two divisional matchups against the NFC South leading Saints. The Panthers find themselves two games behind, provided New Orleans wins on Sunday. The two head-to-head games between the teams will determine who leads the division and which team will be pressing for a wild card spot.
A few weeks ago the idea would have seemed asinine, but now the Panthers might be the team nobody in the NFL wants to see on their schedule.