By JOSEPH PERSON
PALM BEACH, Fla. – Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has a new quarterback in Matt Flynn, the second-biggest free agent quarterback this offseason.
But Carroll spent part of his offseason – and about five minutes Wednesday morning on the final day of the NFL owners meetings – marveling at the play of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during his record-breaking rookie season.
Carroll studied video of Newton over the winter to see how a quarterback with no experience in an NFL-style offense succeeded in a complex scheme to post the most prolific passing season ever by a rookie.
What Carroll discovered was Newton's success was the byproduct of “an extraordinarily rare athlete” playing in a varied scheme that played to his strengths. And as long as Newton stays healthy, Carroll predicts big things for him and the Panthers.
“Look out for those guys. Holy mackerel,” Carroll said at the NFC coaches breakfast. “If he can just stay out there, they're going to be a fantastic team.”
Newton is training for his second season at the same place he prepared for his first season – at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., with former Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke. Having picked up a playbook during a 24-hour window when the lockout was lifted, Newton was able to work with Weinke on the Panthers' plays, terminology and route progressions to ease his transition from Auburn's spread offense.
“They did so many things with him. He handled everything, and he came out of an offense (at Auburn) where he didn't even call a play,” Carroll said.
“If you watched him in the early interviews, he couldn't call a formation. 'OK, give us your formation and a basic play.' He couldn't answer the question because they signaled it in and everybody got the formation,” Carroll added. “For him to come that far is only trumped by the fact that he went to Auburn and had no spring football and took over and won every game, became the Heisman Trophy winner and scored 50 touchdowns. That was the story before this latest story that was most remarkable to me.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera attributed several factors to Newton's rapid ascent.
First, Rivera and several members of his offensive staff traveled to Auburn last year to study the Tigers' offense and found it wasn't as simple as it was portrayed.
“There were reads involved. They were telling him, 'Work this side. Work your combinations here,'” Rivera said. “So we had a feeling he understood those things.”
Rivera also credited Newton for taking the initiative to train with Weinke last summer under the hot Florida sun. And Rivera liked the approach taken by offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula with Newton.
Newton was not given a wristband with the plays on it because the Panthers wanted Newton to learn the calls without relying on the wristband. Chudzinski worked in San Diego for Norv Turner, who has never had Philip Rivers use a wristband.
When Newton struggled with his accuracy in the preseason, coaches noticed a hitch in his mechanics: Newton's head was getting ahead of his shoulders as he went through his reads, throwing off his touch and his timing. Shula and Chudzinski worked with Newton to fix it before the final preseason game against Pittsburgh.
Still, there was little in the preseason to suggest Newton would throw for 400 yards in his first two NFL games. Rivera said Newton's most impressive pass in a Week 1 loss at Arizona was a 26-yard touchdown to Steve Smith just before halftime, when Newton looked off the safety and hit Smith in the corner of the end zone.
Said Rivera: “That's when you felt, 'Man, he's getting it.'”
Taking nearly every snap for the 6-10 Panthers, Newton broke Peyton Manning's rookie mark with 4,051 yards and became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 4,000 yards and run for 500 in a season.
As part of his offseason study, Carroll looked at quarterbacks' efficiency rate on downfield passes last season. Carroll said Newton ranked first “by a long ways.”
“He just didn't miss guys. Guys ran down the field, he'd throw a deep ball right on the money,” Carroll said. “It could be a screwed-up play where he's running around and spinning around, and he still did it.”
Two days before accepting the Rookie of the Year award during Super Bowl week, Newton said he wants to cut down on his 17 interceptions in 2011. Rivera said Newton is at his best when challenged.
Free agent Chris Manno was training at IMG before the Panthers acquired him last weekend. He told Rivera that Weinke had gotten on to Newton recently for not working hard enough, according to Rivera.
“So he put the challenge to Cam,” Rivera said. “That's one thing about Cam: You give Cam a challenge, he'll go with it.”