This Sunday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will go to church near Atlanta, then come back to a full house of friends, family, pescetarian-friendly dishes and sweet Kool-Aid with a hint of pineapple juice.
He’ll have the TV tuned to NFL games, but he probably won’t watch – it’ll be more for background noise.
But it’s conceivable that, at some point, Newton will hear his name brought up as an MVP candidate.
A quarter of the way through the season, the Panthers are 4-0 and Newton is playing arguably the best football of his career. He’s accounted for nine touchdowns, turned the ball over three times – all three of which could be explained away – and, most importantly, gone unbeaten in the first month of the season for the first time in his career.
But he doesn’t care about the attention.
“It’s not important right now. It’s irrelevant,” Newton said Wednesday. “No disrespect to anybody. We’re just four games into hopefully a 19-week season.”
The chatter about being the league’s most valuable player comes from pundits keying on the word “valuable.” League commentators are looking at what Newton means to the Panthers, placing less emphasis on the usual statistics that help players win the award.
ESPN NFL columnist Jason Reid wrote before Carolina’s victory at Tampa in Week 4 that it’s time to focus on Newton as an “under-the-radar” MVP candidate.
“No signal-caller has accomplished more with less than Newton, whose signature Superman celebration seems particularly appropriate these days,” Reid wrote.
The reference is to Carolina’s mediocre receiving corps. Without Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers have Ted Ginn Jr., a still-learning Devin Funchess and two undrafted players in Corey Brown and Brenton Bersin as their top receiving targets.
Pro Bowler Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart are there, too, but it’s widely understood that Newton is making things work with fewer weapons than most top quarterbacks.
With a 55.4 completion percentage, Newton is on pace for his least accurate season. But he’s also on pace for the most passing touchdowns (28), fewest interceptions (eight) and most wins in a season.
“Is Newton as good a passer as, say, Aaron Rodgers? No,” wrote NFL Network analyst Gil Brandt, a former Cowboys executive and one of the most respected commentators on the game. “But I think he’s as good a runner as any quarterback in the NFL. When you combine that skill with Newton’s improvements as a passer, he’s going to be tough to stop.
“I think the Panthers are going to make the playoffs, and if Newton plays well throughout the season, I could see him building a legitimate case to be the NFL MVP.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn’t surprised by how well his quarterback has been playing. In Newton’s fifth-year, things have started to coalesce.
He’s had the same offensive coordinator for three years – the longest span for Newton since before college. His footwork and arm mechanics – developed for only one year in college, in Auburn’s shotgun system – are fully adapted to NFL play.
The coaching staff is giving him more leeway at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to change plays on the fly more than ever.
“You see the effectiveness in the things that he’s doing and that’s a plus,” Rivera said. “It’s been great for him as our quarterback just because he understands and he’s getting it. This is where you want to see him at this point and time in his career. I think he’s reached that point. Now everything he does is almost gravy.”