It was Sunday, Dec. 6th, 2009, and Lucas Oil Stadium was filled to capacity. The Indianapolis Colts, led by reigning league MVP Peyton Manning, were 11-0, on the verge of tying the NFL record with their 21st consecutive regular season victory.
That same winter afternoon, 600 miles down the road in the city of Pittsburg, Kan., Blinn College was battling Fort Scott Community College for the NJCAA National Football Championship. Blinn faced a 16-point deficit midway through the third quarter but mounted a fierce comeback to steal the victory in the final seconds of the game. The catalyst of that comeback, you ask? A young man from Atlanta named Cameron Newton.
As Manning and Newton faced off in the Super Bowl on Sunday night, I couldn’t help but think about the paths each took to get there. For Cam Newton, talent has never been a question. Newton’s season in junior college was different from that of Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who, having received little interest from major college programs out of high school, played a season at Butte Community College, and earned himself a scholarship to California. Newton was highly sought-after out of high school. He spent his freshman year of college as the backup quarterback to Tim Tebow at the University of Florida, but was arrested for stealing a laptop — the charges were ultimately dropped — and he decided to leave the school in January 2009. And that’s how Newton ended up in Brenham, Texas, playing for Blinn College. It was there that he displayed his aptitude in the art of winning. He lost just one game at Blinn.
The quarterback then transferred to Auburn, where he lost zero games, en route to winning a BCS National Championship and the Heisman Trophy and being the first overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. Once his Florida mistakes were behind him, Newton seemed immune to losing. Before 2015, Newton’s tenure in the NFL was solid – he won Rookie of the Year, and was named to two Pro Bowls — but he wasn’t elite. Good, but not elite.
The skillsets of Cam Newton and Peyton Manning are different. Newton is mobile; Manning is, well, immobile. However, the two are similar in their minds for the quarterback position. Manning has made a career of pre-snap adjustments. His ability to read defenses is second-to-none. The play clock is Manning’s ally and his mastery of clock management is a challenge for defenses.
This season, Cam Newton employed a Manning-like pre-snap competence. He seemed to always be in control, calling audibles, manipulating defenses and using the play clock to his advantage. And it took his game to the next level. Of course, Newton’s physical tools are great, but his football IQ, which some pundits felt would be his main shortcoming at the pro-level, was crucial in his 2015 campaign, which was one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons in NFL history.
The Newton versus Manning Super Bowl matchup was as satisfying as any quarterback Super Bowl matchup, because it was so unforeseen. The Panthers were expected to have a top defense. The offense was another story. An ACL injury to top receiver Kelvin Benjamin prior to the season left the Panthers really, really thin at the position. Greg Olsen is among the better receiving tight-ends in the league, but Newton’s wide-receiver targets this season were Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Devin Funchess. Ginn Jr. is best known as a special-teams playmaker, Brown was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and Funchess is 21 years old. This group was arguably the least talented wide-receiving corps in the league. Yet, Newton threw 35 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions. He also ran for 10 touchdowns, and the Panthers went 15-1 (they were 7-8-1 last season). They also won the NFC. And Newton was named league MVP, deservedly so.
Manning, on the other hand, was not so good this season. The 39 year old battled injuries and missed several games, leading many to speculate that the starting quarterback job was Brock Osweiler’s to lose. But Manning got his chance at the end of the regular season, and despite his nine to 17 touchdown to interception ration, the Manning-led Broncos defeated the Panthers in the Super Bowl. Denver’s menacing defense carried the Broncos the entire season, but I mean, Manning played the games in the postseason, and he may not have played like 2005 Manning, but the Broncos won, so it counts. It was not pretty, but in typical Manning fashion, he did what he had to do to win. It also marked Peyton Manning’s 200th career victory — the most wins by a quarterback in NFL history. The guy is a winner.
And so is Newton. After the loss on Sunday, Newton was asked about his message to Panthers’ fans, to which he replied, “We’ll be back.”
He’s right. Newton has proven that he just knows how to win football games. He did it at Blinn. He did it at Auburn. And although he didn’t win his first Super Bowl, Newton showed that he is a winner at the professional level, too. If Peyton Manning is indeed finished playing football, there is another savvy quarterback ready to follow in his footsteps.