Football Thursday: Panthers' success hinges on Cam Newton's calm and Ron Rivera's newfound aggression

Les Carpenter
Yahoo Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The quarterback had to learn to forget about losing and this was the hardest thing to do. Cam Newton might have been the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft, the man who was going to redefine what playing quarterback was all about, but he had hardly been a starting quarterback for much of his adult life before he was handed the Carolina Panthers.

There was the year he won the junior college championship at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, and the season he played at Auburn, where he won the national title and the Heisman Trophy. But what did that teach Newton about the NFL, where not every game ends in joy?

"Don't forget this feeling, know how it feels," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula used to tell Newton those dark afternoons of the quarterback's first two NFL seasons.

But also learn to forget.

The coach had to learn to forget about losing and this was the hardest thing to do. Ron Rivera had never been a head coach when he came to the Panthers and helped make Newton the first pick of the 2011 draft. He coached less to win and more not to lose, and when he failed to win as much as he hoped, the wretched feeling he had not done enough settled in his stomach.

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Just how much became clear this spring when he prepared a video to show the players how single plays had cost them several games last season. He noticed a handful of fourth-and-short situations where he decided to do the safe thing and kick a field goal or punt rather than go for something more. He knew then he was going to have to change as a coach, taking a regular risk few men in his position dare to make.

"I have come to feel that in this league you can't kick too many field goals and expect to win football games," Rivera said Wednesday as he sat on a stool in a hallway of Bank of America Stadium.

And yet near the end of the season's second game at Buffalo, he failed to heed his advice, taking a field goal on a fourth-and-1 from the 21-yard line. It gave the Panthers a six-point lead and the Bills stormed down the field to score the game-winning touchdown. The knowledge he had disregarded his own new edict and lost tore at him.

If only he can learn to forget.

They were thrown together in a forced marriage of coach and franchise quarterback before either understood the frenzy of their jobs. Newton rose to be Rookie of the Year despite a month of practice for his role as Panthers quarterback, then he fell. He struggled. He sulked. Rivera was a promising new head coach then he grew too hesitant to try something.

Now that they have both grown, the Panthers are a surprising 5-3 and just a game behind the New Orleans Saints heading into a huge game at San Francisco on Sunday. And Rivera saw symmetry in that as he sat on his stool Wednesday afternoon.

"My thought process has changed in a couple of things that we do," he said. "Probably the biggest thing that has helped me with that is the development of our quarterback. His growth has been tremendous and it's shown."

Later, he added this: "From what I've seen, [Cam] has had to experience a lot of things that only a person in his position can experience. There's 32 of us – starting quarterbacks and head coaches in the NFL. Thirty-two of us. Unless you have been one of 32 you have no idea."

When asked what has surprised him about coaching Newton, Shula – who was the Panthers' quarterbacks coach in Newton's first two seasons – laughs.

"Don't tell him I said this but it's how much I have enjoyed coaching him," Shula said.

There was a lot the Panthers didn't know about Newton when they shoved him onto the field for the start of the 2011 season. Because of the lockout they had no contact with him through the spring and summer and had only four weeks to coach him before the season's first game. Looking back, Shula calls that time "uncharted territory," because of the number of assumptions they had to make.

Nobody had tried to make a starter out of a rookie with so little preparation. And Newton brought a new dynamic as a quarterback who could run and pass. Everything was a big experiment.

"I almost wonder if he had a bit too much freedom when he first got here," tackle Jordan Gross said. "As they put in more and more of the offense, reality settled in. He had to adjust to it."

And because he was Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, his name forever linked to innuendos of NCAA violations, the spotlight glared. He hated the losing. He made mistakes. Cameras found him sitting on the bench during games, alone with a towel on his head. In news accounts he stopped becoming the great young quarterback who had done something unprecedented by starting with four weeks of practice to someone petulant and immature.

But this is where the Panthers did their best work with him.

"I hope everyone understands he wears his emotions on his sleeve," Rivera said. "Everything he says comes from his heart."

What Shula and the others on the staff needed to do was smooth out the emotional rides, the rises and the falls, making him steadier, more reliable. "One of the most important things as a quarterback is to stay on an even keel," Shula said.

Rivera remembered one long talk he had last year with Newton. When he was done Newton replied, "Yes, sir." Rivera won't reveal the details of the conversation but it came when the coach was saying publicly that Newton was "pressing."

"It's not discouraging [emotions], it's managing them," Shula said. "You tell him, 'Don't ever change how you feel about winning and losing, just manage it.' "

Halfway through the season he has 1,801 passing yards, which puts him on pace to have the fewest yards of his career. He is running less but he is more accurate, completing 64 percent of his passes and Carolina is playing as well as at any time since he has been here. If nothing else, it speaks to a player who has grown up, who understands his position and has finally found a way to fit in it.

Asked if he has recognized this he nodded knowingly.

"At times I do but I'm not going to make a big thing about it," he said. "My job is to come in with a great attitude and make everybody better as much as possible. I've got great guys behind me to continuously push me."

He paused.

"Yeah, I've been playing great but I think the defense has been playing great," he continued. "We've had some good field position and I think that's a tribute to what our defense has been doing."

The Buffalo loss never leaves Rivera. Just as Newton has had to learn to process losses, Rivera has learned just how precious an NFL victory can be and how betraying your instincts can destroy that victory. Since the Buffalo game, he has gone for it on fourth down seven times, converting on five. As much as Newton's growth, Rivera's sudden aggressiveness has been heralded as a major reason the Panthers are suddenly in playoff contention.

But he agonizes over the Buffalo game. There's a big difference between being 5-3 and 6-2 and he keeps asking himself why he strayed from his springtime promise.

Last week he was driving home from the stadium, heading down a hill, passing under the Belk Freeway when Buffalo popped in his mind. A knot formed in his stomach. He ran the end of the game through his mind, ignoring the fact the light before him had turned red. From the corner of his eye he could see a car heading toward him and at the last second he stepped on the brake narrowly avoiding an accident.

"Seriously [the loss] eats at me," he said. "It friggin' pisses me off to no end. And maybe that's what it took. Maybe that's the revelation I needed."

Much like Newton, he too has changed. Losing does that to a coach. Frustration over the little things broils inside. Watching the tapes of last year's losses – games that could have been wins had he gone for it on fourth down – gnawed at him, tearing him up as much as the Buffalo loss. How could he be so foolish?

He had in Newton the perfect quarterback for short-yardage situations, someone fast and strong who can run through holes or simply plunge forward in addition to throwing a quick, hard pass. He had a small, shifty running back in Mike Tolbert who is good at making defensive players miss. He had a gifted tight end. How could he be so stupid?

But coaches get pulled back by old ways of thinking. "I went by the book," Rivera said with lament.

He shook his head.

"What is this book? Who wrote the book?"

He laughed.

"It's a coaching evolution," he said.

Much like his quarterback's evolution.

And the two men thrown together by a marriage of opportunity take another great leap over the unknown.

  Arizona Cardinals – Bye.

  Atlanta Falcons – Undrafted free agent Paul Worrilow with 19 combined tackles.

  Baltimore Ravens – Joe Flacco had a solid game in a bad loss.

  Buffalo Bills – C.J. Spiller broke off several key runs.

  Carolina Panthers – Newton had two picks but made the right plays when it mattered.

  Chicago Bears – Josh McCown did a good job of moving the offense without Jay Cutler.

  Cincinnati Bengals – A.J. Green nearly did enough in a heartbreaking loss.

  Cleveland Browns – Jason Campbell's great resurgence continues.

  Dallas Cowboys – This time Tony Romo won the game late.

  Denver Broncos – Bye.

  Detroit Lions – Bye.

  Green Bay Packers – Eddie Lacy had the best night of his young career with 150 yards.

  Houston Texans – Andre Johnson's huge night was lost in the Texans loss.

  Indianapolis Colts – T.Y. Hilton has a way of being there when you need him.

  Jacksonville Jaguars – Bye.

  Kansas City Chiefs – Kendrick Lewis had six solo tackles and an interception in a team effort.

  Miami Dolphins – Lamar Miller had the best rushing game of his career.

  Minnesota Vikings – Adrian Peterson was exactly what the Vikings needed last week.

  New England Patriots – Tom Brady might be hurt but he keeps pushing on.

  New Orleans Saints – Jimmie Graham had 116 yards and 2 TDs on a tough day for Saints offense.

  New York Giants – Bye.

  New York Jets – Chris Ivory with 139 yards against his old team.

  Oakland Raiders – Rashad Jennings had 102 rushing yards and a TD.

  Philadelphia Eagles – Did Nick Foles, with 7 TDs, win himself the starting job?

  Pittsburgh Steelers – Ben Roethlisberger is doing all he can with flawed team.

  St. Louis Rams – Zac Stacy thundered for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

  San Diego Chargers – Keenan Allen with 128 receiving yards.

  San Francisco 49ers – Bye.

  Seattle Seahawks – Russell Wilson led a huge comeback.

  Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Mark Barron had 10 solo tackles and an interception in the near win.

  Tennessee Titans – Chris Johnson had his best game of the season with 150 yards.

  Washington Redskins – Little used Darrel Young had three TDs.

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