Peter King

Here’s how Panthers’ Cam Newton is preparing to be a different kind of QB this season

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Very impressed with Cam Newton on Sunday. Very impressed. Impressed with his real talk with the hard-core fans during training-camp practice breaks in the end zone near the woods on the Wofford College practice field. Impressed with a couple of 35ish-yard completions (one with a little mustard to darting wideout Curtis Samuel), in his third real football practice since his January rotator-cuff cleanout arthroscopy. Impressed that his mechanics and form look more precise and practiced. And impressed that, at age 30 and with a warning shot (the surgery) about his mortality fresh in his mind, he’s moving to the next phase of what still could be a dominant run for him.

This is one of the things that impressed me in a post-practice conversation: He doesn’t think he has to be Cam Superman anymore. (I’ll explain why he’s absolutely right.) He may be a different quarterback than he’s ever been—maybe; I’m certainly not sure of that—but the answer to a question about his arm strength speaks volumes about where Newton is right now.

I asked: “Do you worry that you’ll never have the fastball you had, let’s say, in 2016?”

“This is what I do know,” Newton said, sounding placid. “You can look back at any type of player. You can look back at any type of sport and as a player grows, your game has to change. I remember reading and seeing a lot of clips about Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Brett Favre, even Peyton Manning to a degree. When you get old, you have to change certain things. It kind of keeps you young. I actually look forward to it. I embrace this whole process because it’s made me feel like a rookie again. Learning certain things, learning new mechanics, focusing on the little nuances of playing a quarterback position and trying to master it. So at this point in my career, it’s not about velocity. It’s not about throwing a ball 70 yards. It’s about efficient football that’s gonna win football games.”

That’s part of why this was such an educational day at Panthers training camp.

Sunday, mid-practice, Newton tossing with a ballboy, keeping his arm warm. He’s precise. He’s not out here jacking around, throwing sidearm, just to throw. There’s a purpose. Windup, exact overhand throw, follow-through. Serious business. I don’t see a lot of Panther practices of course, but Newton, on Sunday, was more serious and precise with his work than I remember. Even though he was carrying on conversations with fans—not just one-liners, but 30 or 40-second chats—practice was business-like.

You may not remember this, but when Peyton Manning was struggling with his neck injury and recovery post-Indianapolis, he got some advice from Bill Parcells, which I’ll paraphrase: You know who Jamie Moyer is? Soft-tossing major-league pitcher. He’s found a way to have a long career without having even a good fastball. Work on your lower-body strength, use your legs to help your arm strength, and just find a way to win. You’re smart enough to figure it out. Manning did, and it was enough in Denver to cap his career with a Super Bowl win four years ago, even though he was a contributing player on that title team, not a dominant one. Who cares? Denver won it all—coincidentally against Newton’s Panthers.

It’s silly to think of Newton as some hobbled guy who won’t be able to summon up greatness and the ability to throw deep effectively. He had his shoulder surgery in late January, spent most of the offseason simulating his throwing motion or throwing a small football, and is obviously still rehabbing and recovering for the season. But he knows he doesn’t have to be Scherzer; he can win in other ways, particularly because of short-passing weapon Christian McCaffrey.

It’s actually a work-in-progress that started in 2018, when the new offensive staff—coordinator Norv Turner and son/QB coach Scott Turner mostly—began working to make Newton’s throwing motion more precise. “People in football would notice, but maybe a fan wouldn’t,” Scott Turner said Sunday. “Cam historically had a throwing motion where it was very open, where he put a lot of stress on his shoulder. Now he’s worked to close it up, which relieves a lot of pressure on his arm. He can still throw with a lot of velocity. But he is getting used to a little bit of a new way. The shoulder, being a little more closed. If you stay closed, with the right weight transfer and upper body movement, your shoulder’s not going to be stressed as much.”

Peter King meets with Carolina quarterback Cam Newton on Sunday at Panthers training camp. (NBC Sports)

In the first three months last year, Newton’s completion percentage (.696) was 10 points better than his career number (.598); his passer rating at the end of November, 103.7, was four points better than his MVP year of 2015. Clearly, he was a willing student. Some of the credit goes to McCaffrey with his 107 catches in 124 targets. Some goes to the willingness of Newton to be coached, to learn and to change. “It’s given me a different type of confidence, knowing that we got the personnel. … All I have to do is just get the ball in their hands,” Newton said.

But the good performances were masking a continuing shoulder issue, one that he couldn’t hide any longer in his last three games. The Monday night game in Week 15, a 12-9 loss to the Saints, was excruciating to watch. Newton couldn’t break a pane of glass with his throws. Of his 29 passes that night, one (one!) traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Ever watch a fight being dominated by one boxer, and you get to the ninth round, and you’re yelling: Throw in the white towel! End this thing! With the Panthers 6-7 that night and still in the playoff hunt, coach Ron Rivera—and Newton—figures Newton at 55 percent still gave Carolina the best shot to win.

That didn’t make it easier to watch.

“As a quarterback in this league,” Newton said, “you’re unanimously the leader, right? We needed that game. I felt as if I wanted to give my team everything that I had honestly. Being hurt, being injured … looking back at it, it probably wasn’t the smartest, efficient thing, knowing that I left it all out there on the field. And if you asked me if I’d do it again, I’d do it again. I just know my worth to this team—know how much these guys believe in me and how much I believe in them. If I’m willing to do that, and I know I’ve seen other guys do the same thing, too.”

The surgery in late January was a significant clean-out, but Newton felt better right away. “Cam and I came in together, in 2011,” coach Ron Rivera told me. “And so I can read him pretty well. The day after, he motioned his arm [moving the arm in a throwing motion] and gave me this look. It was the kind of confident look in his eyes I’ve seen before.” But as Andrew Luck can tell you, there are no guarantees post-shoulder-surgery about when you’ll feel right and when you’ll feel you can cut it loose. Or if you can. So it’s premature to say what we’ll see in Newton in six weeks for a really tough opening stretch: Rams at home on opening Sunday, Bucs at home four days later. Yikes. Imagine a short-week game, coming off shoulder surgery against the defending NFC champs … and after being chased by Aaron Donald for three hours.

Newton called his current state “still a work in progress. One thing about the shoulder and constant moving, constant muscle manipulation, constant trying to get your range of motion back: You can’t mimic real life reps. This [training camp] is actually the first time I’m actually throwing to moving targets, things like that. … Now it’s another phase. You gotta work on throwing the deep pass. You gotta work on throwing on opposite fields, something that you haven’t been doing for so long because you’re just trying to perfect the small kind of intimate, intermediate throws.”

The only time in our conversation that Newton bristled a bit was when I wondered how he’d feel if he couldn’t be the old Newton. Understandable … because even Newton doesn’t know exactly what his shoulder’s going to feel like this fall.

“See,” he said, “it’s still speculation. You know, at the end of the day, God has possessed me with things that I’m grateful for. … Now, being older, you kind of look at things different. For me, it’s not that I’m limited with certain things, or that I’m not capable of doing certain things, it’s just other ways to do it. I’m not saying I’m not gonna run people over. I’m not saying I’m not gonna run the football. I’m not saying I’m not gonna throw the ball down the field. I’m just in a position now where none of that matters but one thing, and that’s winning football games. If it requires me to do all those things, I’m willing to do it. And if it doesn’t, I’m still fine with that.”

If I’m a Panthers’ fan, I like what I see out of Newton six months after surgery. I like what I hear just as much.

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Peyton Manning takes on new TV series about NFL history

Peter King / NBC Sports
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CHICAGO — Early one morning in June, 40 months after stepping off a football field for the final time as a player, Peyton Manning climbed into the back of a black SUV outside his Chicago hotel. At 43, smiling and trim and wearing a blue striped polo and pressed khaki shorts, Manning looked exactly like he did late in his career—not a pound heavier or lighter. This was the start of another day in his current but not permanent job as a TV host. At the beginning of it, he wanted to make one thing clear.

“I do not like the ‘R’ word.”

“Retirement?” I said.

“Right,” he said. “Because I’m not.”

The car merged into light traffic, headed for Wrigley Field. Manning was in town for one of the last days of taping for “Peyton’s Places,” the 30-episode series on pro football history set to debut on ESPN+ (the cable outlet’s streaming subscription service) on July 29. Four episodes will drop that day, then one will be released per week through the end of the football season.

I’ll explain how Manning is getting into this project with the verve he used to be one of the best quarterbacks ever, because it’s still a significant part of his ethos. But a few words first about why I’m opening my second season with NBC writing this Football Morning in America column with Peyton Manning and a TV show. With the NFL embarking on the 100th season of professional football, you’re going to get hit over the head with history and momentousness in NFL storytelling a lot this year. I thought a piece on the league’s most ambitious project in the 100th-season celebration was in order, and this is it. During the course of the year, I’ll get into some history stories as well—including naming my all-time top 100 players later in the year—without, I hope, overwhelming you with it. I realize history is cool, but the present is more of why you read this column. And mostly, the present is what this column will be this season, and there’s plenty of the present (the 18-game season, CBA negotiations, the reviewable pass-interference conundrum) for you to read today.

But back to the car with Manning, headed for the Bears’ home of a half-century, Wrigley Field.

“This has been a journey for me,” said Manning, who is also the executive producer of the series. “I’ve learned a lot about 100 years of football. I thought I knew a lot. There’s been a ton that I did not know. There’s been fascinating stuff. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, a guy named Bert Bell basically lost his tail and what does he do? He goes out and buys a football team for $50,000. Which at the time, is probably the worst investment you could make. A bunch of guys in leather helmets running into each other. That’s what he does. That team, the Frankford Yellowjackets, turns into the Philadelphia Eagles. Bert Bell starts the draft. He gets them to play on Sundays. He puts the blackout rule in. He was kind of a founding pioneer of the NFL.”

Manning sounds like he sounded so many times in his career, telling a story in intricate detail about why a play worked or what was said in the huddle. I try to think of others who could have done this series, players or former players with cache and a name. Michael Strahan, maybe. Cris Collinsworth. Maybe Tony Romo. But whoever did it would have to be all-in, the way Manning sounds this morning. “I don’t think anyone else could have done this,” said Neil Zender, honchoing the project for NFL Films. “Peyton’s been interested in every detail of every shoot.”

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Peter King’s 2019 NFL Draft headlines: Tyreek Hill must go, Steelers find new Shazier, more

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My 2019 draft-coverage gameplan: in a word, weird. Thursday, Denver. I just thought John Elway might do something out of the ordinary, and he did, sort of, dealing down for a tight end/security blanket for Joe Flacco (Noah Fant) and falling into Drew Lock, which he never expected to do, with the 42nd pick … Friday, Oakland, playing catch-up with a chock-full Raider draft and the Gruden-Mayock dynamic. “The confidence I have [in the GM] is better than I’ve ever had,” Gruden told me. “The guy is sick. He’s a maniacal worker. I love him.” … Saturday, Tempe. Kyler Murray and Josh Rosen, oh my. Good chunks on all of those stops coming.But first, headlines from the weekend:

• Tyreek Hill has to go. Audio surfaced in Kansas City on Thursday, in connection with injuries suffered by Hill’s 3-year-old son, with the son saying, “Daddy did it.” Further, when the boy’s mom told Hill the son was terrified of him, Hill said to her, “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch.” The Chiefs barred their all-pro wide receiver, Hill, from team activities after hearing the tape, and now must take the next step: cutting Hill, who already was walking a thin line after punching the woman in question in the stomach when she was pregnant. The second-round choice of Georgia sprinter Mecole Hardman (4.33 speed) telegraphed the end for Hill in Kansas City.• The Giants, controversially, find Eli’s heir. All those who had Daniel Jones going sixth overall—nine spots ahead of Dwayne Haskins, 36 ahead of Drew Lock—well, you’re clearly in the head of GM Dave Gettleman. The Giants did not want to take a scintilla of risk by picking pass-rusher Josh Allen at six and taking Jones with their second pick at 17 (and he almost certainly would have been there then). On Sunday, Gettleman told me: “I agonized over that. Agonized.” Washington finally gets a long-term quarterback. After the failed RG III experiment in 2012, Washington has stumbled from passer to passer. Now owner Dan Snyder hopes Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (who prepped at the Bullis School in Bethesda) will be the franchise quarterback Griffin never was.• GM of the Draft: An unknown one—Miami’s Chris Grier, who, with two trades in the span of an hour Friday night, turned the 48th overall pick into Josh Rosen, a sixth-round pick and a second-round pick in 2020. The Dolphins now have a year to see if the 10th pick in the 2018 draft, Rosen, can be the QB of the future … and if not, Grier will have five extra picks (as of now) in 2020 to find that franchise passer in a richer crop of prospects next April. “I know some people say we’re tanking,” Grier said from Florida on Saturday night. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. It’s gathering draft capital, plus we’ve now got a quarterback to come in and compete for us.”• The Steelers finally find a Shazier replacement. Mike Tomlin has been jonesing for a sideline-to-sideline playmaker and defensive captain-type since Ryan Shazier was lost with a spinal injury in December 2017. GM Kevin Colbert did something very uncharacteristic to help: He traded up in the first round for the first time in 16 years to get Michigan speed linebacker Devin Bush, who paid homage to his predecessor. Shazier is still trying to return to play football. “I know he has the heart and the will,” Bush said.

• Doug Baldwin might be done. The Seattle wideout and team conscience has had three off-season surgeries, is 30, and GM John Schneider acknowledged Baldwin could retire. “Whatever happens, Doug will go down as one of the great players in the history of this program,” coach Pete Carroll said. Undrafted out of Stanford, the slight Baldwin used guile and extreme competitiveness to catch 551 balls and score 55 touchdowns in eight seasons. He will be missed, in so many ways, if he’s gone.

• A strange pick in Carolina. “This has nothing to do with Cam Newton,” GM Marty Hurney said after the Panthers used a third-round choice on West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. Nothing? I am not buying what Hurney’s selling. In the last two years, Newton has had rotator-cuff surgery (2017) and arthroscopic shoulder surgery (2019), both on his throwing shoulder. Cam turns 30 in two weeks. It’s okay to say, “We need some insurance at the most important position in sports.” Because that’s what this is.

• So long, SeaBass. The last kicker to be drafted in the first round, Sebastian Janikowski, retired Sunday after a 19-year career, with the record for most field goals of 50 yards or longer (58) in a career. In 2000, Al Davis drafted him 17th overall. That’s one slot ahead of Chad Pennington, 125 slots ahead of Shane Lechler, 182 slots ahead of Tom Brady. That’s quite a run.

• The Road Draft is one of the best ideas the NFL ever had. Chicago was better than New York, Philadelphia was better than Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth was very good, and Nashville, even sopping wet Thursday night, was as good as Dallas-Fort Worth. Next year: Las Vegas. Lunacy alert.

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