[Writer’s Note: At the time of this writing, the former Carolina Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton is unable to find a team, and Robert Griffin III (RGIII), Kaepernick, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota are in similar straits, or they’ve accepted the role of a backup with a team other than the team who drafted them. This might change for them, but the theme of this article remains.]
Like RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton was the most talented athlete anybody ever saw for most of his life. He never met anyone bigger, better, or faster than in high school, college, and some might argue he was the best athlete anyone in the NFL ever saw. If he encountered someone who was one of the above, along the way, they weren’t all three. If he encountered one who was close, that player was not a quarterback. Cam won the National Championship in college and the Heisman Trophy. He was then the first player chosen in the NFL Draft. He went onto win rookie of the year award, and then the NFL MVP award. Cam then did something, five years later, only 63 other quarterbacks in NFL history have accomplished, he led his team to the Super Bowl. He was fast, big, elusive, and he knew how to win. Some might argue that with the rules of the NFL game being what they are today, Cam Newton’s athletic ability almost single-handedly determined whether the Carolina Panthers would make it to the Super Bowl that year.
Prior to that Super Bowl, Cam led the Panthers to three straight division titles and a 15-1 record in their NFC Championship year. Following the Super Bowl, the trajectory of his career and the plight of the Panthers, has since followed a downward trajectory. The Panthers are now 29-35 since that Super Bowl appearance.
Cam’s measurables, coming out of college, were almost unprecedented. He had almost unprecedented size (Dante Culpepper was 6’4″ 260 lbs, Cam was 6’5″ 250 lbs.), and he had an almost unparalleled athletic ability (Culpepper ran a 4.52 40, Cam ran a 4.59). The three best QBs of the era (Brady, Manning, and Brees) would’ve killed for Cam’s measurables, but the question we now ask, in hindsight, is would those three have won as often as they did if blessed with Cam’s size and ability?
Personally, I don’t think so, because when a quarterback doesn’t have the measurables Cam had in high school and college, they, and their coaches, train their focus on the immeasurables in practices and scrimmages. It’s those immeasurables, those intangibles, that have led those three best QBs of their era and many other lesser talents in the NFL playing QB to enjoy longer, more sustained success in the NFL.
As another most talented athlete, anyone ever saw, former NFL MVP, and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner wrote an article that alludes to the idea that the NFL has a way of humbling even the most elite athletes. For Kurt Warner, that “most talented athlete, anyone ever saw” era ended for him when he left high school, but it didn’t end there for Cam Newton, and it didn’t end for him in college either. Few athletes can maintain this rarefied air in college, and even fewer like Cam, Colin Kaepernick, RGIII, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota maintain this stature in the NFL. Kurt suggests this might be a blessing and a curse for them.
The blessings are immediate, as everyone they’ve ever encountered told them that their athletic talent was such that they could achieve what nearly 100% of the rest of the us could only dream. The curse, that which arrives much later, happens when an elite athlete encounters a brilliant, NFL-level defensive coordinator who uses his elite athletes to minimize the once-in-a-lifetime talents at quarterback to force them into jams they can’t escape with athletic talent alone.
When forced into such jams, a quarterback learns why all of his previous coaches focused so much attention on developing their immeasurables during their formative years. One of Kurt’s college coaches taught him what to do when the offensive line breaks down, all the receivers are covered, and the defense has assigned one of their linebackers to spy on him, so he can’t run. This college coach instituted what he called a “Kill Kurt” drill that Kurt described as:
“One of my least favorite times on the field, but it may have also been the most valuable. That drill taught me to read defenses and keep my eyes downfield instead of looking at the rush and bailing out at the first sign of trouble. It forced me to know exactly who I was reading on each play and to make a quick decision, inside the pocket, or I was going to get hit.
“I am grateful my coach installed that drill early in my career, because even though I may have been able to avoid a lot athletically at that age, there was no question the ability to do that would be over sooner rather than later. If I was going to be successful playing the position, it would have to come with what I processed mentally — not what I was able to avoid physically.”
The young Kurt Warner probably hated the drill as much as he described, because it showed him he was no longer the “most talented athlete, anyone ever saw”. It informed him that if he was going to succeed at the collegiate level, he was going to have to stay in the pocket and develop instincts. The drill taught him that he would have to figure out what to do when things broke down, without taking off and running. When no receiver was open, he had to learn how to scramble in the pocket effectively, throw the ball away, throw it into a tight window that led the receiver to being open, or take the sack. Most coaches, as Kurt alludes, accidentally begin to rely on their QB’s athleticism as much as the QB does, to get him out of jams.
“As we can see when we look at [Cam Newton], [he] never had to worry about not being the best athlete on the field,” Kurt wrote. “Where many of us lose that tag in high school or college, [Cam has] been able to sustain it all the way to the NFL.
“Sounds like an incredible blessing, and of course to some degree it is, but it has delayed [his] overall growth and remains the main reason [he might be] struggling at the NFL level now.
“Many [elite athletes playing quarterback] have never been taught how to play the position the way it has to be played against the best athletes in the world. They have always been taught the basics, but then been encouraged when things didn’t look right to “Do what you do.””
I inserted Cam Newton, in place of the examples (RGIII and Colin Kaepernick) Kurt listed to explain his point, to maintain the theme of my article, because I believe everything Kurt writes apply to Cam Newton’s current state. Some might state that the ‘X’ factor in Cam’s decline include the injuries he accumulated over the years, and they played a role, but there was some level of decline before the injuries that sidelined him. We also have to factor Cam’s style of play in the NFL, as the hits a running QB take are largely unsustainable, as evidenced by the short career of RGIII among others.
Somewhere along the way, incredibly gifted athletes, like Cam, RGIII, Kaepernick, Winston, and Mariota need a coach to teach them how to avoid relying on their athleticism so much, and it has to happen in the formative years of the quarterback’s career. Sports analysts suggest that playing quarterback in the NFL might be the hardest position in sports, and it has everything to do with the measurables and the immeasurables.
Kurt’s point is that the idea that an elite athlete’s failure to develop alternatives to their athletic talent is not always the player’s fault. Yet, some of the times it is. We have to think that when “once-in-a-lifetime” talents develop their talent, they also develop quite an ego, and most high school coaches and some college coaches don’t feel qualified enough to tell them what to do. They might try to enhance and adjust the quarterbacks game, but in that difficult adjustment period, the QB had a couple of horrible outings that hurt his stock. Their friends and family then tell them not to listen to the coach, “You do what you do. You be you. Did you see what Michael Vick did to the Vikings? That could be you. The game is changing, and you need to tell your coach that.”
Like most professional sports, the NFL is comprised of the most talented athletes anyone in their local areas ever saw. Most of us don’t know what that feels like, and we don’t know what we would do or say when a middle-aged coach, who didn’t have one-fifth of our talent, tells us how to play the game. Even fewer of us, the most elite of the elite, would ever know what it’s like to prove that coach wrong, when the NFL drafts us in the first round, or as three of the four listed here, the first or second NFL pick. When these once-in-a-lifetime talents, who were the best athletes anyone ever saw, then run into the extent of their talent, it’s often too late to make any substantial adjustments necessary for a prolonged, successful career in the Not for Long league, we call the NFL.