Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cool Hand Cam

When broadcasters say, 'he's a football player', the fan presumes they mean the guy who plays football holistically, not simply to fulfil the specific duties of his position. It's a strange comment to make because certainly most NFL players consider themselves "football players", not merely spare parts of a team.

Having watched Cam Newton slide onto the NFL stage with all the gusto of Snagglepuss, however, the notion of a football player suddenly feels more definitive. The definition is Cam Newton. Newton has had so many detractors since announcing his eligibility for the NFL that you wondered if all the over analysis and tea cup storming would result in yet another JaMarcus Russell. Newton, who is sized similarly to Russell, is not only more athletic, but more confident, debonair and enthralling. This player, to put it mildly, is a football star in the making - if he isn't one already.

What makes Newton so attractive is his presence: he is commanding on the field. In his first two outings - against Arizona and Green Bay - Newton has not only piled up yards (854 in all), but his completion percentage is at 63% (52 completed of 83 attempts). He owns the passing game, not simply by virtue of his accuracy (and he has been mostly accurate despite what the experts have said) but his decision making has been impressive. When the pass hasn't been on, he's recognised running opportunities. When the corners play up and tight, he hasn't hung the ball out, but instead, has delicately lobbed it to the sideline where only the receiver could pluck it from its trajectory. His longer throws, too, have been dazzling to the eye, torpedoing over the wreckage of linemen and defensive backs below, and then finally, softly, descending into the outstretched arms of delighted Panthers, like the all but forgotten Steve Smith. The second quarter lob to Smith versus the Cardinals was particularly elegant, prefaced by a subtle ball fake to the left, then a sailing, spiralling ball arced across the horizon, eventually swooping toward its six-point finale. If it was the Olympics it would have earned a perfect score.

What else does Newton do? Well, he scrambles, he dives fearlessly for first downs, he works the play action with the pizazz of a Spanish bullfighter. He's agile in the pocket, aware and energetic, eyes down field, dodging tacklers and fending of charging bulls. But also keeps a cool head, and hand. It's this poise, to wait, adjust and see the game unfold in front of him that is fuelling his success. Heck, he can even make the lunge over helmets and pads to score goal line touchdowns, which is not easy with his 250-pound frame.

Newton is an enticing prospect. He has size, dexterity, versatility and a decent arm. At day's end though, it's his leadership that will take his career and this Panthers team far. He oozes style and bravado: from the way he lines up behind center, to the way he celebrates a score. The man wants to be out there, and clearly hungers for victory. Sure, a few passes have gone astray. A couple of runs have come up short. Let's keep things in perspective though: Newton hasn't even played a handful of games.The sky is, at least in this case, truly the limit.

And this is not just what Carolina fans need, it's what the NFL needs: a Namath-cool superstar, thrilling the arena like a football player, not simply a signal-caller.

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