Cam Newton should be among front-runners at QB in MVP race

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera insists it’s too early to compare quarterback Cam Newton’s NFL MVP season of 2015 to his current one after only seven games.

No offense, Coach, but it’s not.

Newton, 29, is off to the best start of his career under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. What the QB has done during a 5-2 start should have him among the front-runners for this year’s NFL MVP award — even if the oddsmakers don’t agree.

Newton ranks sixth among quarterbacks and seventh overall with 20-1 odds to win the MVP award, according to William Hill U.S. Race and Sports Book. Odds were as of Monday morning.

Rams running back Todd Gurley II, who has 4-1 odds, leads the NFL in rushing with 800 yards and 11 touchdowns.

But statistically, what Newton has done in the passing and running games should have him higher on the list. His combined 17 touchdowns — 13 passing and four rushing — rank him third, behind Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, with 28, and New England’s Tom Brady, with 18.

His 66.4 completion percentage is fifth among the quarterbacks on the MVP list, which might be Newton’s most impressive statistic, since he came into the season with a career rate of 58.5.

Newton’s 309 yards rushing easily are the most among the quarterbacks in the MVP race. Mahomes is second among that group with 119 yards.

It’s hard to imagine that any quarterback has had a better past five quarters than Newton. During that span, he completed 37 of 51 attempts (72.5 percent) for 420 yards and four touchdowns in erasing a 17-0 deficit in the fourth quarter of a 21-17 victory against Philadelphia and thrashing the league’s top defense in Sunday’s 36-21 win against Baltimore.

Because of all that Newton is asked to do in the running game in terms of designed plays for the quarterback, one could argue he has more to prepare for than any quarterback on this MVP list.

“I’m glad we don’t have to face him because of the multiple ways he can beat you,” Carolina defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. “He’s an unusual athlete. He can make every throw on the field. He can break you down running the football. You have to account for him as a runner, which defensively, that’s difficult because you’re outnumbered if he’s a running back from a gap-control standpoint.

“He’s playing as well as anybody right now.”

Newton also is taking sacks at a career-low pace (10) after seven games, further evidence the transition into Turner’s system is working. At this point in the past two seasons, Newton had taken 22 and 21 sacks, respectively. His previous best start was 13 sacks after seven games in 2015.

And oh, Newton is protecting the ball better than ever. He has only four interceptions, four fewer than he had during his MVP season, when he had eight (along with 11 touchdowns) during a 7-0 start.

He had 10 picks at this point a year ago.

“He has done a good job of embracing the chances and the demands that this style of offense that coach Norv Turner has brought to this organization [requires],” Rivera said. “I’m pretty excited about it.”

What Newton has done in Turner’s system, which relies on more high-percentage passes, is what Rivera envisioned when he made the change at coordinator after last season. He felt Newton had progressed about as far as he could under Mike Shula and that the change would be good.

He saw what Turner did for Teddy Bridgewater, also a dual-threat quarterback, at Minnesota and felt Turner could do the same for Newton.

Turner realized he had something special right away, saying Newton might be “the hardest player to defend” in the NFL.

“Coaches spend extra time when they play against Cam Newton because he can beat you in so many different ways,” Turner said earlier this year. “Our intention is to expand on those things that he can do well and things he may not have been exposed to yet.”

Surrounding Newton with more speed — first-round draft pick DJ Moore and Torrey Smith, who joined the speedy Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel — has helped. Rivera admitted this is the most he has had offensively since arriving at Carolina in 2011.

But Newton’s ability to read the defense and get rid of the ball quicker has been key behind an offensive line that was suspect because of injuries coming into the season.

Rivera noted a throw to Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen on Sunday as a prime example of how Newton has improved his overall game.

“Greg was his third read,” Rivera said. “Those are the type of things I’m talking about. In the past, he might have held on to the ball, waiting for the deeper route to come open. Here he sees it, he sees where the safety is and makes his decisions even quicker.

“You watch him on some of the read actions he has to do; you see him hand the ball off a few more times as well.”

Rivera said Newton made a “solid statement” on Sunday against the league’s best defense. He understands why MVP talk might surface after that performance, which followed the come-from-behind win against Philadelphia in which Newton engineered three fourth-quarter touchdown drives.

He’s just not ready to push this as an MVP season.

“It is early … way too early to judge that,” Rivera said. “I’ll say as a team, we’re playing well. The proof will be in the pudding when we get to the end of the year. We’ll see.”

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