CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton is learning he doesn't have to do it all for the Carolina Panthers.
And the Panthers are winning games as a result. Eight straight, as a matter of fact.
Coach Ron Rivera said Carolina's dynamic and athletically gifted third-year quarterback no longer feels he has to make all of the plays on offense, and has developed a trust in his teammates.
He said that trust started late last season when the Panthers closed by winning five of six games. It has carried over to 2013.
"You got a sense the first season and a half he was trying to put a lot on his own shoulders and trying to handle everything by himself," Rivera said. "I think he's learned to trust his teammates and the guys around him and not feel pressed to do everything. And I think that's a big reason why he's having success."
For the first time under Newton the Panthers are embarking on a meaningful stretch of December games. Carolina (9-3) enters Sunday night's showdown at New Orleans with sole possession of first place in the NFC South on the line.
The Panthers have already won more games than they did in 2011 and 2012 despite Newton's yardage numbers being on the decline. He's on pace to throw for 3,488 yards and rush for 596 yards, down from his averages of 3,960 and 724 his first two seasons.
He's letting others share the workload.
"When you have the type of talent that Cam has, you can really take over a game at any second, so you can't blame him for trying to do that," wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "But at the end of last year you could see he started to trust us more as receivers. He put the ball up and let us go make plays. He was getting the ball in our hands quick and letting us run with it."
There are other factors that have played into Carolina's success.
It helps that coordinator Sean McDermott's defense is the stingiest in the NFL, allowing just 13 points per game while creating 26 turnovers, often giving Newton and the offense good starting field position.
But there's no denying Newton has played a huge role in Carolina's turnaround.
He's spreading the ball around. The Panthers have six receivers with at least 19 receptions. No Carolina receiver ranks in the top 35 in yards receiving.
"I think that is what makes us unique," Newton said. "As an offense you don't want to key on two or three players. I feel as if any number of players on this offense can have a hell of a game."
Rivera said when the Panthers were scouting Newton with the No. 1 overall pick he talked to a number of coaches in the Southeastern Conference about him. He said they all told him the same thing: Auburn was a .500 team that season without Newton simply because of his athletic ability. That impressed Rivera considering Newton only played one year of top level college football.
If Newton could do that without much coaching, what was he capable of when he had a few years to learn the same offensive system?
"When Cam burst on to the scene in 2011 he was making plays based on his ability more so than knowing what he was really truly doing," Rivera said. "Now he feels that he has confidence in himself and his teammates."
Don't let Newton's numbers fool you though.
It's not as if the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton isn't turning in highlight reel plays on a weekly basis. He's still a big part of the offense and has led the team in rushing in each of the last three weeks.
He's just picking his spots.
Like last Sunday against Tampa Bay when he avoided running out of bounds and turned up field for a 56-yard gain, or when "Superman" soared over the Bucs' defensive line and stretched the ball over the goal line for a touchdown.
Still, Newton is learning. He still makes some silly mistakes by holding on to the ball too long, and struggles at times with high throws, slipping back into that old, bad habit of throwing off his back foot. That led to an interception last week.
But Rivera said overall Newton's decision-making skills have improved markedly.
Rivera said in the first two seasons Newton was too reliant upon leading receiver Steve Smith, but that has changed.
"Now Steve may have five catches and somebody else will have six or seven," Rivera said. "That's not because Steve is not getting open but it's because Cam is thinking, hey, let's spread this around and take some pressure off. If there is a chance for somebody else to make a big play, let's get it done. I think that is a big part of his growth. He's not focusing one guy anymore."
Newton's knowledge of the offense has improved, too.
On the eve of the Tampa Bay game, Newton talked with offensive coordinator Mike Shula about changing the route on a particular play. They made the adjustment. The next day Shula called that play and Newton found a wide-open LaFell in the back of the end zone.
The previous week against Miami, Newton audibled out of a play at the line of scrimmage after seeing the defensive alignment and scored on a quarterback draw.
"His development inside the offense and understanding the concepts of what we do and understanding the opponent and how to attack them" has improved, Rivera said. "He's learned so much in three seasons."
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