How a Notebook Has Helped Cam Newton Overhaul His Learning Strategy
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Cam Newton and Panthers quarterbacks coach Scott Turner have been talking about this notebook for 10 minutes now, as if it’s a guide to the next phase of the 2015 NFL MVP’s career. When asked to describe it, they look at each other and all they can do is laugh.
“It’s just a normal big binder, with some tabs,” Turner says.
“What you get your kids for school,” Newton adds.
For over a year now, this notebook has been a work in progress. What started as a spiralbound notebook was eventually moved to a binder—that’s why Turner and Newton refer to it as his notebook still—with ripped out pages catalogued by the associated protections. The quarterback used to just tear out the pages from the notebook and snap them into the binder via the three hole punches. But in time, the holes would fray and rip, which led to another adjustment. Now, he slides the pages into plastic sleeves.
When he’s not on the practice field, the binder’s always with Newton, and it’s always growing, which has necessitated the aforementioned “operations” that he says he’s had to perform on it. He carries it at the facility with him and at home with him. Anytime, there’s something he’s wondering about, it’s the first place he looks for an answer—and most of the time he can find one in there.
If you wonder why Newton played so well at the start of last season, the metaphorical answer is in there too, as is the reason why he’s so confident now on what 2019 holds.
“I’m playing my best football of my career, because I know what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m not guessing. Coach [Ron Rivera] has created an environment where you’ve got a bunch of selfless, talented guys, and that’s key to winning. No matter how good you are, everybody’s working towards the greater good of the team. And for me, being the quarterback, obviously a lot more responsibility is thrust on what I’m supposed to be doing.
“But it’s not pressure, because I know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Asked to affirm the self-assessment, that Newton is better than ever, Rivera responds, “Without a doubt. Without a doubt.”
Newton is 30 years old now. He’s going into his ninth NFL season. He had offseason shoulder surgery.
And this notebook tells the story of why he feels like he’s never been in a better spot.
The NFL season is now just a few hours away, so I’m answering all your ahead of the Bears/Packers opener. Including those on …
• Jacoby Brissett.
• The next CBA.
• How Ezekiel Elliott’s deal affects Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey.
• How Jared Goff’s deal affects Dak Prescott.
• Fantasy sleepers you can bank on.
And much more, but we’re going to kick off with a guy who I think is as intriguing as anyone in football going in 2019—a player who we briefly saw the best of last year, and who we may see an even better version of this year. You’ll see why after all he’s been through—injuries in 2014, reaching Super Bowl 50, two offseason shoulder surgeries—Cam Newton’s in a pretty good place now, and you’ll learn about who and what helped him get there.
A week or so after we talked, Newton’s left cleat caught in the turf at Gillette Stadium. He was still able to dive past Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler, but by the time he pulled himself off the ground, he knew something was wrong. Sixty seconds later, trainers were tending to what would be diagnosed as a foot sprain. It put him in a boot. He’s back at practice now after, I’m told, dodging any significant ligament or tendon damage.
This is a different situation than last year’s shoulder surgery, to say the least. But as Rivera saw it, the 2018 injury gave Newton a new perspective, and so the upside of tweaking his foot could be how it refreshed a lesson he learned.
“A sense and a feel for his NFL mortality,” Rivera says. “I think that’s helped to motivate him to realize and recognize things that he now has to do going forward. He was always capable of so much. But I think now as he ages, there’s the realization that with age, things change, and I think that he’s gotten to that point. And that’s helped him. The way he’s looking at things, his perception of things, has really just gotten better.”
Himself once an NFL player, Rivera added that the next step for most guys who are slapped with that reality is to find somebody to help them buy more time in the league.
Newton has found that in Turner because of what and how the son of Panthers OC Norv Turner is teaching him. Yes, that notebook’s stocked with answers—it’s nothing, if not functional. But just as much, it’s a symbol of the relationship between an assistant coach and quarterback separated by less than seven years in age. Their relationship is founded in the very different way that Newton learns.
The 30-year-old is a visual learner, something the team has always known. The walls of the Panthers quarterbacks room at Bank of America stadium double as whiteboards and have forever been marked up with Newton’s scribblings. Seeing that 18 months ago, Turner wanted to find permanence to the notes that his quarterback was making—hence the notebook. And Newton admitting than he can drift in and out when studying added merit to the idea of a notebook.
“I can’t learn when everybody learns, my attention isn’t as pristine as other people’s, I know that, I’ve accepted that,” Newton says. “Me, being the way I am, when I’m ready to learn something, it might be at 8 p.m. at night. So if don’t want to bother Scott, nor do I want to ask other people questions, I wanna know something as simple as ‘What is a Yo motion?’, something as simple as, ‘What’s Bingo?’, something as complex as ‘What is Fleet?’ or ‘Who moves on Swap Shift?’, those things I already have in my book.”
The idea behind starting this new learning strategy was to start from zero—“I didn’t want to be one of those guys [who thinks] Oh yeah, I know everything”—and that’s helped too. It’s forced Newton to create a ground floor of knowledge, which is all chronicled in the notebook, and work from there. This allows him to mentally sort what’s more important than the next thing, even though the basics of the offense haven’t changed much since Newton was a rookie and ex-Norv assistant Rob Chudzinski was his OC.
In doing that, Newton and Turner focused on the quarterbacks whom Newton looks up to—“the Breeses of the World, the Bradys of the world”—and learned from what they do. What did Newton find? They get to the next receiver. They react to what the defense is doing on the fly. They get the most out of those around them by playing point guard, which was a particularly vital lesson for a guy who’s often played like a power forward (and paid a price for it).
These talks would happen in meetings, of course. But there’d also be times where Newton would pop into Turner’s office, or Turner would go down and do it with Newton over dinner. Really, whenever Newton was ready to learn, they would talk. And over time a theme emerged from these lessons.
“We’d just talk all the time in the quarterback room not just with Cam, but everybody, just about processing information,” Turner says. “And what he’s saying, getting the ball out of your hand and trusting your guys. if it doesn’t look good, get it out, you’re not taking hits, and you trust your guys to make plays. And in order to do that, you have to know where everybody is. Just building this process has gotten us there.”
So why was Newton playing his best ball early last year? Because Norv Turner constructed a scheme tailor-made for him. Because of the talent around him. And because Scott Turner and Newton were making the most of every minute they had together, by making sure Newton was absorbing everything.
Newton says now that work ethic was never his problem. In fact, as he sees it, he spent his first seven NFL seasons “overworking.”
“I just gotta be doing something,” Newton says. ”And taking that stress load off and keeping me fresher for longer is the real plan.”
Last year, with Turner’s help, he believes he started working smarter—and in some cases, that meant building off old staples that have always worked for him. For example, he’s held firm to his approach to practice
“At practice, I don’t look at scripts. I hate looking at scripts, because you never know what the next situation is going to be,” Newton says. “You don’t know if you’re gonna get a first down in the game or not, it’s gonna be third and what? You have to be able to think as if it’s a game, and making it as game-like as possible.”
Turner’s leveraged that desire in making a competition out of almost everything in practice—scoring drills just like you would 11-on-11 work—to try and get Newton the kind of work he want. In return, Turner just asks that Newton applies the lessons in that notebook.
“Throughout the practice, all those things I’ve seen, from Fleet motion, Swap motion or shifts, things like that, to actual route concepts, it becomes muscle memory when it’s written down and you go over as many times as I have,” Newton says. “Football is not a physical sport, it’s a reacting sport—whoever reacts faster. As a quarterback, obviously you’re the thinker, so if you think faster, then you’re reacting faster than the defense.”
These steps forward made last year’s outcome even more difficult for Newton, well before the Panthers made the decision in December to shut him down. He now describes going through the experience “like watching an hour glass”, in seeing the sand trickle out on how much time he had left with his shoulder.
First, they gave him Wednesdays off. Then it was Wednesday and Thursday, with an insistence that he’d get work in on Friday. Then, there was a Friday during which it rained, and the Panthers didn’t want him throwing a heavy ball, so he just threw a little at the team’s Saturday walkthrough before a game. He’d stand next to Turner on those rest days, and watch Taylor Heinecke and Kyle Allen take his reps and talk through what the quarterback was seeing, and what he might get from the defense. But it wasn’t the same.
“We just tried to make the best of a bad situation,” Turner says. “It was tough. But it wasn’t so much for me, it was for Cam, because I could tell how frustrated he was by the whole situation. Obviously, we’re all in this deal together, but when you coach a guy you feel for them more than you feel for yourself.”
“The frustrating thing for me was looking at it and saying, ‘I can’t practice. I want to practice. I can’t. And if I practice now, will I be able to play?’” Newton adds. “It was such a frustrating time last year, because we were having such a great year. And outside of four or five games, where we lost by four or five points, who knows? Maybe that’s the difference.”
Newton is gonna be able to stop agonizing over that soon. He’s digested the lessons learned when watching. He’s been able to practice like he wants to this summer. Now, all that’s left is to go play.
Newton didn’t actually practice on this particular day in Spartanburg. Wearing a dry-fit hoodie out in the triple-digit heat, he did some side work with Panthers head trainer Ryan Vermillion, and got mental reps alongside Turner, which he became adept at going through what he did last year.
This was different than last year, for obvious reasons. This time around, it wasn’t that he couldn’t practice. It was, on this particular day, that working smarter didn’t mesh with working harder—the Panthers just thought he could use the morning off, given the grind of camp. And all of that was with a certain focus towards Newton being in a certain place on Sept. 8, which is now just four days away.
“We’re excited, just looking at where we’re gonna be at the beginning of the year,” Turner says.
“We’re on the same page. We’re on the same page,” Newton adds (not intentionally referring to his notebook, but he could be).
They are, in a lot of different ways, going into 2019. And at least for now, without a win or a loss on the tally yet, both Newton and Turner think it’ll make all the difference in the world.
“There’s no greater feeling than knowing you’ve got somebody that is coaching you that has your best interest in mind,” Newton says. “That’s important. I’ve been lucky to have guys that have coached me where I can sense that, and I know that. I’ve never not known. And Scott is just still one of those people, I know I can go to him for brutally honest advice, and that’s the key.”
And now he’s got a good place, in his notebook, where he can keep all that advice.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Colts QB Jacoby Brissett: Brissett will get his first start as the guy when Indianapolis opens the season in Los Angeles against a Chargers team that, like the Colts, made it to the divisional playoffs last year. GM Chris Ballard ha built the roster up to the point where if Brissett is, say, the 20th best quarterback in football, the Colts should contend to return to the playoffs. We’ll see if Brissett can be that, or more. Marlon Mack, coming off a strong summer, and that offensive line should help.
Raiders WR Antonio Brown: After the drama surrounding his feet and helmet this summer (and watching it all play out on Hard Knocks), and his Instagram post ripping his team for fining him on Wednesday morning, I have no idea what to expect from Brown in his first game as a Raider on Monday night. But I can’t wait to see whatever it is.
Patriots WR Julian Edelman: Edelman left the last preseason game shaking off his injured thumb, raising some concern. But he wasn’t on the team’s injury report this week—a good thing considering how important he’ll be to Tom Brady through the early parts of the 2019 season. Philip Dorsett and Josh Gordon are the only other guys among the crew of receivers and tight ends on the roster who’ve played a regular season snap with No. 12.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott: Dallas opens against the Giants for the 957th year in a row, and all eyes will be on Elliott, who signed his contract extension on Wednesday. He’s spent the last month-plus training in Cabo, which has left him in top condition, but not necessarily football shape. So it’ll be interesting to see how he’s managed in his one. As I’ve heard it, some of this will be based on in-game feel, but Dallas expects to rotate out Elliott a little more than usual.
Texans LT Laremy Tunsil: We’re going all-offense this week! Given his price tag in the blockbuster trade that took place at the roster cut-down deadline, this one of the rare occasions that an offensive lineman qualifies as “must watch” going into a preseason game.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
LSU S Grant Delpit (at Texas, ABC, 7:30 p.m. ET): Delpit is switching jersey numbers to 7 this fall, an honor carrying the legacy of ex-Tiger DBs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, and there’s little question he’s worthy of it. As a true sophomore who turned 20 during the season last fall, Delpit was one of the best players in the country—recording five picks, five sacks, and becoming just the ninth unanimous All-American in LSU history. There’s not much question this year will be his last in Baton Rouge, with most NFL types seeing him as a Top 10 pick waiting to happen, and that’s even though safeties rarely go that high. LSU had one in 2017, in Jamal Adams, and Delpit compares favorably to him. “Ideal free safety build and athleticism, faster than Adams, just not as strong or inherently physical,” said one AFC college scouting director. “He’s a Top 15 guy depending on the rest of the draft. I’m not sure if he’s a culture changer like 33 was. But he’s very good player. More range and centerfield ability than Jamal has ever had.” In that way, as a prospect, Delpit compares to the other safety that went in the top 15 in 2017—Indy’s Malik Hooker.
Clemson S/LB Isaiah Simmons (vs. Texas A&M, ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET): It’s hard to say exactly where Simmons will fit in the NFL. But every evaluator I’ve talked thinks that wherever that is, he’ll be a star. “Unique kid – 6' 3", 225, so he bigger than most college linebackers right now, but more athletic than most safeties,” said one NFC exec. “And they use him kind of like you’d expect, moving him all over the place. He’s a really good player and a good who, with the right defensive coordinator/system, will have a ton of value, because he does so many thing well.” An AFC exec added, “Ultra athletic, with size an length that can play multiple positions. The size of a linebacker, and the athletic ability and speed of a safety.” And another NFC exec sees his value as a good run defender who can match with backs and tight ends. This NFC exec’s comp? Derwin James. And the first NFC exec agreed, saying, “he’s probably most similar to Derwin in recent drafts, but quite a bit bigger.” Translation: Look out. It’ll be fun watching him against Kellen Mond and the Aggies Saturday.
From Doug Geary (via email!): This is a question I should have asked before the deadline to reduce NFL rosters to 53, but I would appreciate a quick tutorial about the differences in the meaning of cutting, releasing and waiving players? I know that a waived player can be claimed and thus is not a free agent until he goes unclaimed, but not how seniority or the terms of a contract affect the player’s status.
Thanks to Doug, a buddy of our executive editor Mark Mravic’s, for this question. I think people get confused over this at this point in the calendar. Being cut and being released are, in essence, the same thing. Cut is used more in August/September, because it applies to commonly to not making a team, which is what happened with the great majority of guys this weekend.
Being waived is different. If you aren’t vested, meaning you have fewer than four accrued seasons, then you’re subject to waivers. To accrue a season, you have to be on a roster (the 53-man or a reserve list, but not the practice squad or NFI) for at least six games. So, again, you have to do that in four seasons to be a vested vet, which also qualifies you for unrestricted free agency.
If you aren’t vested, being cut means being waived, and your existing contract goes on the wire—this is why some more expensive players go unclaimed. If a team is awarded you, they assume your contract. If you clear, you become a street free agent and can sign anywhere.
This is also a little bit of a moving target in that vested veterans are subject to waivers after the trade deadline, and right up until the end of the season.
From Andy Gresh (@TheRealGresh): Long time follower, first time reader. Give me five players who you think are 'picks to click' in Fantasy Football this season. I take the tweet off the air.
You might be seeing more from my buddy Gresh this year. And he knows I’m not great at fantasy. However … I do hear things about certain players having a shot to emerge in bigger roles. Some of those guys play skill positions, which lined them up as answers to your question. Andrew. Here are four …
- Colts RB Marlon Mack: I was actually specifically told by a coach to draft him in fantasy this summer. Which, I think, was a kidding-but-not-kidding type of thing.
- Panthers WR Curtis Samuel: You couldn’t walk far enough to pick up a first down without someone gushing over Samuel in Spartanburg this summer.
- Cardinals WR Christian Kirk: Clearly established himself as Kliff Kingsbury’s top receiver this summer. (Also, keep an eye on rookie KeeSean Johnson.)
- Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin: It feels like he’s been teetering on the edge of a breakout year for a while now. And Bruce Arians’ offense is a fantastic fit for him.
From BlindEye Media (@PodBlind): Did the Colts make the right decision by extending Brissett?
To give you my answer, which is yes, I’m going to tell you the story of Kevin Kolb. Back in 2010, the Eagles dealt away Donovan McNabb and their had new starter, Kolb, going into a contract year. So rather than letting it play out, they gave him a one-year extension that amounted to handing him a franchise tag a year in advance. It allowed the Eagles to spread the financial hit over two years, and it gave the player a nice little piece of security.
Long story short, Kolb was concussed in Week 1, Mike Vick stepped into the lineup and never gave the job back. And because they’d done the extension with Kolb, they were able to move him to the Cardinals after the lockout, in the summer of 2011, for a second-round pick and a 25-year-old Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
So what if Kolb had balled out in 2010 and Vick had never entered the lineup? Then, the Eagles would’ve had him under contract the next year at a reasonable rate, and would have the natural franchise tag for 2012, which could be used as a leverage point in negotitations on a longer deal.
Bottom line, by accelerating the franchise tag, Philly gave itself options—an extra tag to keep Kolb and do a deal off of, or the ability to trade him. Which is what the Colts have done for themselves with Brissett, at the rough cost of a 2020 franchise tag, something that’s easier to swallow with all the cap space the team has.
From charliework (@millburysshoe): What do you foresee as the major sticking points in the next CBA ?
Charlie, here’s where the negotiations stand right now, with the season starting Thursday night: The players’ hang up is over the revenue split, and the owners’ hang up will be over the revenue split, but they’re creating a dustup over expanding the regular season now (I personally think it’s an effort to create, out of thin air, a chip to deal away). So it’s about how the money will be split up now, and will be until there’s a deal.
It’s worth mention that the 2011 impasse was broken with a concept developed by Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt. Hunt created a model that gave a bigger percentage of the traditional broadcast money to the players (because it didn’t take a ton of ingenuity to get rich off of that), and allowed the owners to keep more of the digital money (which is where a lot of the innovation was at the time).
With streaming services potentially factoring into the next set of broadcast deals, and more people consuming digital content, the equation might have to change there. And it might take someone thinking forward the way that Hunt did to find the right solution.
From Phil Madden (@MaddenPhil1) Now that Elliott has been paid, do you think Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey will use the same tactic and hold out next offseason?
I can’t wait to see how the Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey situations play out, just because they’re different players than Elliott or Saquon Barkley or Todd Gurley. Both are clearly cut out for today’s NFL, and you could argue, as slash-type weapons, are more valuable in today’s offensive chess game than even some great receivers. But they don’t have quite the same down-to-down impact that an Elliott does.
In that sense, it seems like it’s going to take the Panthers and Saints working together with their stars to find the right place financially to do deals. Without great templates out there to do those, it won’t be easy.
From John DeWispelaere (@JD_SportsLaw): Bert, why do you think the bridge deal for young QBs don’t exists anymore. All QBs who are up for their second contact get paid at the top of the market, even if it is an over pay. Ex, Rodgers second contract didn’t put him at the top of the market.
I think it’s because, more and more, teams are trying to pay their guys early to, a, manage the cap blow more effectively and, b, avoid having to pay a tax when another truly elite quarterback gets paid. And in the cases of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, the benefit the Eagles and Rams are getting now is avoiding having to pay a Patrick Mahomes tax.
Right now, Russell Wilson is the standard-bearer, at $35 million per. Aaron Rodgers is at $33.5 million per. Wentz and Goff both came in right in that neighborhood. The risk in not doing those deals, and waiting was clear. Say both guys play well, and then Patrick Mahomes does a deal at $40 million per in January. In that case, the Eagles and/or Rams would’ve cost themselves tens of millions of dollars over the life of a deal.
So they hand the players some financial security, take injury risk off of them, and the return is in the discount it’ll appear they got two or three years down the line.
From Tha Basement Boys (@ThaBasementBoys): Who gets the most carries this year for the Eagles?
Basement boys, put stock in Jordan Howard early, and Miles Sanders late. The Eagles like what they’ve gotten from the ex-Bear through the summer, and my guess is he’s the mail carrier while the coaches get Sanders up to speed. And I think once Sanders, a guy the staff views as a true three-down back, get there, it’ll be his show.
Worth mentioning that Philly’s backfield is pretty deep beyond those two, too, with Corey Clement and Darren Sproles in reserve. And yes, as we reported Wednesday, they kicked the tires of Melvin Gordon. But that was the Eagles looking for a potential discount deal – and part of who they are philosophically, a team that dips its toe into the pool on just about everything (they did with Jadeveon Clowney, too.)
Bottom line, they’re really happy with their backs.
From Amos (@FamousAmos264): How much is Cowboys QB Dak Prescott actually going to sign for?
Amos, I’d actually say that, to a degree, his market has crystallized with the Wentz and Goff deal. Forever, quarterback spiraled upward. From Derek Carr to Andrew Luck to Matthew Stafford to Jimmy Garoppolo to Kirk Cousins to Matt Ryan to Rodgers and Wilson, the last established starter to get paid had been, consistently, the guy atop the charts. Then Wentz fell shy of Wilson, and Goff did too (both still got nice deals), and so the dynamic’s changed.
Wilson’s APY, like we said, is $35 million. Wentz got $32.5 million with considerable upside, Goff is at $33.5 million and Ben Roethlisberger, who’s in a slightly different category, is at $34 million. The Cowboys crossed the $30 million threshold on Prescott months ago, so I think the average, and total money will be workable. The structure and guarantees are where there’s work to be done.
If you’re Prescott, and you see what your 2016 draft classmates got, it’d be hard to accept anything with less than $100 million in injury guarantees.
From Brad Sohn (@BradSohn): How does Gunner Olszewski stack up to Edelman via 2009?
We’re gonna finish with Brad, because my buddy Brad here is desperate for attention. Olszewski’s style as a punt returner looks similar to what Edelman’s was back then—with aggressiveness and burst that makes it look like he was shot out of a cannon. And like Edelman, he’s a receiver now after playing a different position (corner) in college.
After that? Olszewski’s obviously got a lot of work to do, as Edelman did back then. Remember, it was Year 5 before ex-Kent State quarterback really came around as an offensive player.
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