Only 18 seconds into Sunday night's game, the word maturing descended from the NBC booth. Al Michaels uttered it as Cam Newton prepared to take his first snap. Somewhere, a drinking game halted immediately. Michaels had set a pace that threatened liver function.
When the Carolina Panthers appeared on the playoff radar last month, the redemption red carpet rolled out for Newton, in spite of the murkiness of said redemption and the plain truth that he was not the primary reason for the team's advance into contention.
Blame the QB-centric media and widespread suspicions about Newton when he became the top draft pick of 2011. A staggering rookie season undid the theory that Newton lacked the tools of a pro, but confirmation bias being what it is, his critics mined soft data from his first two seasons to underscore their original point.
He sulked. He pouted. He showed frustration with his teammates. He refused to open his eyes during a press conference. At age 23, he conducted himself like Tom Brady on a bad day at age 36. He punted on leadership.
His top receiver, Steve Smith, called him out on the self-pity last year, and rightly so. Newton's attitude needed a massage. It may still need one, for all we know. On a 9-4 team, he does not sulk the way he did a year ago, when the Panthers went 7-9.
Any connection between Newton's lack of sulking and the flipped record amounts to classic chicken-egg theory. There isn't even compelling evidence that the visible attitude shift improved him as a quarterback. The separation between his immature and mature models represents a natural improvement for any player over three years more than it suggests a diva downgrade. In the realm of advanced stats, his Rate+ makes the case with almost comical precision. Rate+ measures each quarterback's passing stats against the league average, and it shows that Newton went from 100 (or the league average) as a rookie to 101 as a second-year player and 102 now.
The widely held notion that he endured a sophomore slump last year is not borne out very heartily by the statistics. He had a better passer rating in 2012 than 2011 (86.2 vs. 84.5), averaged more yards per attempt in his second year (8.0 vs. 7.8) and threw five fewer interceptions (12 vs. 17). He fumbled more in 2012 (10 times vs. 5) and scored fewer rushing touchdowns (8, down from 14), but he ran for slightly more yardage as a slumper than as a rookie (741 vs. 706). In this, the year of ostensible redemption, he is on a pace to throw and run for fewer yards than he did in the two previous ones.
Dramatic regression in 2012 came strictly in eyeballing measurements, which have value but are prone to overstate the significance of body language, which often quotes an athlete out of context. If the quarterback has a Super Bowl ring, petulant gestures speak in the tongue of one who hates to lose. If he lacks the ring and if he proclaimed himself an aspiring entertainer and icon before draft day, his every move and frown translates as a declaration of bratty narcissism. Chances are, both bodies say a little of each.
Newton declined primarily according to expectations, by failing to improve substantially in his second year and by playing on a team that did not progress despite having this supernova of a No. 1 pick. The biggest difference in Newton as a team player now, versus him as a surprising rookie and as the insufferable soph, is not his attitude. It's the people around him. More precisely, it's his defense. Carolina was ranked 28th in the NFL in total defense in Newton's 6-10 rookie season, 10th last year and second for 2013 even after Sunday's 31-13 fileting by the Saints. The rookie Cam could lead the offense to three touchdowns and two field goals against the Lions' terrifying defense in Detroit, plus have a 102-yard kickoff return as a cushion, and still lose 49-35. The mature Cam could produce just 10 points and come away a winner against the 49ers.
The 2013 model could also benefit from a newly adventurous head coach, because the defense promised to bankroll every Ron Rivera gamble. Cris Collinsworth noted as much on Sunday night, in a broadcast that turned out to be remarkably spare on mindless clichés about Newton's development. Michaels' quick-draw maturing misled. A drinking game with that cue wouldn't have yielded so much as a buzz.
Drew Brees, in full maestro form, capped the Newton talk, allowing time only for an obligatory montage of Cam brooding, vintage 2012, followed by an illustrated report on his new bond with Lakers icon Jerry West, who has apparently mentored the quarterback on the matter of trusting teammates. The NBC crew had to bow to that prevailing narrative, especially since it came with art, good quotes (Cam couldn't believe he knew the NBA logo) and validation from the subject himself, who pledged visible attitude adjustment this year.
Collinsworth, to his credit, analyzed the body language that matters most for a quarterback and found some room for growth. Newton scrambled back from a rush and into a sack when he should have stepped up into the pocket, and Collinsworth very fairly noted the mistake. The commentary became even richer after NBC showed footage of Brees compulsively going through the motions of his read progressions while taking warm-up throws. Collinsworth then observed a smart, disciplined read by Newton late in the game and called attention to this bit of football savvy.
"Just in his third year, he's getting better and better," Collinsworth said.
He didn't need to use the "m" word. He wasn't talking about Newton outgrowing obnoxiousness or learning to project the right image. He was just talking about a football player growing in his job. We can all drink to that, can't we?