SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Cam Newton spent the first eight years of his NFL career calling himself “Superman” and trying to emulate the superhero on the field, but now the Carolina Panthers quarterback seems content with being Clark Kent.
The 2015 NFL MVP told NBC Sports on Sunday that he doesn’t have to be Superman anymore for the offense to succeed, understanding he has more dynamic weapons around him to make plays.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner appreciates Newton saying that but doesn’t sound totally convinced that the player who celebrates touchdowns by pretending to spread his jersey to reveal an “S” on his chest has completely put away the red cape.
“Are you believing that?” Turner said after Monday’s practice at Wofford College. “Wait ’til it’s third-and-goal on the 5 and he dives over about five guys. We know the way he can play. Hopefully, he doesn’t get put in that situation as often and he’ll use all of our guys.”
Arm strength was the big topic at the start of training camp with Newton coming off his second shoulder surgery in three offseasons. But with those concerns lessening as Newton has practiced with few to no limitations, the focus has turned to how the No. 1 draft pick in 2011 has progressed in his second season under Turner.
It starts with taking advantage of weapons such as running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen instead of feeling he has to do it all.
“The big thing is he understands there is a lot of playmakers around him in the tight ends and the backs,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “It takes a lot of pressure off of him.
“That was the goal a couple of years ago — going out and getting Christian McCaffrey. That was one that has really come to fruition and continues to go and get better for us.”
A year ago, McCaffrey set an NFL single-season record for catches by a running back with 107. Newton often dumped the ball off to the eighth pick of the 2017 draft instead of taking off running or getting sacked the way he did in previous seasons.
Adding more speed in Moore and Samuel also has helped because of their ability to get separation.
That doesn’t mean Turner will limit Newton, who has more rushing yards (4,808) than any other quarterback in the league since 2011, in the running game. As Newton said during the offseason, he’s not going to change at this point in his career.
“Obviously, a part of his game is the physical nature, the running of the ball, making plays in the zone-read stuff, RPOs,” Turner said. “We’re not going to take that away from him.
“He understands he has a lot of talented guys around him. He’s doing a good job in this first five days of spreading the ball to everyone.”
The Panthers rested Newton on the third practice of camp Monday, a routine they’ll likely continue every few days so as not to overwork the right shoulder.
Rivera calls that the new norm. But Newton, 30, understands that, at his age and with all the hits he’s taken, his game has to change some.
“Now, being older, you kind of look at things different,” Newton told NBC Sports. “For me, it’s not that I’m limited with certain things, or that I’m not capable of doing certain things, it’s just other ways to do it. … I’m just in a position now where none of that matters but one thing, and that’s winning football games.”
One of the changes has been in Newton’s throwing motion, which began last season, to take stress off the shoulder. There is more emphasis on a tighter motion and better footwork that gets the hips and lower body more involved.
That process helped Newton complete a career-best 67.9 percent of his passes last season after compiling a 58.5 percentage his first seven seasons.
Turner expects Newton to continue at that pace or better after a full year in his system.
“He knows what we’re trying to get out of each play,” Turner said. “He’s always, since I’ve been with him, been getting the ball out of his hands quick. He’s always gotten the ball to the right guy most of the time. He’s getting more comfortable with the receivers.”
Newton also has the arm strength to complete passes of more than 30 yards, something he admittedly couldn’t do at the end of last season.
“He’s getting the field up the field a little more,” Turner said. “Then if you have players who can do it, and you get those opportunities we want to do it.”
Newton’s demeanor also has been different. He didn’t spend much time having fun with the crowd in Thursday’s first practice like he normally does. There’s been less trash-talking with the departure of outside linebacker Thomas Davis to the Chargers.
“He’s a little bit quieter,” Turner said.
Asked if that was a positive thing, Turner said, “It’s great.”
Taylor Heinicke, in his second year as one of Newton’s backups, never saw “SuperCam” last season because Newton’s arm strength was such an issue the second half of last season.
But Heinicke likes what he’s seeing in the new version of Newton.
“He’s super focused,” he said. “He’s coming off a surgery and he’s in a zone where he wants to come back and be stronger. There is a different focus and it’s cool to see.”