Now that the Golden State Warriors are no longer undefeated, losing the Milwaukee Bucks 105-98 Saturday night, there is only one undefeated team in professional sports: the Carolina Panthers. Led by quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers, at the time of this writing, are 12-0 and are running away with the NFC South. On Sunday, barring some unforeseen disaster or a dramatic let down in their level of play, the Panthers will improve to 13-0 over a 6-6 Atlanta Falcons squad on the brink of a full-scale implosion.
It's worth noting that the Panthers finished the 2014 season with a sub-500 record (7-8-1) and their franchise quarterback, Newton, is a year removed from a serious car accident that left him with two fractures in his back and gave the Panther nation a collective lump in its throat. While Carolina did make the playoffs - defeating the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card game - despite a losing record, the 2015 Panthers are starting to be mentioned in the same breath as the 1972 Miami Dolphins. What has been the key to Carolina's success? The growth of quarterback Cam Newton from a gifted athlete to a leader.
After bursting onto the NFL amid controversy surrounding his recruitment to Auburn University, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was drafted number one overall to the Carolina Panthers. A dual threat as a runner and a passer, Newton put up ridiculous numbers during his season in 2011, running for over 700 yards, and passing for more than 4,000 yards - both career highs. That season, however, the Panthers finished with double-digit losses en route to a record of 6-10.
Since then, Newton's individual statistics have declined in a steady fashion, all the while the Panthers have improved in the win column. Thus far in 2015, Newton has only run for 476 yards, thrown for 2,797 yards, and has a quarterback rating of 58.4, the lowest of his career and placing him in the middle of the pack. Despite some of his antics - the over-the-top touchdown and first down celebrations, the Superman routine, and so forth - what Newton has developed are the intangible characteristics of trust and leadership.
"On the field, he's a competitor, he's a leader, he's everything you ask for," said Carolina wide receiver Ted Ginn in a report by ESPN's John Clayton. Newton, now in his fifth season as the Panthers' starting quarterback, is becoming more and more comfortable with his role as a leader and understands that true leadership is earned not given.
"When people think about quarterbacks, that's probably the only position in all of sports that has that default, ‘You're a leader,' whether you want it or not," said Newton in an interview with the Charlotte Observer prior to the start of the 2015 season. "I'm feeling comfortable more and more. I pride myself on my leadership, and being something I naturally am.
"I'm not doing things that are changing, flipping a switch and saying, ‘OK, I've got to go into Leader Cam,' or ‘I've got to go into Playful Cam,'" he added. "No, those are things I want to do."
Perhaps, unbeknownst to Newton, a switch was flipped on December 9, 2014. That was the day Newton rolled his truck over several times on a Charlotte road. Newton walked away from the crash but fractured his back in two places in the accident he said should have killed somebody. "While I am resting up the thought that keeps flashing in my mind is that GOD IS GOOD and someone has their protective hands on my life shielding me from any danger that may come my way!" wrote Newton on his Instagram page shortly following the accident. "I am appreciative for the many great things GOD has given me to be thankful for. It's an old cliché statement but it says 'GOD WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS!'"
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers host the Atlanta Falcons at 1 p.m. EST at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.