Two Quarterbacks, Two Paths, One Super Bowl

Two Quarterbacks, Two Paths, One Super Bowl

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In 2011, the Panthers drafted Cam Newton. In 2012, the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. Here’s a look back at how those decisions were made and led to the Carolina-Denver matchup in Santa Clara. Plus reader mail

he MMQB Mailbag: Should Titans trade No. 1 pick?

The MMQB’s Peter King answers your questions from Twitter including if John Elway or Cam Newton had the strongest arm and what should the Tennessee Titans do with the first pick in the NFL Draft.

The two most important players in Super Bowl 50 got where they are through different means 11 months apart—Cam Newton to Carolina as the first pick of the 2011 draft and Peyton Manning to Denver in a frenzied 2012 free-agency period that began with Manning asking a coaching friend, “I don’t know what to do—what does a free agent do?”

The abridged tales of how one of the most intriguing quarterback matchups in Super Bowl history—the elder statesman in the twilight (Manning) versus the quarterback of the next generation (Newton)—was made possible in the past five years:

Peyton Manning and Cam Newton shook hands after a Nov. 2011 Panthers-Colts game in Indianapolis.
Photo: AJ Mast/AP
Peyton Manning and Cam Newton shook hands after a Nov. 2011 Panthers-Colts game in Indianapolis.
April 2011: Getting comfortable with Cam

The GM of the Panthers, Marty Hurney, had a rookie head coach, Ron Rivera, to go quarterback-shopping with early in 2011. This was going to be Hurney’s call, but Rivera had to be comfortable with it. The fact-finding on the off-field stuff was handled on scouting trips to Florida and Blinn College, a junior college in Texas, and Auburn. At Florida, a stolen laptop charge, and Newton’s entry in a diversionary program for it, was seen as college mischief. Three colleges in three football seasons was bothersome, but the Panthers saw it as Newton’s intense desire to play football, not sit the bench at Florida. But a real key for Hurney and Rivera were two independent trips to Newton’s home in Georgia. There, they met Newton’s mother, father, grandmother and two brothers, and got a strong feeling of family and a kid who was raised right.

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The night before Newton’s Pro Day workout, Hurney and Rivera met with Newton and were impressed when he told them he fully intended to be a top NFL quarterback and knew how much work and how much study it would take, and they could trust him to be the kind of worker and practice player who could accomplish that. They knew he was raw—Newton had but 290 major-college throws on his résumé—and they had to get comfortable with knowing he was a work in progress. “Power arm,” praised the well-respected Greg Cosell of NFL Films, after studying the pre-draft Newton. But … “Limited QB skills. Accuracy a major concern. Poor mechanics.”

Hurney and Rivera knew there was work to do, but more and more felt the prospect was too good to pass up. They worked on Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker and Christian Ponder, but didn’t get as far down the road with any as they did with Newton. There was a game in Newton’s Auburn season, 2010, that left an indelible mark on the Panther brass. Alabama was beating Auburn 24-7 at halftime in Tuscaloosa, and Newton told the coaches he wanted to speak at halftime. He spoke, passionately, to the team. Auburn outscored the Tide 21-3 in the second half (two Newton touchdown passes, one Newton touchdown run) and won 28-27.

Now about the Blinn College experience. Newton went through two mostly bench seasons at Florida (2007, 2008) and was facing the same—behind Tim Tebow—in 2009. Instead of transferring to a big school and sitting a season, Newton decided to go to junior college for a year, then transfer to a big school to play in 2010.

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