CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Coach Ron Rivera said despite some growing pains he believes Cam Newton is improving and is "right where you want a second-year quarterback to be."
Newton's overall record as an NFL starter is just 9-18 and he hasn't come close this year to matching the numbers he put up as a rookie, leaving Rivera to answer repeated questions about a possible sophomore slump.
Still, Rivera said Carolina's 30-22 victory Monday night over Philadelphia only reaffirms his belief Newton is making steady strides. Newton threw for 306 yards and had four touchdowns — two passing and two rushing — in the victory.
The Panthers expected more of those types of performances this season from Newton, last year's AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. But sometimes it takes time for young quarterbacks to learn and develop, Rivera said.
"People are throwing different things at him now," Rivera said. "They're trying to throw things that have worked against him at him, and he's learning those things and understanding them."
Rivera said the coaching staff's decision to "take things off his plate" midway through the season has been instrumental in Newton's increased production in recent weeks.
The Panthers added several new twists in the playbook during the offseason figuring opposing defenses would be better prepared to stop Newton after getting months to study him on tape.
But midway through the season, with Newton struggling to produce, Rivera and his staff decided to scale back the playbook and simplify a few things for him.
"I think the thing is we put a lot on his plate earlier in the year," Rivera said. "We've taken some of it back and he has reacted to that very well now, and I think we are starting to find the balance that we need with him. The last few weeks he has been outstanding and he has given us chances to win, and this is the first time that we as a team took advantage of it."
In the past few four games Newton has thrown for six touchdown passes and only two interceptions. In the previous seven games he had five TDs and eight picks. He has six rushing TDs this season, three of those in the past four weeks.
One of the things the Panthers did to help Newton was reduce the number of zone read option plays — ones where Newton has to make a split-second decision on whether to run or handoff.
Instead the Panthers have gone to more traditional running plays and tried to give more carries to running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
"We are really trying to balance it out and spread it among the other players," Rivera said. "He has really responded very well to those things and it is funny because he did not want us to take anything off, he wanted more, and I think we had to give him an opportunity to take a breath once in a while."
Rivera said Newton has responded well.
"These last few weeks he has played like the guy that we believe he can become," Rivera said.
Another sign of Newton's developing maturation is his ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage, something he did with greater frequency in the win against the Eagles.
"I think he's starting to get comfortable with those things and really as he improves and learns those things he's getting better and better at it," Rivera said.
Teammates also see Newton getting more comfortable in a leadership role as he nears the end of his second season.
Newton was careful not to step on the toes of veteran players last season as a rookie. At times this season teammates have questioned his leadership ability, but veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross said he sees the former Heisman Trophy winner making steady progress in that area.
"The last two weeks I have seen it," Gross said. "He played well last week (in a 27-21 overtime loss to Tampa Bay) and we were not able to win. But he's leading the team. He's on the sidelines talking to the o-line, talking to the receivers, doing everything we all wanted him to do. In the huddle, he's saying the right things. If he can continue to play this way and lead this way, the sky is the limit for him."
Newton said his biggest challenge this year has been consistency.
It's been a rollercoaster season with a good game followed by a bad one, something he's desperately trying to change.
"I know personally, I feel like with the throws it was kind of high, kind of low, kind of everywhere," Newton said after Carolina's win over the Eagles. "I just want to focus on being more consistent."
Statistically, the Philadelphia game was Newton's best performance of the season.
Just don't try telling him that.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I think my best game is still yet to come."