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Newton's growth not limited to numbers

Six weeks ago, the question would have seemed preposterous, but now it's worth pondering.

Has second-year quarterback Cam Newton played better in 2012 than he did during his record-setting rookie campaign?

"I think I have learned more than I did last year," Newton said when posed with that question Wednesday. "I think that's more important."

Statistically, it's become a close contest – something that didn't seem possible nine games into the season, at which point Newton had thrown just eight touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

But over the last six games, Newton has 11 touchdown passes and just one interception. Entering Sunday's season finale at the New Orleans Saints, he needs two touchdown passes to match last year's total (21), and he's thrown six fewer interceptions than he did in 2011 (17).

He would need his first 400-yard passing day of the season to threaten last year's passing yardage total (4,051), but his current quarterback rating of 88.0 is better than last year's mark of 84.5. On the ground, he has already surpassed last year's rushing total (706).

Newton might not view his overall numbers as the most important part of the equation, but they serve as tangible proof of his growth toward his goal of becoming the best quarterback he can be.

"We're excited about where he is right now as a football player," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Everything that you would think he could become, he's starting to become."

Left tackle Jordan Gross has enjoyed a close-up view of Newton's ascension since the slow start to the season. Gross has nothing but praise for Newton's recent level of play – praise that has nothing to do with Newton's surging statistics.

"He's just done a lot better with things that people on the outside don't necessarily see: calling the play right, getting the cadence right, managing the huddle, managing personnel groups," Gross said. "His leadership skills have gotten a lot better.

"I've been really happy with him the last six or seven games."

Newton took the NFL by storm as a rookie in 2011 with his ability to produce big plays, and that's still a big part of his game. But as Newton accesses his recent progress, it's about how he's learned to make small plays when that's what the situation calls for and about bouncing back from big plays that go the other way.

"There are going to be a lot of successes in this league and a lot of disappointments," Newton said. "What separates the great players from the others is when bad plays happen, being able to tell yourself in that moment to move on and not try to do anything outside of your means."

That's a hard-to-learn concept that goes beyond numbers. But as Newton works toward mastering it, it will continue to help his numbers – most importantly the Panthers' victory total.

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