It is generally convenient to assess a player's value with numbers, to scrutinize a guy's stats, and determine his relative value to a franchise.
Not so, apparently, with top draft pick Cam Newton.
"He's already the face of the franchise," Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall told The Sports Xchange after the Redskins lost to the Panthers last week. "He makes them a different team, definitely. He gives them a chance every time out."
It's true, of course, that victories are the most important measure for a quarterback. In that regard, the Panthers have notched only two wins in seven outings.
And even though that's as many victories as they managed altogether in 2010, when their poor record earned them the dubious right to select the Heisman Trophy winner and former Auburn star with the initial choice in the draft, it's not quite the metric that teammates and opponents employ in rating Newton's value to the club.
Plain and simple, Newton makes the players around him decidedly better, and that's a critical measuring stick, as well.
Said Hall: "You can see that, with him, their players sort of sense that they aren't out of games. That he'll do something to raise (their level). I don't know that they feel they have Superman there or what. ... But he's definitely a Ferrari, and they're riding him to where he can take them. He's a guy people can rally around, and they definitely do. You wouldn't think one guy could make such a difference. Even a great player. But he does."
The Panthers currently rank No. 5 statistically in total offense in the league, after finishing 32nd last season. Newton is on pace to obliterate the rookie record for passing yards in a season. And his running skills, while perhaps not the equal of Michael Vick, have made a clear difference.
But some Carolina players, and guys who have faced the Panthers and Newton in the first seven weeks, contend that it's his ability to raise the performance of those who surround him that sets the quarterback apart.
If you're trying hard to identify an example, look no further than wide receiver Steve Smith.
Frustrated by the team's decline, all but convinced that he could no longer labor for a franchise apparently going nowhere, Smith and his representative spent much of the offseason lobbying for a trade.
But general manager Marty Hurney, even faced with a challenging refurbishing job, hung onto his most valuable chip. The result: Smith leads the league in receiving yards (818) and, even with no complementary wideout opposite him -- no viable threat to take away the double team coverage he sees on a regular basis (the Atlanta Falcons, for instance, bracketed Smith on virtually every pass play in the teams' meeting two weeks ago) -- he has averaged 21.0 yards per grab.
Even the wide receiver with the hair-trigger temper and history of explosive behavior has been tamed by Newton's presence and the promise of even better things to come because of the rookie quarterback. Said Smith after the game in Atlanta: "He makes you believe."
And the prospect of hope eclipses, it seems, pure numbers.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
In the wake of the recent death of Oakland owner Al Davis, coach Hue Jackson has seemingly assumed more control over some of the club's personnel decisions, and The Sports Xchange has heard a few internal whispers that the rookie sideline boss might perhaps have garnered a little too much sway over an area in which he has no past expertise.
Make no mistake, the Oakland brass is mostly happy with the job Jackson has done as coach, although there have been some questions about his play-calling and in-game decisions in the past two contests (like the decision to replace Kyle Boller with a clearly unready Carson Palmer, down 21-0, in last week's ugly meltdown loss to Kansas City), and a few concerns that he has allowed the personnel matters to occupy some of the time that franchise officials prefer that he devote to on-field matters.
Davis' heir, son Mark Davis, isn't inclined to get very involved or hands-on in the personnel matters, but he has privately surprised some club observers with his keen day-to-day interest in the team. Practically speaking, Oakland probably won't be able to bring aboard a general manager or personnel director until after the season. Until then, the team will continue to increasingly rely on the unofficial input of some of the men counseling Davis -- people like former Oakland executives John Madden, Ron Wolf and Ken Herock, as previously mentioned in this space, and longtime scout Jon Kingdon.
The club could even summon an advisor-type football man to the Bay Area to do some on-sight consulting. Because of his past relationship with Palmer -- who spent time this bye week familiarizing himself with the Oakland receiver corps and definitely will start when the Raiders resume play on Nov. 6 against Denver -- Jackson has received much of the credit for the deal that brought the veteran quarterback from Cincinnati.
But as noted here last week, the Palmer acquisition was more a collaborative effort, with the tacit approval of some of the advisors previously mentioned, than generally thought. Jackson certainly pushed hard for the deal, and while the idea may have originated with him, Raiders insiders insist that it was more than a one-man initiative.
By the way, Palmer acknowledged that he didn't know the playbook very well when he replaced Boller last week, had been apprised by Jackson that he wouldn't play, and was "completely shocked," not to say overwhelmed, when he entered against the Chiefs.
While The Sports Xchange has little more than second-person sources suggesting that the recent Bill Cowher-to-Miami rumors have some legs, one component of the various reports resonates and rings true: the notion that Cowher will closely evaluate the roster of any franchise in which he has interest, and will be influenced by a team's ability to win, more so than a blockbuster financial offer.
A few years ago, Cowher was very interested in overtures from the Buffalo Bills, and intrigued by the possibilities of resuscitating the franchise, and of having control over personnel matters by way of choosing his own general manager or director of football operations. Very reliable sources close to the former Pittsburgh and Super Bowl-winning coach relayed at the time, and confirmed again to The Sports Xchange this week, that Cowher examined the Buffalo roster and determined the Bills' quarterback situation in particular made the potential marriage a bad fit. The injured Chad Henne is probably better than his critics think, but he might not be a guy with whom Cowher is comfortable.
It will be interesting to see if Cowher -- who has never started a season with a rookie at quarterback, although he was forced to turn to Ben Roethlisberger after just two games in 2004, when starter Tommy Maddox was injured -- is tempted by the opportunity for the Dolphins to land Andrew Luck in the draft. Of course, by the time Cowher or anyone else is ready to take over the Dolphins and replace Tony Sparano, everyone will know if Miami owns the top overall choice in the 2012 lottery.
Beyond the quarterback situation, this much is clear, too: Just as he did in bringing in high-profile partners to the franchise, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross seems like the kind of guy who is going to want to make a splash with his first coaching hire. And it won't be Urban Meyer, whom Ross pursued in the offseason, in an embarrassing public courtship that left Sparano unfairly dangling.
There is some disagreement, even among the people supposedly tuned in to his plans, about the future of Buffalo linebacker Shawne Merriman, the onetime defensive difference-maker who has spent most of the past four seasons dealing with injuries, and who was placed on injured reserve this week with an Achilles problem. Some in the Merriman camp have suggested that Merriman, who has appeared in only 23 games since the end of the 2007 season, may walk away from the game at age 27, frustrated by the injuries that have kept him from reaching the heights of his first three campaigns in the league. Others are adamant that Merriman, who was claimed on waivers by the Bills in 2010 and then signed to a two-year contract toward the end of that season, is determined not to have his career end this way.
Either way, the waiver claim by Bills general manager Buddy Nix, who has dome mostly solid work for the franchise, clearly backfired. Part of the San Diego crowd that drafted Merriman in the first round in 2005, Nix rolled the dice on the oft-injured Merriman, feeling he might regain his earlier form and provide the Bills an outside pass rush. But it hasn't happened and, in retrospect, it looks like a bad deal.
Buffalo paid Merriman about $3.6 million for this season, and still owes him a guaranteed $3 million for 2012. The investment hasn't exactly produced much of a return. Even if Merriman decides to try it again in '12, the man once touted as "Lights Out," for his ability to render opposition quarterbacks comatose, has gone from an exclamation point to a giant question mark in his career.
In his first three seasons in the NFL (2005-2007), Merriman totaled 39 1/2 sacks in 42 games. Four of his five sacks since then came in 2009. In five appearances this season, he had only nine tackles and one sack. Kind of hard to believe a player once so feared might be done at age 27, but the star-crossed Merriman could be.
Running on empty
Despite the 253-yard rushing performance last week by Dallas' DeMarco Murray, and the possibility the third-round draft choice could eventually replace Felix Jones as the starter for the Cowboys, several personnel men with whom The Sports Xchange spoke this week were largely unimpressed by the crop of rookie tailbacks in the league.
"There's no real 'bellcow back' in the bunch," said one AFC personnel chief. "They're all good players, don't get me wrong, but none of them has been gangbusters yet, you know?"
Of course, the lone first-round tailback in this year's draft was Mark Ingram of New Orleans, and he's splitting snaps with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the Saints' time-sharing approach, and is on pace for just 752 yards. The two leading rookie rushers from 2010, LeGarrette Blount of Tampa Bay and New Orleans' Chris Ivory, were both undrafted free agents.
But there doesn't appear to be a late-round or free agent back this year capable of putting up big numbers. Since 1992, there has been a 1,000-yard rookie rusher in every season except 2009. This could be the second time in three years.
For the past few weeks, The Tip Sheet and national reports have indicated that a contract extension -- likely for five years and at about $10 million or $11 million per season -- is coming for Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. There is still no timeframe for a deal, but one is definitely coming.
Agent Jimmy Sexton and Bills vice president Jim Overdorf continue to grind away at the process. The two have met face-to-face, and spoken dozens of times by phone, and there definitely has been progress toward an agreement.
Fitzpatrick has garnered the respect of the Buffalo coaching staff, led by Chan Gailey, and his teammates as well. When the Bills bypassed quarterback prospects in the draft six months ago, it should have been a signal the franchise had settled on Fitzpatrick as the man with whom the team will move forward.
The contract extension, which likely will catapult Fitzpatrick to just outside the top 10 highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL, will further validate that.
Bringing the Wood(ley)
Most people who have seen Pittsburgh inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and his explosiveness, this columnist included, felt that the fifth-year veteran could move to an outside spot, if necessary, and be a force in the team's 3-4 front. Not that the observers believed the former first-rounder was miscast as an inside 'backer, just that he had the movement skills and upfield burst to play well on the edge.
This summer, legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau agreed that Timmons could play the outside spot, and essentially said he would if one of the Steelers' starters was sidelined. But in three games as the replacement for the injured James Harrison (eye), Timmons has been a bit of a disappointment at the right outside linebacker post. Timmons has only eight tackles, two quarterback pressures, and no sacks in the three contests.
One offensive lineman whose team faced the Steelers the past three weeks, suggested Timmons seems tentative, and even "a little awkward" at the spot that Harrison usually mans. But with second-year pro Jason Worilds, the heir apparent to Harrison, also hurting, Pittsburgh has little choice but to play Timmons out of position.
The lack of pass rush from the opposite side makes the performance of LaMarr Woodley over the last three weeks all the more admirable. Woodley has 5 1/2 of the team's 10 sacks in that stretch and, a bit uncharacteristically, James Farrior is the only other linebacker with a sack.
Now in their 11th season at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers have dropped only 24 games at their home venue, including playoff appearances. But the New England Patriots, who travel to Pittsburgh on Sunday, have won at Heinz four times, tied for the most ever, including the last three occasions there.
With a victory on Sunday, the Pats will become the first visiting team to gain five wins at Heinz Field, snapping a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The most notable element to the New England success in Pittsburgh, of course, is quarterback Tom Brady, who owns a four-game winning streak overall versus the Steelers. In those four outings, Brady has completed 70.9 percent of his attempts, thrown nine touchdown passes and just one interception, and has registered a 114.9 passer rating.
Only four franchises have won more than two times at Heinz Field, with Baltimore and Jacksonville (three each) joining the Bengals and Patriots in that distinction. In fact, Oakland (two wins) is the only other club with more than one victory.
-Barring injury, Newton is a lock to smash the rookie record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. He has seven in seven games, already tying the single-season record set by Vince Young with Tennessee in 2006. Newton figures to challenge the overall record for a quarterback, 12 rushing touchdowns by Steve Grogan of the Patriots, in 1976. Through seven weeks, only five teams have more rushing scores than Newton has posted individually.
-As noted here in the past, much credit must go to offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski for developing a blueprint in which Newton could thrive. Not only has Chudzinski incorporated elements of the "spread" offense, but he has also worked in the vertical passing game he helped develop in San Diego, and without the benefit of the bigger-by-design wide receivers that are a huge part of the Chargers' downfield success.
-Philadelphia wide receiver Steve Smith, the former Giants' star who had 107 catches in 2009, has just five grabs for 63 yards with the Eagles, and word is that the team dangled him on the trade market before the deadline earlier this month. Not surprisingly, there were no takers for the fifth-year veteran, who appears to still be struggling with the knee injury that scuttled his 2010 campaign and his big, free agency payday. Giants coach Tom Coughlin was criticized this summer when he suggested that Smith was still not ready approach his previous heights. Regardless of the assessment, Philly signed Smith to a one-year, $4 million contract, and the guy has pretty much validated the Coughlin take on him.
-Another wide receiver who could get some comeuppance in coming weeks, unless a franchise is playing coy on him, is Terrell Owens, whose much-anticipated and overhyped workout this week was attended by scouts from zero clubs. Two sports networks dispatched crews to air the workout, which might be a testimony to the snake-oil skills of agent Drew Rosenhaus, but not a single club bothered to eyeball the veteran wide receiver firsthand -- which is no surprise, considering a team would have to bring Owens to their own facility for physical and testing if they cared to talk contract. There may be a few teams who are still tempted by Owens and his incredibly chiseled frame, but the reports of his mental state raised in the last few days will make even needy clubs think twice about him.
-Baltimore officials this week debunked the notion that quarterback Joe Flacco will be on a "short leash" in Sunday's game against Arizona. Said one assistant coach: "Who would we play?" The Ravens' offense has struggled the past three weeks, and Flacco was downright miserable in last Monday's ugly defeat at Jacksonville, but the only other quarterback on the roster is rookie Tyrod Taylor, a sixth-rounder. As much scrutiny as Flacco is getting from a fan base that expects a run at the Super Bowl, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron may be under even more heat these days.
-One element that is going right for the Ravens: The team has used six instant replay "challenges" this season, and been right five times, the most in the NFL. Matt Weiss, who holds the title "head coach's assistant," is a key to the Ravens' success. A former graduate assistant at Stanford, who worked there for Jim Harbaugh, Weiss sits in the coaches' box and advises his boss on replay calls.
-While the extension discussions for Fitzpatrick seem to be progressing at a pace that could result in the deal being sealed in the next week or two, the same can't be said for the talks aimed at an add-on for New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. There have been some spurts in which it appeared a deal was imminent, but progress has been incremental of late.
-An interesting sidebar to Sunday's game in Pittsburgh will be whether the Patriots return right offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer to the starting lineup. Sidelined for all but one game by a back problem, Vollmer has been replaced by rookie Nate Solder and the first-rounder -- whom many felt would bump veteran left tackle Matt Light when he was drafted -- has played well and elicited the praise of coach Bill Belichick. Vollmer has practiced now the past two weeks, and appears healthy enough to return, but would draw the aforementioned Woodley if he does.
The last word
"There's no magic dust we (sprinkle) in our cereal in the morning, or anything like that." -- Brady, on the Patriots' success against the Steelers
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.