Re­turn of the QB whis­perer

Norv Turner has helped shape the ca­reers of Hall of Famers. His lat­est chal­lenge? Car­olina’s Cam New­ton.

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY LIZ CLARKE IN CHAR­LOTTE

Troy Aik­man heard a fa­mil­iar re­frain com­ing from a fa­mil­iar, raspy voice when he at­tended the Car­olina Pan­thers’ off­sea­son work­outs in May. “Check down! Check down!” “Get the ball out!” “Don’t feel like you’ve got to throw every­thing down­field!”

It was Norv Turner, the Pan­thers’ re­cently hired of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, shout­ing to quar­ter­back Cam New­ton.

“I guar­an­tee, Cam prob­a­bly hears that 10 times a day,” Aik­man said with a chuckle dur­ing a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view, re­count­ing me­mories of his own time with Turner when the Dal­las Cow­boys’ young of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor tai­lored a sys­tem for a trio of fu­ture Hall of Famers — Aik­man, wide re­ceiver Michael Irvin and run­ning back Em­mitt Smith — that pro­duced back-to-back Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onships in 1992-93.

Fast for­ward to 2018, and Turner’s goal is noth­ing less with the Pan­thers’ of­fense and his lat­est sig­nal-caller.

At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, New­ton has a strik­ing com­bi­na­tion of ath­leti­cism and abil­ity. He is as likely to take off run­ning or lower his shoul­der as a blocker, which he did to great ef­fect in last week’s vic­tory over the New York Giants, as he is to stand and throw from the pocket. He has amassed vir­tu­ally ev­ery cov­eted in­di­vid­ual honor in foot­ball be­fore his 30th birth­day — 2010 Heis­man Tro­phy, 2011 NFL of­fen­sive rookie of the year, 2015 NFL MVP and three Pro Bowls — while lead­ing Auburn to the Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries ti­tle af­ter the 2010 sea­son and the Pan­thers to a Su­per Bowl ap­pear-

ance.

But his ac­cu­racy back­slid over the past two sea­sons while he dealt with in­juries, and some out­side ob­servers have ques­tioned his long-term abil­ity to with­stand the many hits that his style of play in­vites.

That’s largely why Pan­thers Coach Ron Rivera brought in Turner, a 66-year-old NFL lifer, to shep­herd New­ton’s mid­ca­reer de­vel­op­ment.

“Know­ing the suc­cess he had with quar­ter­backs, I was hop­ing for a dif­fer­ent set of eyes look­ing at it, some­body from a dif­fer­ence per­spec­tive,” Rivera ex­plained dur­ing the Pan­thers’ bye week two weeks ago. “And I be­lieve we’re get­ting it right now. I think our quar­ter­back has grown some more; he has learned to look at the game a lit­tle dif­fer­ent way.”

Re­sults have been promis­ing

The early re­turns have been pos­i­tive. The Pan­thers (3-1) boast the NFL’s top rush­ing of­fense at 154 yards per game, and while Christian McCaf­frey ac­counts for the bulk of car­ries, New­ton leads the team with three rush­ing touch­downs. He has also thrown for seven touch­downs and just three in­ter­cep­tions, while boost­ing his com­ple­tion per­cent­age to a ca­reer-high 65.4 (up from 59.1 last sea­son). His 93.2 passer rat­ing re­flects a dou­ble-digit leap (up from 80.7).

The next step in the bud­ding re­la­tion­ship comes Sun­day at FedEx Field, where the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins (2-2) hope to re­bound from a 43-19 loss at New Orleans.

Turner made clear at the out­set that his goal isn’t to reinvent New­ton as a pocket passer in the mold of former pupils Aik­man and Philip Rivers but to blend in a few el­e­ments to aug­ment what New­ton does best. And he has done so in a col­lab­o­ra­tive man­ner, en­cour­ag­ing New­ton to name the vari­a­tions on plays he has in­stalled.

If it seems like an odd pair­ing — this sub­dued veteran coach and gar­ru­lous young quar­ter­back — the re­la­tion­ship ap­pears promis­ing. It helps that New­ton has been in a ver­sion of Turner’s of­fense since the Pan­thers drafted him first over­all in 2011, which eased the tran­si­tion. And Turner has taken to call­ing his quar­ter­back “Baby,” which New­ton clearly en­joys, de­liv­er­ing a spot-on Turner im­per­son­ation dur­ing his news con­fer­ence fol­low­ing Car­olina’s sea­son-open­ing vic­tory over Dal­las.

“Hey Baby, I’m gonn let you be you now, Baby,” New­ton mim­icked. “All right now! Just let it go out there to­day, Baby!”

In an in­ter­view last week, Turner said he’s pleased that New­ton has “bought into” the plan for his pro­gres­sion.

“He has worked on his tech­nique. He’s work­ing on his de­ci­sion-mak­ing and his com­mand in the hud­dle and do­ing all those things that help ev­ery­one else play bet­ter,” Turner said. “It’s a work in progress, but I think we’ve grown in each of the weeks we’ve played.”

Sun­day’s game rep­re­sents a home­com­ing for Turner. He was hired as the Red­skins’ head coach in 1994 by the late Jack Kent Cooke, who once said he hoped to keep Turner on staff for life, only to be fired by new owner Daniel Snyder with three games re­main­ing in the 2000 sea­son and a 49-59-1 over­all record.

Turner’s great­est suc­cess as a head coach came in San Diego, lead­ing the Charg­ers to three con­sec­u­tive AFC West ti­tles. But he was faulted for not get­ting a tal­ent-laden ros­ter, which in­cluded Rivers and LaDainian Tom­lin­son, to the Su­per Bowl and ul­ti­mately fired with one year re­main­ing on his con­tract. As has proved the case through­out his ca­reer, Turner’s most heart­felt tes­ti­mo­ni­als came from play­ers; the Charg­ers’ locker room gave him a stand­ing ova­tion as he de­parted.

With a thin voice and cere­bral ap­proach, Turner lacks Vince Lom­bardi’s mo­ti­va­tional bravado as an NFL coach. But his tac­ti­cal ex­per­tise has al­lowed him to shine in of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor roles, which he held in Miami, San Fran­cisco, Cleve­land and Min­nesota, and he’s at his best as a quar­ter­back whis­perer.

New­ton, who de­scribes Turner as “su­per-re­lat­able,” has proved an ea­ger stu­dent.

“I’m al­ways look­ing for ways and rea­sons of why and how I can get bet­ter,” New­ton said last week. “Norv has been a per­son who has held every­body to a high stan­dard. Those ex­pec­ta­tions kind of are con­ta­gious.”

Long-stand­ing prin­ci­ples

In the gospel of Turner’s of­fense, the key verses are: 1) Re­ceivers come off the ball at full speed, which helps the quar­ter­back trust the tim­ing of the play and get the ball out quickly; and 2) Short-toin­t­er­me­di­ate throws are in­valu­able be­cause they take pres­sure off the quar­ter­back, which in New­ton’s case of­ten re­sults in over­thrown balls, and al­low him to avoid un­nec­es­sary hits and sacks.

From these prin­ci­ples, Turner tailors his script to his per­son­nel. Dur­ing the Fox broad­cast of the Rams-Vik­ings game this sea­son, Aik­man likened his de­vel­op­ment un­der Turner as a strug­gling young quar­ter­back in Dal­las to what he saw in the pair­ing of Rams Coach Sean McVay and Jared Goff, say­ing: “It changed my life. It changed my ca­reer.”

Aik­man later elab­o­rated in an in­ter­view: “He put all of us in po­si­tion to do what we did well . . . Norv came in and, first of all, im­ple­mented an of­fense I was com­fort­able with, with some of the same con­cepts I had run at UCLA. What throws do I like best? What routes does Michael like best? What runs does Em­mitt like best?”

Then, Aik­man said, Turner lever­aged play­ers’ strengths to ex­ploit de­fenses much like a chess mas­ter plot­ting mul­ti­ple moves ahead. “He has a bril­liant mind when it comes to of­fen­sive foot­ball,” Aik­man said, “and he uses his per­son­nel to make it work.”

Former quar­ter­back Brad John­son tells a sim­i­lar story. He was 31, a six-year NFL veteran with a solid han­dle on the game and his me­chan­ics when he was traded to the Red­skins in 1999.

In his first sea­son un­der Turner, who served as head coach and of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, John­son threw for a ca­reer-high 4,005 yards and 24 touch­downs, earn­ing Pro Bowl hon­ors while lead­ing the 10-6 Red­skins to an NFC East cham­pi­onship.

“It all re­ally im­proved un­der Norv — him speed­ing up my drops, let­ting the ball go and trust­ing the route and trust­ing the play,” said John­son, 50, who led Tampa Bay to a Su­per Bowl vic­tory in the 2002 sea­son. “And he was a very pas­sion­ate guy. Very smart. Very funny in his own way.”

Even though he is an eight-year NFL veteran, New­ton hasn’t shaken his rep­u­ta­tion for oc­ca­sional im­ma­tu­rity, par­tic­u­larly af­ter losses, and he can be his own worst en­emy in news con­fer­ences. But by all ac­counts, he com­mands re­spect in the locker room for his drive to im­prove.

“Cam has al­ways been some­body who is very open, and he wants to ab­sorb as much knowl­edge and in­for­ma­tion as he can,” said Ryan Kalil, his long­time cen­ter for the Pan­thers.

With the Red­skins up next, Turner is bullish about what’s in store for his quar­ter­back.

“I’ve joined in with guys at this point in their ca­reer, and you see them make great im­prove­ment,” Turner said. “Cam works so hard at it. He’s such a phys­i­cal tal­ent. He loves to run the ball; he loves the phys­i­cal part of the game. That’s ob­vi­ously there for us, and we have a lot of peo­ple around him that can make plays. So we’re try­ing to bring all these things to­gether.”

STREETER LECKA/GETTY IM­AGES

CHUCK BUR­TON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Former Red­skins coach Norv Turner has a new pupil this sea­son in Cam New­ton (1), whose Pan­thers visit Wash­ing­ton for a Sun­day matchup.

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