(Reuters) - The Carolina Panthers, who had a losing record last season, are the NFL’s last unbeaten team and their coach credits that turnaround to the growth of young players like Cam Newton and Josh Norman and their exuberance.
Carolina made the playoffs at 7-8-1 last season but enter Sunday’s game at New Orleans with an 11-0 record and an improved offense led by strong-armed, hard-running Newton complementing the team’s ferocious defense.
“It’s been interesting to watch him grow,” Ron Rivera, speaking on ESPN Radio, said about Newton, the number one pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. “His overall game has truly improved, everything from his mechanics to his mental approach to the game.”
Newton’s development has helped Carolina jump to third in scoring average this season with 30.2 points per game compared to last year when they were 19th at 21.2 points per game.
Rivera credited offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
“What Mike’s done is put the decision making process on Cam,” he said. “He gives him a whole array of plays that once he gets to the line of scrimmage he can pull from.”
Newton, at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, is also an imposing runner and the Panthers lean heavily on the ground game, rating fourth in the NFL in rushing yards for a ball-control attack that fits with their second-ranked defense.
Helping that defense is Josh Norman, a fifth-round pick in 2012 who has blossomed into one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.
Rivera said he had to learn how to handle Norman.
“Trying to get him to do things our way, that was a battle,” said Rivera. “I ended up having to bench him a couple of times. I might have made a mistake with him because I took away a little bit of his personality.
“We wanted him to do certain things and be a certain way and that’s not who Josh is. Last year I think he hit a low point and we sat down and we talked about him being himself again.”Rivera said now “he does the things that are asked of him but he does it with his own flair.”
The coach has also grown to embrace Newton’s celebratory touchdown dances that have irritated some opponents.
“Let’s not forget we’re playing a game,” Rivera said. “Sure it’s a multi-billion industry, but we got to be aware there is an entertainment element to it.
“We don’t want to completely take the personality of these players out. This is what the fans come to see.”
(This version of the story has been refiled to add attribution in third paragraph)
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue