Surprised by Newton and Ponder? Weinke isn't

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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Two of the NFL's bright young quarterbacks meet this week. One is Carolina's Cam Newton. The other is Christian Ponder. One man knows each well and he begins with a great story about both.

It takes place this past summer as the lockout was raging. Newton and Ponder both studied under quarterback guru Chris Weinke -- himself a former Heisman winner at Florida State -- who is director of the IMG Madden Football Academy. Newton had worked out earlier that day and heard from Weinke that Ponder was throwing later that afternoon. "Can I run routes for him?" Newton asked Weinke.

Sure, Weinke said. So there they were. Ponder, who would become a first-round pick for the Vikings, throwing to Newton, who would become the first overall pick for the Panthers. Soon, because the two men are extremely competitive, they began challenging each other in small ways. Ponder put extra effort in making his throws crisp and accurate because he knew Newton had earlier. Then Newton offered a challenge of his own.

"I'm going to fly down the sideline," Newton told Ponder, "and I bet you can't reach me."

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Ponder smiled. "Yeah, I can."

So Newton took off down the sideline, full speed. "Let me tell you something," Weinke remembered, "for a guy his size, he can fly."

Newton kept running. And running. And running some more. Ponder let the ball fly and it went 55 yards in the air. He reached Newton, all right. Newton stretched his lengthy frame and caught the pass one-handed in the end zone.

"I just stood there shaking my head," Weinke said. "The athleticism of both of them ..."

Weinke knows about athleticism, being one of the best college quarterbacks in history, but, well, these two guys ... they might even put him to shame.

Weinke -- as one of the best pure quarterback coaches in the country -- is a great story himself, but what he saw when tutoring Newton and Ponder is the better tale.

Both players studied under Weinke for much of the summer (Newton was there for almost eight weeks). While the lockout hurt some players, it didn't hurt the two quarterbacks. Newton and Ponder were able to get their playbooks during the brief lockout impasse and armed with those, Weinke was able to simulate NFL practices.

What Weinke says about Newton is perhaps the most interesting. I asked him: Why did Newton critics get him so wrong?

"The biggest thing people missed was that they underestimated how smart he was," Weinke said in a telephone interview. "When he was at Auburn, that offense was simplistic. He did what he was asked to do: run a simple offense.

"But somehow people made the leap that was all he could do. No one gave him credit for being an intellectual guy, which he clearly is. They wrongly just assumed he wasn't smart."

Weinke believes what truly hurt Newton was the session he did on ESPN with ex-coach Jon Gruden. Gruden asked Newton to annunciate an Auburn play that "was a little verbal ... What's an Auburn play sound like?"

Newton responded that "simplicity equals fast." A significant number of people took Newton's response to mean he couldn't call a complicated play. Well, Auburn doesn't have a complicated system. One of their plays was "36." Literally, that was a play. Thirty freaking six.

Gruden then lectured Newton on how the difficulty he'd have on the NFL level was learning the verbiage of play-calling. It was a condescending remark that I'm told angers Newton to this day. In reality, NFL play-calling lingo isn't difficult to understand, but Gruden made it sound like learning an NFL play is like learning Latin and that Newton might not be up to the mental challenge.

"The media is very powerful," Weinke said. "That thing with Gruden hurt him and the media after that portrayed him as a dumb guy."

Weinke would see Newton differently later during classroom sessions. Newton would ace the tests Weinke gave him, scoring 25 out of 25 on one that tested him on different personnel groups and formations. More importantly, Weinke noticed, what Newton learned in class translated onto the field quickly. Everything Weinke taught Newton stuck.

Weinke saw similar things in Ponder. "It was like with Cam," Weinke said. "You could see that he was going to do well in the pros very quickly if he got the opportunity. He was very advanced, and I'm not just saying that because he's a Florida State guy."

And he got that opportunity. "There he was against the defending Super Bowl champs and doing well," said Weinke. "It was an incredible thing."

Now, after those moments in the classroom and on the field this past summer, they'll be together again. This time, obviously, under far different circumstances. Weinke, the proud tutor, will be watching.

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