As the quarterback coach of the Carolina Panthers, Ken Dorsey spends more time than anyone with the most compelling football player on the planet. The next few days—Super Bowl week in San Francisco, with all of its distractions and obligations and sideshows—will be no different. Early in the week, offensive coordinator Mike Shula will have installed his gameplan, from which point Dorsey takes the wheel, going over every last formation, treat, check and audible with larger-than-life superstar Cam Newton in anticipation of Sunday’s opponent. The only difference is that on this particular Sunday there’s a whole lot more on the line.
It took a long, winding road to get here for Dorsey, who’s probably best known for his time as a quarterback at the University of Miami, where he went 38-2, won a national championship and was a two-time finalist for the Heisman Trophy. The Californian was brilliant in college, but professional football’s a cold, hard business, which explains how he ended up starting just 13 games over six NFL seasons before he washed out of the league and ended up in the CFL, backing up Cleo Lemon and Dalton Bell with the 2010 Toronto Argonauts.
“It was a pretty different experience,” Dorsey says. “When I first got up there I didn’t really understand the game. Some of the rules are so different. You don’t really realize it until you’re out there actually trying to execute a play and there’s an extra guy on the field and there’s all these waggles and motions.”
The Argos tried Dorsey out in an exhibition game but he was never given a regular-season snap and chose to retire shortly before Toronto’s 2011 training camp. A meticulous student of the game, Dorsey was weighing a number of coaching and scouting offers at the time, including strong interest from Argonauts head coach Jim Barker, who wanted Dorsey to join the staff in Toronto.
Dorsey considered his options and then made one of the best decisions of his life, taking a position as a pro scout with the Panthers, which also allowed him to join the quarterback coaching staff at the IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where a reigning Heisman Trophy winner coming off a contentious college career was training every day ahead of his NFL debut. That’s how Dorsey met Cam Newton.
“The interesting thing about Cam was he went to college at Florida and didn’t end up playing there. Then he transfers to junior college. Then he goes out to Auburn for a year. It’s not like he was a four-year starter in college,” Dorsey says. “So, every snap that he took in those early days he just kept getting better and better. He didn’t have those three, four years of college to fully develop. He was doing everything he was doing off of being tremendously talented and gifted with great instincts.”
They are, in a sense, ultimate opposites. Dorsey, the mellow pocket passer and tremendously successful college QB who was never given much of a shot as a professional; Newton, the charismatic ultimate running pivot who threw only a dozen Div. I passes in his first three years of college but might just be named the NFL’s MVP on Saturday.
Regardless of all that, in 2013 Dorsey was promoted from a scout to full-time quarterbacks coach, and the pair began working together intensely. It’s been an unlikely yet successful relationship. And it’s brought them both to San Francisco, where they’ll compete for a championship Sunday night.
“He’s come a long way. He’s had to develop and work hard to get to where he is right now. You make mistakes, you learn from them, you get better from doing things on the field either good or bad. He’s had to make those adjustments, and Cam’s work ethic has allowed him to do that,” Dorsey says. “And now he’s established himself as a tremendous player in this league.”
Newton took a demonstrative step forward this season, nearly doubling his passing-touchdown total from 2014 while piling a decent season for a running back as well, scrambling for 636 yards and 10 scores. He was intercepted just two times in his final 10 games and fumbled on just five rushes all season after coughing the ball up a dozen times on fewer carries the year before. He did it with a mostly unheralded receiving corps outside of possession tight end Greg Olsen, and improved his work with his offensive line, getting sacked just 6.2 percent of the time, a career low.
Dorsey says he hasn’t been focusing on any specific areas with Newton this season, and that the 26-year-old’s success is simply the next step in his evolution.
“I don’t want any part of his game becoming unbalanced or getting brushed off. So, we try to focus on a little bit of everything from a technique standpoint and a form standpoint,” Dorsey says. “And he’s seeing results because he works extremely hard. He’s so coachable. He’s very willing to adjust and make changes to help the football team. He’s meticulous in his preparation and his notes and everything he does. From day one with me he’s been great to work with.”
This week Dorsey will prepare several cut-ups—extensive film packages of defensive plays and tendencies that the Denver Broncos have been featuring over their last few games—before presenting them to Newton and walking through each and every clip to help his quarterback understand what he might see on Sunday and how to react to it. Newton’s a fast learner, so while the volume of film makes it a long process, the information is usually quickly digested. And over years of working with him, Dorsey’s developed an innate understanding of when his quarterback is absorbing the strategy and when he needs it to be presented in a different way.
“You have to get him as prepared as possible to play. And the barometer I use is if I simply feel uneasy with the amount of preparation that we’ve done and I feel like I need to do more, then I do more,” Dorsey says. “My gut really tells me on a preparation level how we’re doing.”
And then, on Sunday, they’ll see what happens. Dorsey’s most important work is done this week in the lead-up, preparing Newton as well as possible to run the game plan the Panthers hope will nullify a fast, talented Broncos defence. During the game on Sunday, there will only be so much he can do.
Then, when it’s all over, Dorsey will go back home to Florida for the rest of the winter, with a Super Bowl victory in hand or not. He’ll try to get away from the NFL for a little bit, and one way he’ll do that is with a different brand of football that is still close to his heart. Believe it or not, Dorsey sets his PVR to record CFL games whenever they’re broadcast on one of the nether ESPN channels down south. He saves them up for when he has some time off.
“I still keep up with all the teams up there—Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver,” Dorsey says. “I record every game I can and watch them. I love it. I think it’s a really fun style of football to watch.”